IRC hosts event to honor Black History Month

The event “Where Do We Go From Here?” focused on the University's response to Gov. Northam’s scandal, Beta Bridge vandalism and cultural appropriation


The International Residential College hosted the event to discuss Gov. Ralph Northam's blackface scandal, cultural appropriation at Bid Day and white-supremacist graffiti on Beta Bridge.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

In honor of Black History Month, the International Residential College hosted an event entitled “Where Do We Go From Here?” Saturday afternoon to discuss Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-Va.) blackface scandal, Attorney General Mark Herring’s blackface confession, cultural appropriation at Bid Day, the Beta Bridge vandalism and issues of diversity at the University. 

The event was structured as a discussion circle and Grace Eva Leffler — a second-year College student and the minister of external relations of the IRC — moderated the conversation. Leffler started the discussion by touching upon Northam’s medical school yearbook photograph depicting a man in blackface and a man in Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam later denied being in the photo even though he initially apologized for it and instead admitted to wearing blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest in 1984. 

“No matter what age you are, if you were in Virginia in the 1980s, I’m pretty you should have been aware that wearing blackface is not okay,” first-year College student Camaran Gaillard said.

Students in attendance discussed the public calls for Northam’s resignation and the question of whether or not his views have changed in 35 years. Manan Shah, a first-year College student and event attendee, described the Governor's actions as “unforgiveable and immoral” but mentioned that Northam’s commitment to underrepresented minority groups might indicate a change in his character. 

Yudel Martinez, another attendee and first-year Engineering student, stated that Northam’s apology does not indicate growth.

“Through his response, he didn’t put forth this image that he had grown and changed,” Martinez said. “It seemed like he apologized just because he got into trouble. There also hasn’t been a lot of push backs from the legislators because if you dig into their history you will probably find something similar.”

Participants also talked about President Jim Ryan’s statement on Northam’s scandal. Ryan sent an email to the University Feb. 3, addressing the photograph and its impacts on the community and the Commonwealth. Some of the attendees said they believed Ryan indirectly called for Northam’s resignation in his email.

“When you are a public figure, you have to tread lightly and carefully,” Martinez said. “But he also has to represent the school and the beliefs of the school through what he publicly states.He is treading lightly without unnecessarily telling an official he should step down while still maintaining the theme of what the University and students believe in.” 

During the discussion, students also talked about the white supremacist message painted on Beta Bridge Jan. 17. A mural celebrating the historically-black sorority Zeta Phi Beta’s Founders’ Day was vandalized with the slogan “It’s OK to be White,” a phrase frequently used online by white nationalists.The phrase “it’s OK to be white” started on 4chan, an online discussion board, in 2017 and was co-opted by groups like the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist website The Daily Stormer.

“What’s wrong about having conversations about what has happened in the past?” Gaillard said. “Then to put a slogan on top of another message is itself trying to supercede a message that had nothing to do with race at all. It’s someone celebrating their Founders’ Day. That’s the problem.” 

Attendees also addressed the cultural appropriation allegations surrounding the Kappa Sigma fraternity and Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. An online photograph featured the members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house wearing Native American attire at their Bid day event. Zeta Tau Alpha sisters also faced criticism for wearing sombreros and holding maracas at their chapter-sponsored event.

Some of the participants said that the context and the intentions behind wearing another culture’s clothings should be considered and people should not be attacked if their intentions are not “malicious.” Other attendees disagreed and stated wearing traditional ethnic clothings just with the intent of looking fashionable is disrespectful to other cultures.

“Generally speaking as an Indian, our culture is diverse and there are so many attires to wear,” Shah said. “When people wear that attire just to look fancy or cool, it's insulting because they’re not wearing it to represent our culture, and they don’t know what that attire means. It’s not about malicious intents behind wearing that — it’s mostly about ignorance.”

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