What recent blackface scandals teach us about the miseducation of our nation

Discovering last week that two of the highest ranking officials in my state have a history of wearing blackface was appalling but not surprising. At the University of Virginia, I teach a course on the structural determinants of inequality. In this course, my students learn about the central role of white supremacy and racial violence in shaping our society.

They learn that racist ideology emerged out of the need to reconcile the dehumanizing and violent practice of slavery with Christianity as well as attempts at more humanistic secular thinking that emerged during the Enlightenment period.

ADVERTISEMENT

White supremacist mythology allowed whites to pretend that they were good people while brutalizing their fellow humans who they enslaved and killed in the name of profit. They also learn the ways that minstrelsy and blackface were used by whites in the decades following slavery to perpetuate negative stereotypes about blacks, strip black people of their humanity and uphold white supremacist ideology.

My students are all completing doctoral degrees at the university and frequently mention how shocked they are to learn our nation’s true history for the first time in graduate school. They lament that their earlier educational experiences completely omitted so many central elements of our history (e.g., black Codes, convict leasing, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, massive resistance, etc.) and stripped key historical figures of their racist ideologies and actions (e.g., Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Johnson). The historical content is disturbing but the students feel more unsettled at the fact that this information seems to have been intentionally hidden from them their entire lives. They wonder “How can this be?” But these students’ experiences are unfortunately not unique.

The intentional miseducation of our nation is by design and serves to maintain the status quo. For example, if we are all taught to believe that the current inequalities we see today stem from differences in intellect, ability and work ethic, then there is no need to feel guilty about one’s accomplishments and there certainly isn’t a need for governmental intervention to address inequality.

If we, however, are able to realize that centuries of policies and practices designed to oppress and disenfranchise black and brown people and unfairly privilege white people are responsible for the current state of our union, many of us may feel compelled to enact policies and practices aimed at undoing this harm (or at least cannot feel so smug about our current place in society). 

It is a less comfortable reality we must all come to live in and many with privileged status want to be shielded from that discomfort and responsibility.

Yet the calls for these officials’ resignations (Herring called for Northam’s before admitting to his own history of wearing blackface in college) have demonstrated the ways in which not knowing our country’s true history is becoming an increasingly untenable option, especially for those seeking leadership positions in our increasingly diverse country. 
 
Northam and Herring admitted to wearing blackface over 30 years ago, but blackface is hardly an issue buried in the past. Just two weeks ago, students at Oklahoma University posted video of themselves in blackface yelling racial slurs and in October, Megyn Kelly was fired over comments she made revealing her ignorance about the ruthless violence that blackface represents.
 
I can attest to how little knowledge our students have about our state’s and our nation’s white supremacist roots. Many students do not know that blackface was used to dehumanize black people and affirm white supremacy throughout the twentieth century. 
 
It is clear that Northam remains ignorant to this information today, as well. For example, to defend his use of blackface, he reported that he was unaware of the harm it caused because he was not a person of color. He also reported that a black staffer recently had to explain to him why blackface was problematic.
 
These comments indicate that many white Americans, even those who have been tasked with prominent leadership roles in diverse states, remain uninformed about our country’s racist past and rely on people of color to teach them this history. Notably, it is not black people’s job to teach white people about the harms associated with blackface; it is the job of our education system. Moreover, the history that needs to be taught is a shared history of this country that has implications for all of us. This is not black history; it is American history. 
 
In Virginia and beyond, we need leaders who possess a comprehensive understanding of our nation’s racist history (starting with slavery) so that they may effectively lead us to a more just and equitable future. We need leaders who can reform our racist criminal justice system, ensure voting rights for all, eliminate housing discrimination, close racial achievement gaps, and more. We must realize that now is the time to start preparing our country’s future leaders by properly educating them of our nation’s gruesome past today.

 

Noelle Hurd is the Scully Family Discovery associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. She teaches an undergraduate course titled Risk and Resilience among Marginalized Adolescents and a graduate seminar titled Structural Determinants of Inequality in the U.S.