Like many other lazy Sunday mornings, I sat down on the couch, creamy coffee in one hand and my phone in the other. It was time to decompress with a few minutes of mindless Facebook scrolling. While my son, David, ran laps around our living room, shouting, “Look, Mama!” as he balanced his toy train on his head, I was met with a startling, sickening image at the top of my feed.
Photo courtesy Facebook/Chris Bopst
Chris Bopst, who until today worked as a music booker at popular Thai eatery Balliceaux and as a contract editor at Style Weekly newspaper, attended a Halloween party at Balliceaux dressed in a minstrel costume, complete with blackface.
My mouth dropped open, my head got hot and my mouth went dry. This man, while I didn’t know him personally, was a Facebook friend of mine. How could someone I know, even loosely, do something like this?
For those of us (somehow, still) wondering exactly what blackface is and why it’s so offensive, a little history:
Blackface is a type of stage makeup used to imitate black people, wherein the performer’s whole face is painted in a dark color and accented by red or white, overly exaggerated lips. The performers were usually white people. The sole purpose of these shows was to demean slaves and free black people, mocking their speech, mannerisms and personalities.
Blackface first appeared in minstrel shows around the 1830s, and, for much of the 19th century, these were the most popular form of live entertainment in the country. Mark Twain, American humorist and beloved writer of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” loved minstrel shows, describing the performers in shows he witnessed as a youngster having “coal-black hands and faces,” adding, “To my mind it was a thoroughly delightful thing and a most competent laughter-compeller and I am sorry it is gone.” Let that resonate with you for a minute.
Not a fan of Mark Twain? Let me bring this lesson closer to home. African-American actor Charles Sidney Gilpin (namesake of the Gilpin Court public housing community) was born in Richmond in 1873 and showed brilliance as a singer, actor and dancer from an early age. He performed with the Canadian Jubilee Singers and starred in Broadway’s “Emperor Jones,” but his career all but screeched to a halt after he refused to perform in blackface, on stage or off, according to a "Virginia Cavalcade" article by John T. Kneebone. Imagine the courage that it took to defend his dignity in that way. On the opposite end of that spectrum, another notable Richmond native, actor/comedian Freeman Gosden, was one half of the seminal radio program “Amos ’n’ Andy” and voiced several of the show’s main characters. Gosden imitated the dialect of black people, many of them probably Richmonders he’d witnessed growing up; he exploited them for laughs. To promote the show, Gosden and co-star Charles Correll often appeared in blackface.
With this knowledge, let us all agree: Blackface was and is a form of racial stereotyping that is hurtful and degrading to black people. But you don’t have to be black to be outraged that people are somehow still comfortable portraying black people through the racist medium of blackface. Hundreds of Richmonders, black and white, took to Facebook to express their disdain for Bopst’s “costume” this weekend, including me and a hefty chunk of my Facebook friends.
Via Facebook, I asked him directly why he’d chosen to wear blackface. “Disturbing and inflammatory was my intention,” he replied. That’s a pretty murky intention, so I asked him today to explain exactly what he meant. He says he tried – and failed – to make a bold statement by personifying racism.
“My thought was, and the reason I labeled the photo as 'I’m pretty,' meant, 'No I’m not pretty,' " he says over the phone, his voice scratchy after having this same conversation with many media members, all day long. “I was trying to convey by the photo, ‘I’m horrible and ugly,’ because racism is still a horrible problem. It’s more prevalent than ever, and people still won’t acknowledge that it exists. That was my thought. It was a comment on the racial divide in our country.”
On Sunday, after a deluge of justifiably pissed-off people flooded his timeline with comments and demands for answers, Bopst apologized, saying he’d never meant to offend anyone and pointing out that he wasn’t a racist. Let’s unpack that.
In 2016 America, “racist” no longer looks like sinister, sheet-wearing men who burn crosses on lawns, or the fearsome jaws of German shepherds snapping at the ankles of civil rights protestors. No, today’s racism is subtle, quiet and often considered politically correct. It’s calling something you deem inferior “ghetto.” It’s when one hears “Black lives matter” and immediately, defiantly shoots back, “All lives matter!” with no regard to the fact that black lives ARE included in all lives, so the problem lies in the word “black.” It’s wearing blackface as a Halloween costume in 2016, although there are articles by popular publications all over the net, with literal titles like “Here’s a Reminder not to Wear Black Face This Halloween (or Ever).” It’s one of the presidential candidates of the United States, who was sued by the Justice Department for discriminatory housing practices against people of color in the 1980s, and who called for the death of the Central Park Five, black teenagers who were accused of rape, jailed and later exonerated by DNA evidence.
"Do you think," I ask him today, "you did this out of white privilege? The very fact that you felt justified to make this type of statement, having never been a victim of racism yourself, and using a known racist stereotype to do it?"
“Oh absolutely,” he replied without hesitation. “The idea that I can intellectually mock a deep seated racial stereotype is white privilege, straight up. None of that [racism] happened to me or my ancestors, because I’m white! The country was basically built by slaves, so for me to play around with a very real thing [like blackface] is not fair, because I will never know or understand that.”
I am not saying that Chris Bopst is a racist; I’m saying that he committed a racist act, and therefore, knowingly or not, perpetuated a racist stereotype. This is unacceptable in Richmond, or anywhere, in this day and time. What disturbed me almost more than the blackface “costume” itself were the scores of people who rushed to Bopst’s defense about the incident. “Let me tell you,” wrote a woman replying to Bopst’s apology, “I certainly did not think ‘racist’ when I was scrolling my feed … it’s Halloween! Guess I’m not shocked or offended by much these days.”
News flash, folks: Just because something doesn’t offend you, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t offend others, and certainly doesn’t make it all right. Also, Halloween is NOT an excuse to don a costume which originated by mocking black people. Another person defending the blackface in that same thread wrote: “Anybody who gets offended by a costume [needs] to move on and learn how to laugh at the problem.” It’s inconceivable that anyone could speak from such a place of privilege that while they weren’t offended, they feel justified in telling people who might be understandably hurt by the donning of a racist display like blackface to “laugh at the problem.” Would we laugh at someone dressed as Hitler, spouting hateful rhetoric against Jews? Would we chuckle over someone dressed as a Japanese, radiation-burned victim of the atomic bomb drop during World War II? Would it make us smile to see someone decked out as a displaced and wandering Native American on the Trail of Tears? The answer is, and must forever be, NO. These instances are not anything to make light of, and neither is blackface. It’s a serious stain on the cultural legacy of America, and to chalk it up to “just a Halloween costume” only furthers that legacy, making it visible and acceptable to a new generation.
“He apologized, he got fired, that should be the end of it,” another person wrote this afternoon. Incorrect. While I’m sad to see anyone lose gainful employment — and while I know Bopst has a family to support, like I do — this incident can’t be swept under the rug. Our actions have consequences, and his terminations were the results of his action. No one forced him to wear blackface. It was his decision, which he fully acknowledges was a very poor one.
“I f---ed up,” he says plainly. “I’m trying to own this, to move forward, and show people why it’s so f---ed up and wrong. I can’t hide, I’ve got to live with it.”
So what now? There is no flowery end to this, no neat little bow that I can attach here. We need to talk about this. We need to share with our kids why blackface, and all types of racial discrimination, is wrong. We need to hold restaurants, media organizations and other businesses that employ people who engage in these types of racist behaviors accountable (looking right at you, Balliceaux, and that first pseudo-apology-turned-excuse you made yesterday. Not at all cool, and you deserved the virtual sh--storm that has been hailing down on you since then).
We need to learn our history. We need to join organizations that work to overcome bias and discrimination in our communities.
Bopst plans to keep the conversation on race going. “Now, it’s even more important for me to discuss it,” he says. “I believe that we need to talk more about race. People should know the history of minstrels, and how racism pervades all segments of our culture. The problem is that people don’t discuss it.”
Richmond, as of late, has become a mecca for millennials and young professionals, enticed by a city where the cost of living is low but the culture is high. We’ve been lauded as a major food destination, our art scene continues to gain national notoriety and now more than ever, we are celebrating the diversity of us, the “new face of Richmond,” as I wrote in our Sourcebook this year. Yet, situations like this one hit with a weight as heavy as gravity; now, we’re in the national spotlight again, and this time, Richmond is being mentioned in cities like Biloxi and Tucson – for blackface. It reminds people yet again that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. That someone thinks it’s OK to wear blackface in Richmond, in 2016, even to prove a point about racism, reminds us that we aren’t as progressive as we may think, and that we have so much work to do. Don’t deny; just get to work.
I’m still angry and hurt by all of this, and I have the right to be. All I can do, all any of us can do, is set our faces toward tomorrow, and vow to be better by not doing things that offend, disrespect or demean people who don’t look like us, or any people, period. Do better, Richmond.