At Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival on Sunday, I saw something that I’d only ever seen in the flesh once: a person in blackface. (The first time was at a Halloween party. The girl dressed as Left Eye was asked to leave.) The man and several others were dressed as characters from Forrest Gump; he was Bubba.
Appalled and surprised, when the group posed for a pic, I ran over and snapped a few and posted one on Folio Weekly’s Instagram. Not feeling particularly witty or verbose on a Sunday evening after helping out a friend in the heat all day—also, it was Sunday evening—I just listed the characters’ names with asterisks around “Bubba,” and suggested people “discuss.”
I thought people would be angry with the man. I figured they’d have a lot to say. I also assumed that anyone familiar with Folio Weekly would know without question that blackface is absolutely not in line with our values.
On these counts, I was right, right and wrong—way, way wrong. Boy, was I ever wrong.
They came for Folio Weekly first, dragging us in the comments. The vehemence of the outrage directed at the publication, rather than the man, was stunning.
Then they came for me—even though they couldn’t have known I took the picture. Strangers, colleagues, even people I considered friends sharpened knives and weaponized keyboards. It’s breathtaking how much more deeply it cuts when someone you thought was your friend wields the blade.
When the outrage did not die down, not even after A&E editor Madeleine Peck Wagner wrote a comment explaining that our intention was not to glorify blackface, I decided to delete it. Even though I believe it is important for people to know that such things happen in our community. Even though I believe there is value in the truth, no matter how ugly and offensive. Even though I feel that deleting the post does a favor to the actual wrongdoer (that’s the guy in blackface).
I never intended to give anyone the impression that blackface is acceptable, and I apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended by the caption’s tone or content. Maybe I wasn’t strident enough—or shrill, as a well-respected male member of Jacksonville’s elite called my writing to my face last week in the middle of a cordial conversation about civil discourse. Maybe I should’ve made it even clearer that blackface is wrong. (Blackface is wrong.) Maybe I should’ve interviewed the guy and blown his life up in ways far more lasting than an Instagram post and Brickbat. Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered taking the photo, just left it alone and continued enjoying a lovely Sunday evening in Fernandina, the Star’s Hollow of Northeast Florida.
Instead, I took a picture, posted it and was subsequently humiliated. A whole lot of people called me racist. Many seemed to revel in my blunder. I found myself fighting back tears in my office because people I respect and thought respected me were trashing me on social media, an excruciating reminder of how quickly people will turn on you in this town. It was one of the worst days I’ve ever had at this job—and all because I, perhaps clumsily, called out a guy for doing a bad thing.
It’s really hard to know how to feel when you try to do something that’s right and get vilified for doing it in a way that people perceive as wrong.
Then Madeleine said two things that had the clear ring of truth. First, she said, “All the people who are calling you a racist right now have wanted to call you something else for a long time.” And, “What happened was a man wore blackface and a woman got dragged for pointing it out.”
Maybe the post was too “glib” as one person said. Maybe I didn’t go out of my way to potentially libel a stranger. If I had to do it over again knowing what I know now, perhaps I would write it differently, or at least add an angry face emoji or WTF to make it clearer that blackface is wrong. (Blackface is wrong.)
But Madeleine was right. I’m not the one who wore blackface. I’m just the woman who took a picture and wrote a lame sentence. I’m also the woman—a flesh and blood human being—who day in and day out gets insulted, harassed, accused and mocked, often publicly, for doing my job to the best of my abilities.