Virginia politics and turmoil have been best friends since the revelation that the current Virginia governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, allegedly wore blackface to a party in his medical school days in Norfolk, Virginia. Northam apologized after the news broke, which involved a 1980s-era yearbook, for his use of blackface. The image has someone in blackface standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
To help students process the controversy and their emotions, northern Virginia-based George Mason University held a 90-minute event to help students cope with the news. During the event, some students said that Northam’s resignation would be the right decision for the state. About 45 students attended the venting session, which was required as a part of the course Introduction to Conflict Analysis.
The event details were e-mailed out to students by the university’s vice president of compliance, diversity and ethics, Julian Williams. Williams said the blackface photo “sparked many conversations in our community relevant to racism, marginalization, reconciliation, and leadership accountability.” The purpose of the event was to provide a safe space for students to discuss their feelings and thoughts.
Safe spaces are created when university administrators, faculty members or students designate an event or space where people can feel safe and freely discuss their feelings, hoping that their peers would not judge them.
The university’s College Democrats have called for the governor’s resignation, in addition to other groups calling for his resignation. State party leaders for Democrats and Republicans asked that Northam resign due to the blackface photo revelation, including members of the state’s congressional black caucus legislators.
But, the saga did not end with the publishing of the image of blackface. The following day at a press conference, Northam said it could not have been him, but revealed to the press that he did use blackface once before. He said he used shoe polish to dress up as musician Michael Jackson.
Northam has since refused to resign, claiming that as a former doctor, he can be the person to heal the state’s wounds after the controversy. In addition to the blackface controversy, his lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, has been accused of sexually assaulting two women, which he claims were consensual encounters. The state’s third-in-command, Attorney General and Democratic politician Mark Herring, also confessed to the state’s congressional black caucus legislators that he too used blackface once in college.