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Bintel BriefYour turn: Readers respond to Bintel advice on blackface photo from 40 years ago

‘It was 40 years ago in another world,’ said one reader. ‘Forgive if there is true regret,’ said another

A recent Bintel column and podcast episode generated thoughtful responses from several readers. So this week, instead of our usual Q&A format, we’re sharing excerpts of those responses. Need advice? Send your dilemma to [email protected].

Chief Egregious Offense Officer” recently wrote to Bintel wondering what to do about a photo that turned up showing a white employee dressed as Michael Jackson in blackface at a Halloween party 40 years ago. The advice-seeker was the white person’s boss — actually the organization’s CEO — who noted that the person was an otherwise outstanding employee.

Our Bintel podcast hosts, Ginna Green and Lynn Harris, said there was no statute of limitations on something as offensive as blackface, and suggested talking to the employee about racism, “to be assured that they’re not merely embarrassed, but that they understand the seriousness of their bad judgment and the harm it caused, even if indirect.” (Read their full response or listen to the podcast episode.)

“Sometimes people get a pass because it was 40 years ago and they’ve learned, but sometimes people have to take the fall for generations of harm,” they wrote, “because the only way we change culture and ensure that these things are never OK is to hold people accountable.”

Here’s what readers said, lightly edited for length and clarity.

If there’s regret, then forgive

David Burger wrote in to encourage the boss to talk to the offender privately and find out whether he had done teshuva — repentance and amends. If he has, Burger asked, “is it right to publicly embarrass that person?”

“There is a principle in Jewish ethics that states that humiliating a person is akin to killing him or her. Do you really think it’s worth taking that chance?” he added. “I hope you’d find it in your heart to forgive if there is true regret. We all have done things we wish we hadn’t in the past, at least if we have a conscience.”

Minstrelsy or tribute?

Another reader, Bob Schwartz, said that he sees a difference between “a white performer in blackface doing generic repugnant minstrelsy, and a white person’s live portrayal of a particular Black performer idolized by audiences of all races and colors, all over the world.” 

If you’re doing Elvis, you need “the right hair and the right outfits,” Schwartz said, adding that he’s a fan of Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis Jr. impression and Eddie Murphy’s Old Jewish Man character in “Coming To America.” 

“Brilliant, yes,” wrote Schwartz. “Offensive, I don’t think so.”

What’s acceptable now won’t be in the future

Leonard Krubner also posited that the offender was “likely a big Michael Jackson fan” who should get a pass on an incident that took place four decades ago.

I hope that whoever wrote that response is clear on one thing: they are currently engaging in one or more types of behavior, right now, at this moment, that will be condemned as utterly unacceptable in 40 years,” Krubner wrote. “It could be the fact that they’re using a plastic water bottle, or eating meat, or even just using their iPhone (built with slave labor in the authoritarian regime of China). 

“A photo might surface in 40 years of this columnist sitting in a steakhouse in 2022, and their CEO in the future might be under pressure to fire them as a result (meat consumption, of course, being an unforgivable sin against the environment at that future date). Should they be judged decades from this moment for behavior that the overwhelmingly vast majority of their peers currently have no issue with? Of course not! Yet that sort of wisdom, perspective, and compassion is utterly lacking from the Bintel Brief column in question.”

‘Hope they’ve learnt something’

On Twitter, a user named @misstravels said: It was 40 years ago, in another world. I don’t think it’s worth bringing it up. They’re either very old now or were very young then; we hope they’ve learnt something.”

We’re always eager to hear your feedback — and your quandaries about life, love, family, friends or work. Email us or message us via Twitter. Listen to the Bintel Brief podcast here.

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