SMITH: Blackface isn’t a part of the University’s past, it’s our present

The culture at the University around race and gender breeds an environment where students feel emboldened to participate in same despicable behavior as recent disgraced alums


The culture of the colleges that Northam, Herring and Fairfax attended doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it demonstrates an atmosphere of permissive values that allows certain individuals to flout their status above others.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Ever since the right-wing politics website, Big League Politics, revealed Governor Ralph Northam’s blackface yearbook photos during his time at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Virginia’s politics have been in a complete upheaval. Shortly after Northam’s disgrace, Attorney General Mark Herring revealed that he too dressed in blackface for a college party in order to dress “like rappers we listened to at the time.” During this time, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax seemed primed to replace Northam for the Governorship, only for his own alleged crimes to surface — Dr. Vanessa C. Tyson claims that Fairfax assaulted her during the 2004 Democratic Convention. Meredith Watson, a former Duke colleague of Fairfax, also came forward to recount her experience of Fairfax raping her during college. Fairfax made the initial statement that survivors must be given “the space and support to voice their stories,” only to say “Fuck that bitch” about Dr. Tyson behind closed doors. 

The wave of scandals coursing through the Commonwealth’s Democratic leadership hasn’t been confined by party lines. Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment’s yearbook contained images of students in blackface and others holding Confederate paraphernalia. In addition, Norment, who was the managing editor of Virginia Military Institute’s yearbook staff, published racial slurs against African American and Asian communities within the yearbook. As Professor Larry Sabato’s hashtag aptly states, Virginia is the #CommonwealthofChaos.   

With this unrelenting news cycle of scandals, Virginians are exhausted. The response from constituents and talking heads has been wide-ranging both in outcry and in defense of the accused. Much of the conversation — and many of the disgraced politicians press releases — rests on the politics of the past. Mark Herring’s admission of guilt to wearing blackface started with an empty caveat, “when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college.” Justin Fairfax has emphatically defended himself against allegations of assault — specifically referencing his “passing” two background checks by the FBI throughout the course of his career.

In these instances, both politicians frame their college years as an interstitial space before “real” adulthood, and more importantly, actual consequences. But as the scorching news cycle has presented, the harm these men have wrecked on their families, minority communities, women and their constituents is real and palpable. Moreover, it showcases that students’ conduct at their colleges or universities should be held to a higher standard. The culture of the colleges that Northam, Herring and Fairfax attended doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it demonstrates an atmosphere of permissive values that allows certain individuals to flout their status above others. This reinforces the power dynamic for white people to demean black people and men to rape women with little to no consequences.

Expanding on universities’ connections to their disgraced political alumni, Herring himself is a Hoo. His story as nineteen-year-old kid translates to the equivalent of a first or second-year student conducting themselves in the same way. While the University can try to escape scrutiny by pointing out that Herring’s blackface incident happened in the ‘80s as a past mistake or youthful misjudgment, the reality is that this institution’s culture on race hasn’t evolved. 

Cork and Curls, the University’s yearbook, directly refers to the process of dressing up in minstrel blackface — burned cork was used to darken one’s face and curly wigs were used to mimic the appearance of an afro. Rather than contend with the reality of their name, Corks and Curls uses a revisionist history to suggest that the name means something else entirely — the difference between a quiet and enthusiastically participating student. The shallow lie and the persistence of the name only continue to degrade minority communities on Grounds.

Unfortunately, blackface is a tradition that didn’t die out in the ‘80s. In 2002, some frat brothers wore blackface to a party co-hosted by Kappa Alpha and Zeta Psi, sending shockwaves throughout the community. Again in 2013, the same fraternity hosted a “Bombs over Baghdad” party, seemingly celebrating the 150,000 Iraqi civilians that died during the invasion. Just a week ago, Kappa Sigma brothers were documented wearing Native American headdresses — garb that holds spiritual and cultural significance for members of Native American plains tribes.

University students should hold themselves to high standards that alumni, such as Herring, have failed to meet. In a time where the University emphasizes the significance of Honor in the 21st century, an evolution of our idea of Honor to include treating women and minority peers with respect is sorely overdue. More importantly, students who have attended the University believe their conduct is above scrutiny — this needs to change. Performative justice also needs to be tossed out for real justice. Rather than supporting toothless initiatives for diversity, the University should sanction students who mock and/or threaten minority groups. 

Ultimately, the University may be right in that the institution produces the leaders for our generation. The culture we create on Grounds inculcates the type of merit that the next generation of politicians will believe to be the gold standard. It’s our job as a community to shift what Honor on Grounds means for us — otherwise we wait for the next graduates of the University to embarrass our name with a base level of behavior that has been accepted for far too long.

Katherine Smith is a Senior Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

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