'He Should Have Known Not To Do This': Richmond Students Talk About Northam The situation around the top elected officials in Richmond, Va., is perplexing to many, including students and teachers in the state. Some are seizing the moment to talk about it.
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'He Should Have Known Not To Do This': Richmond Students Talk About Northam

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'He Should Have Known Not To Do This': Richmond Students Talk About Northam

'He Should Have Known Not To Do This': Richmond Students Talk About Northam

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

After the racist photo in Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's 1984 yearbook was made public, both he and the state's attorney general, Mark Herring, admitted to wearing blackface years ago. As the scandals roil on, teachers and students in and around the capital of Virginia, Richmond, are talking it through in classrooms. WCVE's Megan Pauly has this story.

MEGAN PAULY, BYLINE: Justin Daniels is 18 and in his senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond.

JUSTIN DANIELS: I just want to know why anyone would think it was a good idea to put that photo in that yearbook.

PAULY: He and some friends are sitting around a picnic table talking about the news that has consumed their city this week.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Why he didn't check to see if it was in there and was like, hey, don't put that in there.

PAULY: Justin is African-American, like most of the students at Thomas Jefferson. One thing they're asking themselves, whether Northam and Herring's decisions to put shoe polish and brown makeup on their faces 30 years ago could be chalked up to youthful indiscretion. Hannah Clark says no.

HANNAH: I'm 16 years old, and I know not to do that.

PAULY: She wants to see Northam resign, pointing out he was an adult when he dressed up as Michael Jackson in blackface.

HANNAH: Now, I know that the time period might be different. But I don't want to create excuses for this man because he was a man at that point. He should have known not to do this.

PAULY: Geovanny Mejia, another student here, says if one of their white friends did that today, they'd get beaten up.

GEOVANNY MEJIA: I'm not sure why it took us this long to get to that conclusion that it is bad to do blackface. And, like, after all - like, it was just used to ridicule black people. And, like, why would it even cross your mind that that would be a good idea to do and, like, oh, ha, it's so funny.

PAULY: Justin, Hannah and Geovanny, they're all taking the same art class. Their teacher, Stuart Harnsberger, has been pulling Richmond's current events into his lesson plans. He shows me a minstrel video he shared with his students.

STUART HARNSBERGER: "Sand Dance" - yep, there it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

NED HAVERLY: (Singing, unintelligible).

HARNSBERGER: I think the vast majority of the class knew what blackface was or is. And I think - I don't know that too many had seen an actual example.

PAULY: He says most of his students seemed shocked and alarmed at what they heard and saw.

HARNSBERGER: I think each time that we have these discussions in class, I'm able to earn a little bit of trust from students because I'm not going to shut them down. And we're trying to operate on the idea that anybody's opinion is worth hearing.

PAULY: I asked him if he thinks the conversations will shape how students think about their own actions going forward.

HARNSBERGER: That's the hope. You know, for example, this morning I was walking around in the cafeteria. And a student pulled out her phone and showed me an image of a Gucci sweater that indicated somebody with blackface on the sweater. And it apparently got pulled from Gucci.

PAULY: Nick Cenname teaches eighth grade civics in a neighboring school district. He says he felt like he and his students couldn't ignore the noise from the state capital just 15 minutes away.

NICK CENNAME: So I let them look at the photo. And they were, like, wow - like, that's pretty racist - you know, after we had the discussion about what blackface was and stuff. And then when I told them who he was, they're like, whoa.

PAULY: And, he says, the conversations are helping engage students who might not otherwise care.

CENNAME: One kid told me he downloaded the CNN app on his phone, just to see what was going on with the governor of Virginia. And I was like, that's great, man. If that's what it takes for you - if scandal is what it takes to get you involved in current events, then that's fine.

PAULY: Justin Daniels, the senior from Thomas Jefferson, says he's disappointed with how little progress the country has made when it comes to these issues.

JUSTIN: I feel like as a whole in America, we've been putting off the conversation. And people keep saying that we can't get over racism. But we've never really, like, talked about it openly - like, because it feels like people are too scared to talk about it because it'll I guess open up old wounds that really have never healed. I mean, is it really an old wound if the wound is, like, fresh every day?

PAULY: He's not exactly sure where the conversation should go next. The most important thing, he says, is that they keep having them. For NPR News, I'm Megan Pauly in Richmond, Va.

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