Blackface and Other Ugly Truths. Not Just a Southern Thing.

I have lived in Michigan all my life. I never thought of myself as a Yankee until I started working for an education nonprofit based in the South and quickly picked up that nickname–as well as a reputation for being on the side of teachers’ unions (guilty), and outspoken in a way that was downright unladylike. Nobody ever said ‘Bless your heart’ to me.

In fact, it’s easy for folks who don’t live in the South to feel a little smug about being on the right side of the War Between the States, even though it happened more than 150 years ago. Northern educators are fond of pointing out that the lowest-achieving states tend to cluster across the south-eastern tier of the United States.

We are seldom encouraged, however, as teachers, to think about the range of historical and economic streams—or the policy wars—that led to such disparate outcomes. Worse, we’re not pressed to ask what we can do to address and support equity and justice nationwide in an economy that is increasingly global. We get let off the hook sometimes.

The recent outrage over Ralph Northam’s yearbook photo, and his fumbling response, is a case in point. As Teju Cole points out in a New Yorker podcast, white men of a certain age grew up in a deeply racist culture, and not much has changed since then. Since Reconstruction, blackface and minstrelsy have been used to belittle black Americans. We are nowhere close to reconciling our national shame over deep-seated scars of injustice.

The difference with Northam—what separates him from other political leaders who went to school in the 1980s– is that Northam got caught. And once caught, seemed to have no idea how to express shame, humbly ask for forgiveness, admit that he needs to be educated about his failures, past and present, use his own guilt to lead people in a new direction– and so on.

It’s not the call of non-Virginians, of course, but I think Ralph Northam should resign, even though by most accounts, he’s been a good governor. I also thought my previous governor, Rick Snyder, should resign in disgrace over decisions that led to poisoning the water in Flint, then withholding the truth from the citizens of Michigan. Somehow, however, white men of a certain age can survive insulting—or poisoning—black people. If that’s not insidious racism, I don’t know what is.

There’s been some recent conversation about the biased and inaccurate teaching of history and social studies, in the South particularly, which strikes me as just another way to point fingers at schools, rather than acknowledging that schools are a stage where society plays out its deepest values and goals.

Teachers in the North and the South have chronically bungled the topic of slavery, for starters, but it goes deeper than that. Schools are also a stage where assumptions and taboos and unexamined but common practices play out.

I personally have been warned by an administrator not to ‘focus’ on the African roots of the music my students were marinating in, for example, because parents might not like it. Teachers in all parts of the country tangle daily with politically incorrect ideas and forbidden issues—and not just in Civics class. You’d be surprised what first graders ‘know’ and want to share with their little friends.

Recently, a retired teacher buddy asked me if I remembered ‘slave sales’ being a part of Spirit Week at my school. My friend had been tracking a FB page where adults who went to high school together were lamenting the fact that the ‘fun’ things they did (including a ‘slave sale’ assembly) were now banned. Political correctness run amok was the consensus, among the dozens of commenters. It was all in fun. Wasn’t it? The teachers participated, after all, and the school allowed it. Even worse, there were black and white photos shared, including someone in a KKK hood, and a person in a noose.

A female classmate had called the commenters out, saying this is horrible now and was horrible then. She posted a link on hidden biases, asking folks to turn the conversation toward an examination of why this was considered OK behavior.  This led to a lot of irritated mansplaining and rationalizing and attempts to call HER out. (Who is she, anyway? I don’t remember her.)

Talk about discouraging.

The worst thing for me was that I did remember a ‘slave auction’ at my middle school, in the late 70s or early 80s. It had been a tradition there for years, as a fundraiser for something—the cheerleaders were offered up ‘for sale’ and did the bidding of their ‘owners’ for a day. The auction was shut down when a group of boys pooled their money to buy a cheerleader, then brought out a saddle and put it on her. The principal stepped into the mix (finally) and that was the end of ‘slave’ auctions.

So–let’s not get on our high horses about better behavior in any part of the country.

In the New Yorker podcast, Teju Cole was asked if the Northam affair might be a national tipping point, in our awareness, disapproval and extinguishing of racist behaviors. No, he said. We have no idea what conciliation or reparations look like. We’re currently living with the backlash against a black President. The best we can hope for is incremental growth toward equity.

Is Teju Cole right?  DfVv5LRVAAIyP_F

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