Virginia Tech professor explains history behind blackface, why it’s offensive

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A Virginia Tech professor is explaining the history behind blackface and why it is offensive.

As the blackface photo scandal continues, more people are coming forward with the offensive photos. Like the news Wednesday of the Attorney General admitting to wearing blackface at a party.

Virginia Tech Africana Studies & Sociology Professor Wornie Reed says blackface started in the first half of the 19th century by entertainers who were making fun of black people for comedy.

“It was always something that was by definition and by act disparaging to African Americans,” said Reed.

He said it occurred before the end of slavery and after slavery. It typically portrayed black people are dumb and happy-go-lucky and even suggested that they were happy as slaves he explained.

“In all instances, these acts of applying blackface and acting and mimicking lazy, shiftless dumb black, were in support of white supremacy.”

Reed says there was institutional support for the racist photos that ended up in a yearbook.

“The medical school supported this. And of course they came out and said it does not comport with their ideals now, but we have to admit that it did then.”

That’s something that caught some, like Virginia Tech freshman Calvin Woehrly, off guard.

“When I first heard about it I was kind of surprised that made it into a yearbook. That’s really not the kind of thing we expect to see in a yearbook, especially now,” said Woehrly.

“But it says a lot about the culture of when it was made, that that had to go through a couple of people to actually get put in the yearbook. And it’s just kind of crazy that it actually got put in a yearbook.” 

He says it wasn’t acceptable no matter when it was done, and certainly not in the 80s which weren’t that long ago.

“I was a veteran professor in 1984. That is not long ago, so it is offensive. It wasn’t long ago, and even when it was long ago, it was offensive.”

That’s something that current college students agree with. 

“Even if it happened so long ago, back then it was wrong. And it’s still wrong today. SO I don’t think it happening 30 years ago is a valid argument,” said Virginia Tech Freshman Ramya Kuruba.

She says there’s no excuse for it as a costume or anything else.

“They can say it was a joke or whatever it was, but it’s still offensive and I don’t think they should be doing it.”

Professor Reed says it’s important for race relations to keep having this discussion about why this is wrong, and widen it to more than just this instance because unfortunately these were not isolated instances.

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