Shiners all around for Virginia’s top elected officials — victims of self-inflicted wounds in an embarrassing public history lesson. By now, everybody knows about Gov. Ralph Northam’s adventures in blackface and the medical school yearbook photo, which he now says may or may not be him. And in a you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it press conference, during which he considered doing his version of a moonwalk after admitting that he’d worn a “little shoe polish” as part of a Michael Jackson costume. Shortly thereafter, Attorney General Mark Herring also confessed to blackface antics. Since then, an investigation of Virginia yearbooks has surfaced other blackface photos. Not at all surprising to this Black daughter of the South.

Also, not surprising and enraging: the disingenuous claims of ignorance about the racist history of blackface, popularized during 19th century minstrel shows featuring white men blackening their faces and cavorting on stage in demeaning skits meant to represent black Americans. It started in Northeastern states and was at one time the most popular form of entertainment across the country. So popular that some black entertainers blackened their faces in a desperate attempt to earn a living. That’s why Gov. Northam’s 'I didn’t know' doesn’t fly, nor does the “It’s just silly fun” response by others. Worse, these blackface incidents were not youthful indiscretions — also not an excuse — but premeditated actions by adults. Virginia’s blackface controversy also highlights the minstrel imagery used on current products by Gucci, Prada, H&M and outerwear company, Moncler. On Martha’s Vineyard last summer, protests against Le Roux Kitchens criticized, for the second time, for selling similar products. Consumer outcry and threatened boycotts brought hollow public contrition from these companies, accompanied by the requisite ‘We didn’t know’ and ‘No offense intended.’ Once more with feeling: Blackface is racist, period.

As long as we avoid the raw, difficult conversation about the historic origins of biased imagery, blackface and related offenses will keep happening. And because blackface is a visual shorthand for racism, I don’t think anybody gets a pass. No matter Gov. Northam’s 'I’m a different man today' promise to do better, and no matter the African-American Virginians and the black ministers strategically offering him public forgiveness — absolution based on the lesser-of-two-evils political reality that kicking Northam out would leave the top job open for a Republican. Lieutenant Gov. Justin Fairfax is not likely to be eligible, for reasons I’ll discuss at another time.

I was pondering all this when I got a message from a self-described white listener who wondered if it was OK for his 7-year-old son to wear a Halloween mask of former President Barack Obama’s face. He said his son was one of the former president’s biggest fans. To you, sir, I say: Help him demonstrate his admiration for the president without wearing the mask, and teach him that African-Americans’ skin color and features are part of our identity, not a costume.