There is a photo which has become suddenly famous, or infamous, as the case may be. It was found, we don’t know by whom or how they happened on it, on a page in a medical school yearbook from 1984. That page was as labeled as being about the man who is now the Governor of Virginia. Even he initially assumed that since it was on his page, he must be one of the people in the picture. He has since said that on reflection he is not in the picture and does not know what it is doing on his page. One can believe him on that point, or not. The photo is of two persons, one costumed in classic minstrel show blackface (black face paint with exaggerated white lips) and the other is shrouded in a KKK style robe and hood. The image is condemned as obviously and horrendously racist on its face with no further explanation needed. There is a problem with that judgment. It is a picture without a story, without a context.


There are things we do not know about that photo and the people in it.

We do not know:

Who those two people are, even, whether they are male or female, or what their relationship was, if any, to each other.

Whether they decided on their costumes separately or together, or whether their roles were assigned, perhaps by the director of some item of theater.

What was the occasion for which the costumes were put on?

What was the intention of the costumes by whoever decided on them?

When and where was the photo taken, and by whom, and why?

How did the photo come into the possession of the editors of the yearbook?

Who decided it should be on that page, and why?

We know none of that.

There is one thing that can be said about that image. It shows two people costumed as two stereotypes, the Blackface Buffoon and the Night Rider Terrorist, deeply and intimately intertwined in the history of American racism, two inseparable caricatures.

Everything else being said about it is assumption, guesswork, stereotyping, and a rush to judgment in the absence of knowledge.


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