WASHINGTON — When Virginia first lady Pam Northam handed out raw cotton last month to African-American students on a governor’s mansion tour and asked them to imagine being slaves picking the crop, she inspired a whirlwind.
What in the world was she thinking?
Northam quickly apologized after one of the students’ mothers complained, but it was too little too late for some. Although the first lady apparently intended to have the cotton passed around the group of 20 children, most of whom were white, her suggestion to the black students was perceived as, well, insensitive. To say the least.
In her defense, Northam said she was only trying to highlight the horrors of slavery, even pointing out how rough and prickly the raw cotton was and how hard it would have been to spend long days harvesting the crop. Northam’s office has denied that she singled out anyone and said she merely handed out the cotton to the students who were nearest to her. Four other participants in the tour later told The Washington Post that Northam didn’t single out the black students and that nothing untoward happened. The mother of the student who raised the complaint stands by her daughter’s recollection of what transpired.
It’s probably fair to say that Northam was trying to demonstrate and encourage empathy for the slaves. But what about for those present?
Tone-deaf is how some critics have described Northam. Others were less charitable. Democratic Del. Marcia Price, a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said, “The cotton itself is a symbol of murder, rape, displacement and the radiating effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that black Virginians are still experiencing today.”
This may be true, but let’s be fair. It’s also a beautiful crop that fills countless southern fields with snowy balls on stalks, without which our clothing and linens would be far-less comfortable. When people buy cotton stalks at florist shops, you can be sure it’s for their beauty and not to celebrate the slave trade. We know, too, that were Pam Northam black, her gesture and her attempted teaching moment would have been perfectly acceptable.
It’s probably safe to say that her perceived slight also would have been judged less harshly were she not the wife of the moonwalking governor. Together with his recent scandal about a racially offensive photo in an old yearbook — and his admission to having worn blackface for a dance competition performance as Michael Jackson — the Northams suddenly seemed like an antebellum couple who had stepped into the wrong century.
Yet, to many Americans, this is likely much ado. Yes, the Northams seem to be clueless. On the other hand, the governor is being judged for offenses from 35 years ago, excepting that moment last month when he seemed poised to demonstrate his moonwalking prowess for reporters. And, Pam Northam surely meant no harm. But these experiences are among the many in a pluralistic society that should be viewed through a lens of empathy, understanding and compassion.
Imagine how those African-American girls felt among mostly white peers when they were given cotton and asked to think about being a slave.
Empathy not only allows us to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, and to respond appropriately, but also allows us to forgive. Did Pam Northam intend to cause black middle schoolers to suffer the cruelty and humiliation of slavery? Surely not. Did Gov. Northam intend to denigrate African-Americans by wearing black face and imitating a pop star? Perhaps not. He strikes me as someone who probably enjoyed being a clown and grabbing a laugh where he could.
But, whoever selected a photo of a person wearing blackface next to a Klansman (in costume) for Northam’s personal yearbook page acted intentionally and was surely aware of how such an image would affect fellow African-American students. (Northam maintains that he didn’t select the picture and doesn’t know who’s in it.)
We’re not yet to the point of running people out of town or office for being insensitive. Obviously. Most likely, the Northams, as well as Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who has also admitted to using blackface, will survive their missteps and be forgiven by most. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the next governor — and the next president of the United States, while we’re at it — knows something about personal suffering, which, in the latter case, shouldn’t be confused with a really terrific deal that fell through.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post and can be contacted at email@example.com.