White Allies, You Are Not Who You Think You Are. What Are You Going To Do About It?

Before a Halloween party in 2018, I had never seen blackface in my life.

I have always loved facepainting and I have used a multitude of colors, including black, to paint a design on clients and models’ faces. I was also wearing face paint that night: light silver coated with heavy white paint, dark green eyeshadow, and dark gray contours, a pastiche of Beetlejuice, The Joker, and Picasso. I thought I looked pretty cool and my friend, Lexie Gruber, thought so, too.

We were excited to attend this Halloween party, hosted by Tom Toles, a Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post cartoonist, in his American University Park home, even though we were, from what I could tell, one of the very few guests of color at the event. But the costumes at this party were creative and impressive and we were there to have fun. I saw Janis Joplin, Magritte with a red apple in his mouth, and several other Beetlejuice iterations. However, when we saw a white woman in blackface, Lexie and I both felt immediately uncomfortable and unwelcome; not only that we felt a responsibility to say something to this woman about it, but we wondered why that few, if any, of the white guests at this event did.

That night, I was conscious of my own visibility as a very tall Black woman, as I am in many social and professional settings, and fearful that my anger could provoke a reaction that could endanger my life or liberty. Reflecting on it now — especially after learning about Breonna Taylor, who police shot while she was asleep in her own bed, and other Black people killed or harassed by police — I know that I made the right decision to stay oblique and non-threatening in a room full of white people I didn’t know.

Knowing the risks, I decided to speak to this woman, Sue Schafer, who wore a Megyn Kelly name tag as an explanation for her costume (Toles later told the Post her costume was supposed to be a satire aimed at Kelly’s racist defense of blackface on Fox News). After Lexie and I had the encounter with her, I wrote and published a Facebook post about it on October 29, 2018, detailing my recollection of our conversation. Despite having both technical writing and journalism experience, I have not been asked about this post too often. I’ll reproduce the bulk of it here.


“After a moment, I decided to walk up to her, made my way across the crush of bodies in the small room. She turned to me as I walked up, smiling.

I said to her, “I was just about to do what you did tonight.”

She said, “Oh? That would have been hilarious.”

I corrected her, saying, “No. I was about to be just as sloppy with putting on my makeup. You look horrible.”

I looked down on her, where her smile started to harden the wrinkles in her face…And so I pointed to my own face, in green, and said, “Look at my face. Do you see any drips? You see how well I blended my colors? Yeah. When you do something like this to yourself, you gotta be dedicated. Right now, you just look sad.”


Then, Lexie asked her if she knew about blackface, and mentioned how its painful history should be respected. Another guest, according to the Post article, said that Schafer’s response was laughter with no apology. We left soon after.

The entire time, my energy was divided into monitoring the reactions of the majority-white bystanders to this confrontation, and I felt like the object of attention that everyone was trying to ignore. If she feels sadder about having wrinkles than being a racist that ignored everything I said, then that shows just where her priorities lie in this situation. Lexie and I both wanted to let this experience go, but it haunted us both, having our existence and feelings disregarded not just by Schafer, but by all the people surrounding us.

This was almost two years ago and, faced with months in quarantine isolation and the Black Lives Matter protests over the recent police killings of Black Americans, Lexie decided to revisit the event, without my knowledge. She reached out to Toles, the host of the party, and at first, he told her that he didn’t know who the woman in blackface was. After this conversation, Lexie reached out to a reporter at The Washington Post, and since it featured a longtime Post employee at the center of the controversy, two veteran reporters reached out to us about the incident.

Now that the Post article is out, offering disparate first-person accounts of the events of that night but without much analysis or context, my friend and I are facing a multitude of online threats — about our appearance that night, our choice to attend the party, and to our own livelihoods. Instead of staying silent, it compels me to respond in a public way and to explain how this one incident has traumatized me and my friend for the past two years and how it is a painful learning experience for everyone involved.

We have also received support from friends and colleagues and, in particular, from white allies we have been told that they wish they had been there to defend us, to support us. But the truth is, we were in a place full of highly educated people, of Post journalists and DC professionals who are presumably liberals and anti-racist allies.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m just one person, and so was Schafer, making a mistake she’s now very sorry about. But then you’d be looking at this in the wrong way. It’s not only about what she did, it’s about the inaction from everyone else at that party. And in doing and saying nothing, they traumatized us, too. For me, this experience is much larger than a horrific party that I’d prefer not to remember. Especially now, within the context of the collective cultural reckoning we are having as a nation, where so many white people suddenly want to talk about race and confront racism, I want to have hope for real change. But I am tired. I am angry. I am frustrated, and I’m in the middle of self-reflection of my own priorities going forward.

Well-meaning people of all races tend to look the other way when they see a friend do something offensive, just to keep the peace. Whether the offense was committed out of ignorance, laziness, or malice is irrelevant because the impact is the same: my value as a human being is being challenged and I am forced, once again, to defend it. It is necessary for me, as a Black woman, to ask white allies: What does solidarity and bearing witness actually mean? How do I safely express my frustration with white liberal people who do not bother to consider the impact of their actions upon those who are not white? How can I use my own situation as an example of what to do to be a real ally?

If you read the Washington Post article, you know that Schafer is being terminated from her government contract position due to the public exposure of this event. It may baffle some of my Black friends to hear me say that I empathize with Schafer, but I do. I take no joy in the pain that this is causing her and I feel an affinity with her, as a government contractor myself. It must be tempting to look away or to attempt to categorize this as one solitary misunderstanding gone awry, that perhaps a different kind of conversation that night would have miraculously solved. However, this means you are also missing the point.

All actions have consequences. We all need to check our internal biases and BS meters and be willing to take the consequences for irresponsibly releasing bad ideas into the world. I am not exempt from this, despite my being African American.

Last year, I created and performed in a skit that discussed the refugee crisis, in the style of A Modest Proposal. I performed this idea in front of three people of Latin descent and was justifiably vilified for it. Swift, who wrote A Modest Proposal about the Potato Famine, was Irish; I am not Latina or an immigrant. That is probably why my idea failed.

I listened to them and didn’t go public with the idea. I also want to raise the question in this essay on why this woman didn’t seek people on her social level, as opposed to a cab driver that was dependent on her good opinion, to check her idea with. Also, did she just decide to wear blackface that night? I agonized on the ethical ramifications of my skit for over two weeks before I brought it to other people. Finally, I wish to present this situation once again on how to be the right sort of ally, as opposed to someone who wants to just hurt and abuse whoever can’t fight back. By the way- the one person that was the angriest about it, and was one of the Latinos that I showed it to? Her name was Lexie Gruber- and in fact, that’s exactly how we first met.

I present this situation to show that I have real empathy for this woman and the mistake she made because I almost made this mistake myself. I feel that it’s an important moment to acknowledge that there’s creativity, and then there’s respect. By addressing this issue alongside this one, I hope to show that even African Americans, who are the most marginalized group the world over, can and should amplify our powerful voices to better support the plight of other races.

Due to this original sin of mine, I have decided to willingly accept the same consequences that Schafer has faced for her own actions. I have submitted a letter of resignation* from my own government contract position, due to my having a private, unlisted profile that was, by a site glitch, set to public and which may have displayed work related to my own mistake. With offering my letter of resignation, I am doing the sort of right that I wish I can see Barr, or Gorsuch, or Kavanaugh, do. I am dispensing economic justice to myself that Equifax has so far avoided.

In the following year after I first met Lexie, I questioned my role in social activism, since I was the type of person to make such a stupid work of art that would trigger her so badly. I wondered if I was too broken to be a good ally of anti-racism; I questioned why I didn’t yell at that woman, after all. I grew ashamed and slowed down the output of my freelance work for social justice writing. I obtained a steady job talking about the environment and tried my best to live out my penance anonymously. Circumstances changed that. And now, I’m starting to realize that I might not be the perfect ally, but I care and want the best for everyone; that I’ve made a serious mistake, but that I’m sorry and completely transparent on how this will never happen again. I also want to add that I’ve always had empathy for otherwise excellent white allies that have said bad jokes or something once or twice, and it has been caught on tape. All I’d say to them is — just show that you won’t try to avoid the consequences, or twist the story and that you are truly committed by words and actions to our liberation going forward. In this situation and Washington Post article, Schafer could have considered apologizing to any Black person in the party that could have seen her, not Lexie. She could have removed herself immediately. But she didn’t. I want to emphasize that Schafer, in the Post article, has not made any apology to the Black people that could have seen her, but only to my white-passing friend, Lexie. This is another covert sign of the racism behind her act.

I know that we all are dealing with personal and public pain, often so overwhelming that you cannot comprehend anyone else’s, but we have to do better. In the Post article, Schafer described her behavior that night as careless and says she is deeply ashamed. “Clearly, I didn’t understand the history of blackface enough,” she told the Post. Also, she apparently now understands that “when black people make a mistake, they can get killed.” I also want to add that we don’t usually get believed even when we do stay calm like I’ve tried to do in this situation. I’m tired of having to keep my composure.

Regarding my role as a witness in this matter, my skepticism about how I would be believed has roots in the legal framework of this country, which in most places didn’t allow people that look like me or Lexie to take the stand against a white person until the latter half of the 20th century. And even now, many in the larger public would rather demonize us than to believe our recollections and feelings. They’d rather side with the passive-aggressor that reflects their own failings and biases than do the necessary work for solidarity.

White allies, you have got to do better than this. Every day, we are all tested in our beliefs about ourselves, faced with seemingly benign experiences that, for white people, cause no pain. I want to challenge you to consider the perception of Black pain, more than ever, during this time. In order for progress to happen, you need to be aware of those times that you failed to use your power to help someone who needed your support, in order to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

What I’m talking about is a change in consciousness, really paying attention to everyone in the room instead of just occupying space. It means considering all those you come into contact with as complex human beings and recognizing the legacy of inequality and cruelty that has impacted our self-awareness, lives, and livelihoods. And pain, I think, is something that one can feel, and feel, and then it becomes something so overwhelming that you can’t see anyone else’s. Empathy is not an easy thing to do. We are all governed by a set of consequences for poor choices and we should not tolerate racist behavior, either benign or malicious, because the impact is the same.

With this essay, I am trying to answer this question from so many well-meaning allies, even those who have made a serious mistake in the past: What can we do? For starters, ask people engaged in racist behavior to leave immediately. Engage with them when they share passively racist or white supremacist views on their social media. If they’re family, and if they really love you as much as you love them and their feelings, then considering yours as an anti-racist isn’t too much to ask. We can also call out people at work-related functions as a matter of professional courtesy.

And then what? After we get a microphone and sound off, what’s the next step? There’s a shockingly simple answer to that: Keep doing it, and if you notice that your social circle gets smaller because of it, then so be it. It’s a case of the garbage taking itself out. If you are more worried about how your friends and loved ones feel than a very likely isolated person of color in a hostile situation, then I have nothing further to say to you. And if you’re afraid that calling people out like this will alienate potential allies, then just realize that those kinds of allies are like bot accounts on Twitter — while they look good in large numbers when the time comes to actually do something, they are worse than useless.

My final thought: racism takes on so many scary and unpredictable forms, in our social lives and work circles. And I get it: changing yourself is hard. Checking yourself is difficult. So, we need to all have each other’s backs by having difficult conversations that may “ruin the party” or turn someone into a “social justice warrior.” This is indeed a cultural war, that we are sometimes fighting even within ourselves. And regarding our friends, we may have to sometimes face that we may know someone for years, but not have any idea about their hidden racism or ignorance. We need to confront that disappointing truth in ourselves and each other, and still somehow come out as Americans, undivided. I have hope we can do it.

Edited by Rebekah Kirkman and Cara Ober of BMoreArt.

*My contracting organization did not accept my resignation. I will continue to work with them on fostering conversations about racial inclusion for everyone who wishes to participate.

Artist, writer, folk teller.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store