I was reading a
recent news story about a sweater Gucci recently stopped selling. The item
was a turtleneck sweater that had a mouth-shaped hole in it, complete with red
lips, such that when the wearer pulled the neck up over her mouth and nose, it
looked like a funny face. Since this sweater was black, however, some shoppers
thought the sweater evoked "blackface," and complained. Gucci pulled
the sweater off its website and issued an apology.
I don't believe
Gucci ever intended this sweater to be a "blackface" sweater. Still,
out of deference to their customers and to avoid unnecessary controversy, they
stopped selling the sweater, and I think this was the right decision. Better to
avoid the appearance of offense than to stubbornly cling to one's innocence.
Beneath the news
story, MSN was running a poll: Do you think it's OK for non-blacks to wear
blackface costumes on Halloween? At the time of my participating in the survey,
a plurality of respondents had answered "yes," meaning that they did
think dressing up in blackface on Halloween was perfectly fine.
I'm stunned. Never
in my whole life have I ever once considered
the possibility that blackface might be "OK." The thought has
never occurred to me, not even for a second. Blackface is obviously "not
OK." Blackface is always and everywhere morally
reprehensible. It's not that I don't think people can have good
intentions, it's just that we live in a world in which blackface has a long and
sordid history of being used to demean blacks. Unless you want to demean
blacks, you should avoid blackface. Simple. And if you do want to demean
blacks, you're a racist. Again, simple. This is cut-and-dry.
Virginia politicians have had their past experiences with blackface revealed.
This is unfortunate. They should step down. As civil servants in a position of
influence and supposedly representing the interests of their constituents --
many of whom are black -- they ought to simply recognize that their past racism
makes them poor stewards of the public interest. Even if they have changed
their ways, they ought to do like Gucci did: Apologize, and step aside. This is
the only reasonable way to proceed. Better to be decent than to finish out your
In the politicians'
case, no one can argue that their blackface wasn't intended to be blackface.
While Gucci probably did have a strong case for their innocence, they didn't
make a point of minimizing the matter or defending themselves or claiming that
it was a different time. They just owned up to the offense and apologized,
exactly as people should do if they ever find themselves in a position where
they have offended someone. Politicians, though, like to see how far they can
push the envelope before yielding to pressure, and this ultimately shows them
to have very poor character.
And then, there's
the Liam Neeson controversy, in which Neeson admitted
during an interview that he went a little nuts after he found out a friend
or family member was raped by a black man, and spent a couple of weeks
wandering the streets at night, looking for any random black man to appear so
that he could beat him to death. Of course, Neeson didn't actually hurt
anybody, thank heavens, and it's very likely that he really did go nuts.
Learning that someone you love has been raped is a terrible traumatic
experience; not one, I hasten to add, that is as bad as the rape itself, but
What makes Neeson's
case a little different is that Neeson admitted this in order to make an
example of himself. His point appears to have been that his actions were
morally reprehensible and that he was coming to terms with his own culpable
racist reaction to a very real trauma. Leeson, in my view, is to be lauded for
having the courage to turn the magnifying glass on himself this way and admit
that he had terrible and blameworthy thoughts. Part of reforming yourself means
coming to terms with your past wrong thinking, taking responsibility for it,
and trying to set it right. Neeson would be more of "a Gucci" in this
Contrast to this:
Sumner made the claim that, since Donald Trump polls surprisingly well
among Latinos, this is evidence that Latinos simply prefer
"strongman" politicians. When others, including
myself, called him out on this, he
doubled down. Maybe there is more nuance to Sumner's position than all of
that. I certainly hope there is. But if there isn't, what could it mean?
It's sad, but it's
true. Our biases are everywhere and infect our thinking when we expect it to or
not. It's useful to bring them out into the open and to acknowledge them, then
ask ourselves if we've been fair, or if we've let our biases incorrectly influence
our thinking. David
Henderson recently put it this way:
So the key is not whether we are prejudiced. We are. The
relevant questions to ask yourself, given that fact, are threefold: (1) Do I
recognize that I am prejudiced? (2) Do I seek new information when I can do so
at low cost and when an immediate judgment is not necessary? (3) Do I adjust my
judgments once I have found new information if such information would lead to
My answers to those
questions are yes, yes, and yes.
It's not perfect --
perfect would be no bias and no racism whatsoever -- but it's a pretty good
I don't know what's
going on out there in the world lately, but it is startling and disappointing.
The best we can do, I think, is practice David Henderson's strategy and hope
that we don't make too many racist blunders along the way. And if we happen to
offend or let our biases get in the way of better thinking? Apologize
thoroughly and immediately! It's the decent thing to do.