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On Well-Intended White Folks: Thoughts on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the Making of a Public Image

Illustration for article titled On Well-Intended White Folks: Thoughts on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and the Making of a Public Image
Photo: Win McNamee (Getty Images)

Less than eight months ago, after delivering a speech to a room full of educators about teaching strategies to help educators acknowledge and heal from a history of racism in education, I took a seat to hear the Gov. Ralph Northam speak. After expressing his commitment to educational justice, he held my book, For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood ... and the Rest of Y’all Too, in his hands and told an auditorium full of educators and school leaders to “... get this damn book.” It was a flattering endorsement of my work from an elected official. I was deeply humbled.

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After the event, we shared an intimate moment where he mentioned that he played basketball in a desegregated school during a troubling time in Virginia’s past. He mentioned that his high school graduating class was mostly African American. He told me that his experiences during desegregation shaped him and his outlook on educational equity. In that moment, I was convinced he was one of the good guys. This was a politician who understood how race and class could not be swept under the rug and needed to be faced head on in order to provide a sound education for all young people.

After the event, I was invited to the Virginia governor’s mansion where Northam’s wife, Pamela, and I discussed education in Virginia and their shared belief that students of all races and creeds should have access to an education that instilled a sense of pride in their racial heritage and culture. At one point, we stood in front of a painting of Barbara Rose John that hangs prominently in the mansion. In 1951, Barbara was a 16-year-old who led a strike for equal education in Virginia. She was a revolutionary whose protest led to one of the law cases that folded into the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Because of Barbara Rose John and people like her, “separate but equal” schooling was defeated in this country. Knowing that her portrait was chosen to adorn the walls of the mansion struck me deeply. I was convinced that it was chosen to represent what the Northam’s stood for.

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As we stood in this beautiful mansion before a painting that celebrated the life of a radical young black protestor, I almost ignored the narrow set of steps just feet away that seemed much smaller than all the other stairs. I later learned that those stairs had been reserved for “the help” in a past life of the mansion. It didn’t bother me. The short narrative I was told about the slave quarters that were housed right outside the main mansions windows didn’t mean much to me either. What I held on to was the careful curation of stories and artifacts that were presented to me as a representation of the governor and what he stands for. I focused on the story of a young white boy in a mostly black school who was struck by inequity and injustice. That boy went on to become a doctor and then a military officer and then a governor who used his platform to fight for those who he had seen being wronged. This was a person who chose to have Barbara Rose John’s picture hang on the executive mansion wall.

Christopher Emdin and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pamela.
Christopher Emdin and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife, Pamela.
Photo: Ashley Coby

On Friday night, as news broke about the pictures that were in Northam’s medical school yearbook, I was stunned. However, what struck me the most was not the pictures themselves, but that the pictures were carefully curated by the governor. As an adult, after what he witnessed with the desegregation of schools, those images were what he chose to represent who he is. He selected them like Barbara Rose John’s portrait. As I thought more deeply about the news story, I started wondering if he single handedly curated this yearbook page. The answer (contrary to what news reports are saying) is no. In many ways, the page from the yearbook was co-curated by this country. That medical school yearbook page is vintage Americana. America is white folks in blackface, Ku Klux Klan members, and white dudes with carefree poses in front of a classic Corvette. The Corvette is America’s sports car. The KKK is America’s hate group. Jim Crow is America’s legacy. In 1984, when that yearbook page was put together, an aversion for blackness and a celebration of white supremacy was so accepted, it wasn’t questioned by the medical school who put the yearbook together. This means that the underlying sentiment behind the picture was endorsed by an institution that abides by the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors take “…to partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time” while not valuing the life of black people and not caring to gain their respect.

Today, as everyone indicts the governor for his racism and everyone professes to stew in anger at how he has let down his constituents, I am most disturbed by the ways that we allow folks to construct progressive public personas that are allowed to mask a problematic past even as the country endorses the past and the masking. WE have allowed people to use buzzwords like equity and social justice to mask their racism. WE have allowed sitting next to the right people or hanging the right painting to erase things they have done that cause pain. WE have failed to allow folks to face their history and the part they play in what they profess to fight against. It is easy to advocate for something without acknowledging that you are part of what caused it. It is easy for the governor to denounce the hatred in Charlottesville without acknowledging that he is a branch of the tree that the hate there grew from.

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Today, the unearthing of that abhorrent picture from the governor’s yearbook leads every black constituent to be framed as the Jim Crow image in the photo. It brings black folks in Virginia and beyond to feel the terror of being led by a Klansmen. Black folks will always question if this is how the governor sees them. They will never know who is leading them. Is it the local boy who learned from desegregation or the man who hates black people?

When a curated progressive persona reveals itself to be a new iteration of the same old racism, it hurts. It takes the wind out of the sails of black folks who thought they were headed to a promised land of equity and freedom with the support of an ally.

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To the education community, this is why we focus on anti-racist teaching and the need for teachers to confront their past and present biases when working with communities of color. In moments like these, I become more keenly aware of the racism that is being masked by carefully curated words. I grow increasingly more sensitive to disingenuous celebrations of Black History Month by folks who don’t see our history without their supremacy. I become more aware that created artifacts that look and sound good (like equity-focused curriculum), when enacted by racist people, only serves to distract from racism and not address it. Most importantly, I am keenly aware that racism has been deposited into the fabric of this country. It is in every fiber of the very fabric we use to mask it. It is woven into portraits of Barbara Rose John, deeply embedded in equity-themed academic standards, present in stories of desegregation and stamped into pedagogies of inclusion. It is worn by those who profess to be our strongest allies and we won’t know it until they reveal themselves or their pasts do.


Christopher Emdin is an associate professor of science education at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood… and the Rest of Ya’ll Too.

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DISCUSSION

endsongx23
Dane La Born - EndsongX23

I would like to ask an honest question without getting ripped an entirely new asshole, so please read this until the actual end of what I type.

So, the part where he’s denying its even him is what bothers me. I don’t undersatnd why he doesn’t just take responsiblity for stupid teenage shitheadedness. I’m half native, my name is Youngblood-La Born, i was adopted by someone and it sounded better for writing and art so i kept with that so I’m not coming at this as a pure white person, but I have white skin and am, despite being half blood, white as fuck. I’m not saying what dude did was okay, I’m just remembering my own brand of teenage stupidity.

My Deadjournal is full of the N-word (which i really hate saying because it feels like a fucking copout; im still saying the word im just making you say it instead of saying it myself) and my comment section is “whats worse than one dead baby” with 1, 2, 3, ‘comments’ equaling ‘dead babies’.

My friend Kendall and I used to go to the NWA Mall where I would actively, with his encouragement, call him the N-word LOUDLY as he offered shoe-shines and tap dances to old white people for a nickel.

I was awful, WE were awful, and it was all racist but we weren’t racist we were “punk rock” and trying to get a rise out of people. I’ve refused to delete that deadjournal with its copious use of racial slurs and horrible taste jokes on the thought that, if i ever actually do publish anything worthwhile and that gets “found” (i wouldnt be hiding it though), I can say, in honesty, that this was a stupid 16 year old making really really stupid jokes, with and without friends, with and without POCs, and that I leave it there because it’s something I did and shouldnt erase but take responsibility for the stupidity of.

I don’t understand why the immediate instinct is defensive and not admitting that you were a stupid fuck kid who was either doing something for the shock value of it or was a shit head that grew out of that. I don’t know about the VA governor that much, but speaking from my own shitheaded past, isn’t it better to just admit that you were a dumb fuck?