Editor’s note: Guest writer, Georgia McDade offers an opinion piece on a current dilemma.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam should not resign. A staff worked on the yearbook. Most likely, there was a faculty advisor, perhaps more than one. How many people must have seen the photograph from its submission to its publication? There was no proofreader? No one saw the galley? Did not the printers see this photo? Nobody in the community complained when the yearbook arrived?
Of course, I believe the photo is offensive. I know there are other such photographs in the country; ever so often we hear of a fraternity or sorority—college students—using blackface at a party, in a contest, etc., today! The Northam photo is thirty-five years old! It was taken in medical school where most students have gone to college at least four years.
When I decided to write this article, I wanted to know Northam’s hometown, its size, the percentage of the populace who happen not to be white, race composition in his school, neighborhood. I was sure it was small. I thought, obviously, his family, most of the persons he came in contact with saw nothing wrong with blackface, never thought of themselves as prejudiced, never thought of people not like them. They may never have thought of racism. They had no need. He knew no better. He should be forgiven; he has made positive strides for all of the people in his state; that includes blacks.
But a quick glimpse showed me my conclusions were have wrong. The only assumption I got right was Northam’s coming from a small town. According to the 2000 census, his birthplace, Nassawadox, Virginia, had only 572 people in it; Onancock, Virginia, where he grew up, according to the 2010 census, had a population of 1,525 people, predominately white, almost 1/3 African Americans; in smaller percentages were Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics. I’m guessing both places were smaller when Northam was growing up. So, I cannot blame the offense on Northam’s having been in a cave of all whites, all ignorant of other races, living lives minus any experience of people not like them.
Without searching further, I decided that I know enough about some neighborhoods to make comments that aptly describe many neighborhoods. Because of segregation and class, the U. S. has countless neighborhoods that are heterogeneous.
Then I began to wonder where people learn about blackface and KKK robes. What makes them think dressing in this manner is harmless? Do they think nobody black will see it, that all whites agree with them, that no one will be offended? Or do they not care whether someone sees or is offended?
I always think if we can talk about a subject, we can at least make persons with opposing views see our views. Political correctness never entered my vocabulary—something of such import is correct or not correct. More and more, I’m beginning to change my mind about a resignation.
Northam apologized; then he said he was sure he’s not in the picture. He admitted that at another time he had put on blackface to be Michael Jackson. And I honestly believe he would have moonwalked for the press had his wife not said, “Inappropriate circumstances.” The governor ought to know better. He represents a state with people of at least four different ethnicities. He became governor not with white votes only. He represents Virginia inside and outside the state.
If Northam had admitted he made a mistake, said he should never have taken that picture, condemned the people in the picture or anyone else who thinks blackface and KKK robes and hoods are funny, I would agree that he should not resign. He could have said, “Most of my adult life has been spent making the world a better place; look at my record.”
I agree with Northam’s comment, “I would hope none of us are the same person we were thirty-five years ago.” I hope we’re more compassionate, tolerant, understanding, loving, forgiving. We need elected officials who possess these traits when we elect them. We should not have to teach them in office. Governor Northam should resign. After he learns more history, perhaps he should run again.
Georgia Stewart McDade, a Louisiana native who has lived in Seattle more than half her life, loves reading and writing. Earning a Bachelor of Arts from Southern University, Master of Arts from Atlanta University, and Ph. D. from University of Washington, the English major spent more than thirty years teaching at Tacoma Community College but also found time to teach on every level at several other institutions of learning.