Virginia, We Need To Talk

Virginia, We Need To Talk

One year ago this month, the news broke in Virginia that Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook page included a photo of a man in blackface standing aside another person in a KKK hood. He first responded in a video apologizing for the photo, then appeared at a press conference the following morning to say that, after reviewing the photo, he was sure it wasn’t him. In that same press conference, he also shared that he had worn blackface on a different occasion for a talent show, but didn’t know it was offensive until 2017 when it was explained to him during his time campaigning around the state. 

People on both sides of the aisle were outraged, embarrassed, and many called for his resignation. But Northam resisted these calls, promising to learn from his mistakes and do better. And he has done better. He started reading and learning more about racism, went on a listening tour across the state, supported the removal of Confederate statues and unveiled new monuments to Black Virginians, announced efforts to expand voter access, called for criminal justice reform, and signed an executive order that established a Commission on African American History Education that is reviewing Virginia’s history standards and is looking to make an African American Studies course available to all high schoolers across the state. He appears to be committed to “better tell[ing] our true story.” 

At last month’s State of the Commonwealth address, he shared: “Basic fairness and equity are the foundation of our legislative agenda for this session. If we are going to move forward as a Commonwealth, we must take an honest look at our past. We know that racial discrimination is rooted in many of the laws that have governed our Commonwealth. So we convened a Commission to examine overtly discriminatory language that’s still on our books…. Words matter. They represent who we are and what we value. Actions matter too. So it’s time to remove these words from Virginia’s books.”

On top of that, our State Superintendent, Dr. James Lane, launched the Virginia is for Learners initiative last year that emphasizes educational equity. I was honored to be a part of the advisory committee prior to launch and am proud of the conversations that are happening around Virginia about teaching our diverse students.

I’m proud of the work being done by my leaders in Virginia.

I’ve thought a lot about that weekend, though, when the photo was first released. If I were advising the governor, here is an approximation of the statement I might have written for him to give that Friday evening.

My fellow Virginians, earlier today a website published a photograph from my page in the 1984 EVMS yearbook in which two people are dressed in racist costumes, one in a Ku Klux Klan robe and the other in blackface. 

I have not seen the photograph yet, and do not know for certain whether I am one of the two people appearing in that photo. However, even if I am not the young man in that particular photo, I certainly could have been, as I did not understand the harmful impact of dressing myself in blackface, and did so on occasion in my youth. 

Since my time in medical school, I have devoted my life to public service, enlisting in the army and practicing as a pediatrician for over a decade before entering politics. I have spent my adult life learning from those around me and coming to a better understanding of the inequities in this country. And yet, it wasn’t until 2017 that I came to understand just how vile and racist it is to wear blackface.

Many will point to this admission and call me ignorant and racist. However, I choose to lift this up as an example of how deeply entrenched our country still is in a system of racism and white supremacy. If I, an intelligent, well-educated, progressive, justice-seeking man could go almost my entire life thinking blackface was innocent, funny, and harmless, we have a problem. 

No one individual is to blame for the institutionalization of racism in this country, but as a white man in this country, it is my responsibility to know better and to do better. 

While hurtful, disgusting, and racist, the behavior on display in this photograph is not the real problem. Rather, it is a symptom of a society in which white ideas, white culture, and white perspectives have shaped the narrative for our nation’s entire history. 

You may well ask: How can a well-educated adult man dedicated to public service not know that blackface is rooted in centuries of racism and oppression? Why didn’t he understand this part of our history? 

Why? Because nobody taught him. See, that’s the thing about being White in America. It affords us the privilege of not knowing better about racism unless we’re explicitly taught. 


Here’s the thing, grown-ups. We’re the teachers, now. So if our kids grow up with the same response? That they were never taught?

That’s on us.

Michelle Cottrell-Williams

Michelle Cottrell-Williams (she/her) is the 2018 Virginia Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She considers herself a disruptor and hopes to empower others to rethink the status quo. Michelle taught high school Social Studies in Arlington, VA for 13 years and now serves as an instructional coach and resource teacher for the gifted at Gunston Middle School. As an educator, she considers herself lucky to get to spend every day with incredible teens who are finding their voices and preparing to change the world.  

Michelle has taught many different subjects and levels of students but is most passionate about teaching for social justice and supporting English learners. Here, she finds the greatest opportunities to support students who sometimes struggle to feel like they belong. She was inspired by the work of Brené Brown to focus on forming relationships with students built on vulnerability, trust, and empathy. 

If Michelle had to choose which animal best represents her personality, it would have to be a unicorn: part glitter, part rebel. 

Connect with her on Twitter @WakeHistory and join her as she reflects, learns, and does better tomorrow.


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