A Republican sheriff candidate in South Carolina is trying to own up to his “mistakes.” But critics say he’s missing a key component: an apology.
In a campaign ad posted Tuesday on Facebook, Craig Stivender, who is running for sheriff of Colleton County, South Carolina, lists off his perceived faults: a ticket for driving without a license, getting divorced and remarried, fender benders that were his fault and losing his temper at work.
But then he transitions to something a little more controversial. He went to a party dressed in blackface. And he included a photo of himself from that night in his campaign video.
He sets the scene: It was “about 10 years ago” and, as a young police officer at a Halloween party, he dressed up as Demetrius “Big Meech” Flenory, a notorious drug trafficker.
“I did it to disparage a criminal whose actions hurt our community and country. That was a different time,” he says in the advertisement of the party.
“Today we understand that type of costume is troubling to many. To those who may be upset, I understand your disappointment. But I value honesty, so I’m opening my campaign with transparency,” he added.
Just a ‘Halloween costume’
Stivender never actually says the word “blackface,” though he shows a photo of himself in costume. He also does not say that the costume might be perceived as racist. He also doesn’t say, “I’m sorry.”
Instead, the man who hopes to be sheriff said his revelations are a part of his attempts to be transparent and honest, saying, “I want to tell you at the start of my campaign some things that politicians would try to hide, things my opponents may try to use to tarnish my integrity.”
But critics weren’t so sure.
On Facebook, some pointed out the ad seemed to be merely a way to save himself from the political blowback that could have come in the future, rather than a genuine apology.
“There is a difference between announcing … just so your political opponents don’t out you and apologizing for having the wrong belief’s [sic] in the past,” Matt Christy wrote in the comments section under Stivener’s ad.
Others pointed out that 10 years ago was 2009 — blackface wasn’t the norm then, either.
“If my Grandparents knew in the 50s that it wasn’t a good look, there’s no excuse for you not to know in 2009, with all of this vast internet,” said K Lamont James.
“I supposed he missed the whole Ted Danson thing in 1993?” Marilyn Gerber wrote, referencing the actor’s scandal when he appeared at a comedic roast of Whoopi Goldberg, with whom he was in a relationship at the time, in blackface.
Some people did praise Stivender and the ad, though. Richard Bounds wrote, “Got my vote! I wish he’d run for the House of Representatives.” H Don Davis said, “Awesome message Craig! Wish you the best! You’ll make a excellent sheriff!”
CNN reached out to Stivender through email.
He said he was on a 24-hour shift at the police station, so he couldn’t talk. But he did say he stood by his previous statements and the video.
Stivender told CNN affiliate WCSC that at the time he “had no idea what blackface was.”
“It just happened to be a Halloween costume for me.”
He told WCSC the photo was a mistake, but when asked if he apologized for the photo, he referred back to the video, saying it wasn’t his “intention to hurt anyone’s feelings or make fun of anyone.”
He repeated that it was just a Halloween costume.
Public figures in blackface
This isn’t the first time a public figure was seen wearing blackface. In South Carolina, a photo of Brant Tomlinson, then a candidate for Kershaw County Council, circled social media in 2018.
Tomlinson told CNN affiliate WACH that he and three other college students dressed up as characters from “Cool Runnings,” a movie about a Jamaican bobsled team, a decade ago. In a statement regarding the incident, he didn’t apologize, instead writing that the photo was spread by one of his political opponents in a “smear campaign” effort. He didn’t win the election.
More recently, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said this year that he dressed up in blackface to mimic Michael Jackson in a 1980s dance contest. Northam apologized for his actions and also made plans to dedicate himself to “healing that pain” of racial inequality.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to appearing in blackface at a party in 1980 during his years at the University of Virginia. He wrote that he accepts full responsibility for his conduct and that he had an “inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”
The problem with blackface
Blackface has a long and painful history. The most public version of it consisted of white actors who would darken their skin with makeup to look stereotypically “black.” Though the shows were meant to be funny to white audiences, they demeaned black people by reinforcing white notions of superiority and portraying black people using racist clichés and tropes — all while much of the entertainment industry remained unwilling to hire black professionals in front of, or behind, the camera.
Some people have argued that wearing blackface essentially equates another person’s race or ethnicity to a costume or a joke.
And given the history, which has been discussed widely in the era of social media, some say that the harm of the behavior exists regardless of whether a person says they intended to cause harm or not.