By: Brittany Cronin
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about what one news outlet calls the “dumpster fire that is Virginia politics”. As a refresher, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was accused of appearing in blackface in his medical school yearbook photo, admitted to and apologized for the photo, and then rescinded his admission of guilt, saying it was not him in the photo, but that he had donned blackface to dress up as Michael Jackson. In the same week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface in college. From up here in liberal New York City, it’s easy to look down at Virginia, to scoff at those southerners for their racism and how out of touch they are. It’s easy to point fingers, but when we point fingers we miss opportunities for self-reflection.
Ralph Northam pointed fingers when he said he used only a little bit of blackface, a sorry attempt at excusing himself for responsibility because there was a comparative worse evil. He did this instead of admitting his wrongdoing, learning from his mistake, and leveraging his power as governor to contextualize a larger conversation about racism in Virginia. And we point fingers when we gawk at Virginia. We excuse ourselves from examining pervasive racism in our culture, as if racism is foreign in our communities. We, white people, excuse ourselves from examining our role in benefiting from and perpetuating racism.
So here I will grapple with facing racism in my community. I grew up in Kinnelon, New Jersey, named for its founder Francis S. Kinney. Three main roads form a triangle around much of my small town. The roads are Kinnelon Road, Kiel Road (named for William Kiel, the namesake of the public elementary school), and Kakeout Road. Put them together and what do you get: the KKK encasing a predominantly white community formed in the 1920s. That was the rumor growing up. I often wondered what Kakeout meant, and it wasn’t until this latest blackface controversy that I revisited that question. As it turns out, the Kake Walk was a popular competition at the University of Vermont in which students performed minstrel shows and dance in blackface. The show and term derive from when plantation owners would organize slave competitions for entertainment and award the best dancers a cake. So if kake was white slang for black, Kakeout Road made certain that black people knew they were unwelcome in my hometown.
You may think street names are a relic of the past and irrelevant of the way the world is today, but the legacy of racism remains in my town. I went to school with a class of 150 mostly white students, so that racism lived happily beneath the surface, unprovoked. Barack Obama brought blackness into my town. The day after his 2008 election, I heard a classmate refer to him as an ape. I didn’t say anything. I’m sure I had my reasons, namely not wanting to stand up to one of the popular boys in my grade. But the real reason I didn’t say anything is because I did not feel I had a stake in what he said, and therein was my problem. I wasn’t the target of his dehumanizing language, so why bother stick my neck out?
When I finally researched the origin of Kakeout, I learned that the road was originally called Kikeout, deriving from kijkuit, the Dutch word for lookout, but was changed because of its similarity to kike, an ethnic slur referring to Jews. If the town was willing to change a street name offensive to Jews, why weren’t similar changes made to rid the KKK and Kakeout of Kinnelon? My guess is because, again, no one felt at stake. No one felt threatened or unsafe, and as such, no one fought for change.
Until we recognize and call out racism in our own communities, our country will not change. There will be more Ralph Northams and more University of Vermonts. You can read this and think to yourself “I would have said something”. You can dismiss my message, but you would be missing my message, which is that we as white people need to stop dismissing racism and start looking for the myriad of ways in which we uphold a system of racial hierarchy.