Lessons to be learned from Blackface


Courtesy of Eastern Virginia Medical School via AP

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has been called to resign after photos emerged of his 1984 medical yearbook page of him wearing blackface.

Last week a photo surfaced of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) donning blackface in his medical school yearbook from 1984. In the photo, Northam and another individual are dressed up with one as a Ku Klux Klan member and the other in blackface. The photo was on Northam’s personal page of the yearbook.

This was not the only blackface incident to make headlines recently. Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface sometime in the 1980’s at a college party. Liam Neeson faced public outrage after he told a British newspaper,The Independent, last month about an incident 40 years ago in which he prowled the streets of Ireland, multiple times, to look for a random black person, after someone close to him had been raped by a black man. Neeson didn’t actually harm anyone in the end.

I am outraged but honestly not surprised,” said Maiwen Amegadjie, junior, “These days it’s not too long before we find out that some political figure, democratic or republican, has done some racist things in the not so far past.”

Another discovery of blackface was found in a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill yearbook page. In the photo, two people dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb are hanging a man dressed in blackface. Colin Campbell, a journalist, made the discovery in the 1979 yearbook.

“My take on the blackface [incidents] is that it is meant to be racist and in our political climate these days, the doors have opened to those people who would otherwise be hiding behind closed doors,” said Mrs. Lynn Gronewold, a teacher aid in the Special Education Department. “This behavior is what most would consider verboten.”

It’s like there was a conspiracy in which white people decided to air all their racist, dirty laundry during African American History Month (AKA Black History Month). There seems to be some sick irony going on in which people cannot honor the contributions of African Americans to our society and they decided to distract everyone into talking about their offensive, racist mistakes in years prior. I’m, of course, not suggesting that literally everyone got together and planned this, but rather that it has that feel to it.

Yes, I’ve already seen [racists incidents] happen [at Central]. Someone will put a black face mask on and call themselves the n-word,” Amegadjie said. “It comes down to the way students are raised and educated, and how they are insensitive to an African American’s experience/struggle.”

Courtesy of NBC News
Gucci removed a black balaclava sweater from their online and physical stores.

Now public figures aren’t the only ones making gaffes. Companies like Gucci and Adidas did a wonderful job of doing this earlier last week. Gucci faced backlash over a black wool balaclava sweater with an oversized collar that pulls over the nose with a slot for the mouth surrounded by big red lips. Gucci subsequently removed the sweater from online and physical stores after cries of blackface came from across social media. Adidas also got into some trouble after producing an all white Ultraboost sneaker where the shoe was a part of the brand’s line for Black History Month. The line was supposed to honor the Harlem Renaissance, but decided to listen to what was trendy instead.

“I can tell you right now that [racist incidents} do happen [at] Central. I hear people saying questionable things all the time, and no one calls [them] out on it,” said Julia Radu, junior.

When Gov. Northam’s yearbook page was first discovered, he denied it was him in the photo.  He later rescinded and admitted that he was in the photo. This lack of transparency has led to many people calling for his resignation. Those that are supporting Northam have argued that the yearbook photo happened decades ago, and that he has changed and is a champion of black rights. He did call for the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces when he was running for Governor. Northam has said he will not resign even amid substantial pressure from Democratic leaders and Virginians. I do think he’s not a racist man waiting for his chance to vilify blacks, but I believe that every action has consequence and Northam needs to fully understand why blackface should not and will never be OK.

“I think that racism should definitely be called out where it’s due, in school or outside of it. Actually, I think it’s even more important that kids are reminded what being racist actually means, because I feel like the word has lost a lot of the power that it maybe once had,” Radu said. “However, if we continually bring up the history of looking at the perceived “faults” or “inferiority” of demographics, we’re never going to escape that mentality of having to categorize every person, specific to their race or ethnicity.”

Our country has not properly educated people about its racist and bloody history. It is as if after the 13 Amendment was passed, Americans thought ‘alright, blacks got the right to vote, now let’s just ignore the brutal history we made them endure.’ After the Civil Rights Movement, no one addressed the transgressions committed against African Americans and that’s why these incidents keeping coming to light.

In Liam Neeson’s case, what he admitted to was horrible, and while he thankfully didn’t actually go through with his violent urges, if he had it would’ve been a modern day lynching. People may think that Neeson’s situation isn’t as bad as the others, because he didn’t actually actually hurt anyone. But the fact that he was willing to target a random person just because they were black speaks a lot about his character. He was willing to let blind rage consume him and potentially kill someone, which is honestly terrifying to think about.

One positive way to move forward from these things is to acknowledge that everyone involved admits that their behavior and actions were horrible and offensive. People need to respect that these people are willing to face media tirade and hailstorm over their actions. Most people would never admit to a dark past like this.

“I think it’s because at the end of the day, a lot of people are just ignorant about how their actions or what they say is/are perceived by others,” Radu said. “At least, that’s the hope. I’m sure there are still a lot of people out there who are flat-out racist, and don’t care either way about whether what they do or say is moral or not.”

However disturbing these instances of blackface are, they provide good opportunity for our country to acknowledge its past and for Americans to grow from their past mistakes. What we can learn from Northam’s and other similar incidents, is that we need to keep the conversation about racism open and in the forefront.