WASHINGTON — “I’m not shocked.”
The room quieted as Drey Awosika, a 21-year-old senior at George Washington University, spoke. “Racism exists,” she said. “It’s always been there.”
Awosika addressed a classroom of about 20 people in George Washington’s bustling Duquès Hall. In the lobby, a tour guide eagerly explained the building’s history to a group of prospective students and parents. Students chatted while waiting in line for coffee.
But in the classroom where Awosika joined faculty and students earlier this month for an impromptu “Teach-in on Blackface,” the mood was somber.
After a racist photograph surfaced in the 1984 medical school yearbook of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, D, this month, and similar photographs were found in old GWU yearbooks, the campus has found itself grappling with racism in the United States.
Amid a nationwide reckoning, the university’s Multicultural Student Services Center, the Africana Studies program and professors in the school’s American studies and English departments decided to organize a discussion on the history of blackface and minstrel shows and the use of racist photographs.
“I thought all of the bad news coming out of Virginia could be a teachable moment,” said Gayle Wald, professor of American studies at GWU who helped organize the event. “Like, what is its meaning? What is its implications for George Washington?”
Northam is still facing calls to resign over the pictures in his medical school yearbook and his acknowledgment that he darkened his face to resemble Michael Jackson in a dance contest. The Northam scandal kicked off a wave of yearbook digging, with racist photographs found in yearbooks at the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina and the University of Virginia, among others.
On Feb. 8, the GW Hatchet student news outlet published images from old GWU yearbooks of people wearing blackface and others in the white hoods identified with the Ku Klux Klan. The incident comes a year after two sorority members of George Washington’s Alpha Phi chapter posted a photo on Snapchat holding a banana with a caption that reads: “Izzy: I’m 1/16 black.”
University President Thomas LeBlanc acknowledged the 1960s-era photos from the Cherry Tree yearbook at a Feb. 8 meeting with the school’s Board of Trustees.
“It’s important for us to acknowledge our history, even when we don’t like what we see,” LeBlanc said. “Racism has no place at GW, and we will work every single day to create a welcoming, inclusive community for all. And we will continue to learn from our past and try to be more inclusive now and in the future.”
At the teach-in, students said the yearbooks are a symptom of the larger cultural problems at GWU. Soorer Bulhan, a 22-year-old senior, said she is the only black student in two of her classes this semester. “There needs to be more representation in classrooms,” she said. “Black students shouldn’t feel uncomfortable in class, like they’re intruding on a space.”
George Washington lags behind the national average for black and Hispanic student enrollment. Hispanic students make up 21.4 percent of the national college-age population but just 8.3 percent of GWU undergraduates in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Black student undergraduate enrollment at GWU in 2015 was 5.99 percent compared to 14.7 percent nationwide.
Some students expressed fear that the volume of racist photographs surfacing could normalize blackface. “People see it in the news so much now that they’ve become desensitized to it,” Lauren Bordeaux, a 19-year-old freshman at George Washington, said.
Bordeaux added that since the GW Hatchet published the photographs from the university’s yearbooks, she has felt uncomfortable on campus. “As a black student, walking around campus knowing our school’s history, you feel unwelcome and awkward,” she said. Students nodded their heads in agreement.
Professors who attended the teach-in — two were white and two were black — asked students, the majority of whom were black, how they could help improve the campus environment. “There’s an energy from my students like, ‘What do we do next?’ “ said Nicole Ivy, a professor of American studies.
Awosika was quick to answer. “Be present, show up to town halls and cultural events supporting minority students, come and support us,” she said.