Racism sucks: Where does RVA go after blackface?

In the wake of Bopst-gate, what are our next steps? Tiffany Jana assures us that there ARE next steps, and it’s up to us to take them.

If you’re at all involved in Richmond’s social media, you’ve probably heard about Bopst-gate and the unfortunate blackface costume choice that a local music booker wore to work. The incident sparked much debate about the implications of blackface in 2016, the wearer’s intentions, his moral character, and whether or not the community should accept his multiple apologies.

I’ve seen everything being thrown around, from white privilege to reverse racism. Social media has been the vehicle of much distress for the offender, and I can’t even say people are hiding behind screens as they are lashing out under their real profile names and letting Bopst and everyone else know exactly where they think he and his supporters should go.

Some are mad at the perpetrator. Others are mad at people of color and the sympathizers who are calling Bopst out and choosing not to forgive him…yet.

But racism is nothing new in Richmond. Racism is in the bones of this city, but a great many people—myself among them—work diligently to purge this great city of its present and historical ills.

So the damage is done. Blackface was donned, yet again, in 2016. (Incidentally, we warn people about this every Halloween and for the life of us cannot understand why anyone still has not received the memo.)

In my opinion, the most heinous crimes included Balliceaux’s failure to hold an employee accountable for a brand-scourging, customer-alienating choice (they should have sent him home immediately) as well as people standing up and making light of Bopst’s reprehensible behavior.

Why do I name these as the biggest offenders and not the original sin?

Because people do racist shit all the time. Ask any person of color whether they have witnessed or heard anything racist lately, then sit down for awhile as they laugh at you and spill a laundry list of offenses. Don’t get me wrong, what Bopst did was a hot freaking mess. He resurrected a stereotype that was invented to mock, demean, and humiliate African Americans. Blackface helped cement the notion that black people are less than human, and this dehumanization helped non-black people feel OK about doing horrible things to my people without remorse. So yeah, what Chris Bopst did was really bad.

But here’s where 2016 comes in. We are supposed to know better, and therefore do better. Gone are the days where laughing at your racist uncle’s jokes is OK. If you let your friends say racist, sexist crap and you laugh or remain silent–YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM. Yes, I just yelled at the likes of Balliceaux and anyone else who still thinks it’s OK to remain willfully complicit in the degradation of others. If you saw Bopst that night and you laughed or said nothing, shame on you.

So really, where do we go from here?

We have to talk about this stuff openly. I know it’s hard—conversations like those are probably among the most challenging discussions you will ever have. But if you ever want to see a day where Richmond isn’t divided by class and race (and yes, it still is–concentrated poverty, segregated schools, and neighborhoods), then you must get over your fear of being uncomfortable and find some folks you trust to have safe conversations with.

Oh, you don’t know anyone different from you with whom you trust enough to share your deepest bias and questions? There’s the problem. If we continue to surround ourselves with people just like us, we will always be part of the problem. That’s why I just wrote a book on this very topic.

Think of a book like mine as a practical guide for all the well-meaning people who actually want to identify their biases and do something about them. And I suggest you look into doing just that. I offered this same advice to an RVA entrepreneur who stuck his nose into Bopst-gate and ended up causing irreparable damage to his brand. The name of the company sounds a lot like Swirly Turd Biscuit Symphony (STBS), and the owner feels like total crap for his misstep. He spoke out of turn, by most accounts seems genuinely remorseful, and will hopefully seek out some brutally honest discussions (and read my book).

However, like Bopst, STBS must apologize to RVA and the people he offended. Then the words of atonement must be followed with sincere and meaningful action. That’s where my opinion diverges from many of the people on social media in the Bopst debacle. Interestingly, it’s mostly white people who insist that everyone, including blacks, need to instantly forgive Bopst.

I was pleased to see the number of people (black, white, and others) who recognized that it’s not their place to force people to forgive. And while we appreciate the votes of confidence regarding Bopst’s character and past choices, that does not absolve his racist behavior. That said, everyone deserves forgiveness, but Bopst needs to show up in RVA and use his privilege and influence to further the conversation and action against racism and bias. That’s what true atonement looks like. If he does that, my forgiveness will be earned.

Imagine if every hate crime could be amended with a simple apology? Wouldn’t that be nice and easy? Sure. But is that really a meaningful display of contrition? I think not.

We all need to get out of our own way if we are going to live together as allies and work together to improve the state of our city. Old racist and sexist patterns do not have to play out generation after generation. You can break the cycle now. If each of us commits to owning our part in supporting or undermining systemic racism, we will one day be able to tell our kids that racism was a thing we obliterated back in the old days, and that the idea of favoring one skin color over another was absurd as the idea that the world is flat.

Will you do your part? Will you identify your bias and work to address it? Will you use your personal or professional power and privilege to destroy systemic bias wherever you see it? (No disruption of bias is too small.) Will you stop being complicit when you hear racist, sexist, homophobic banter? These are your responsibilities to yourself, your neighbors, the next generations, and your city.

Tiffany Jana co-owns TMI Consulting, is a really dang pleasant person to know, and just published a book on all this stuff. It’s called Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships across Differences. You can get it via that link or head over to Chop Suey! OR, listen to Tiffany read it via Audible.com. Whichever medium you choose, we suggest you look there for guidance on how to eliminate your socio-cultural blindspots. We’re getting our copies like, right now.