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 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.
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.
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.
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 Americas 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.
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.
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.