When Nobody’s Looking: the Northam Moment! – by Terry Howard

Sigh, here we are again folks. Race…America…2019!

Like those meddlesome spring dandelions in the front yard, the specter of race keeps coming up as a slap upside the head reminder of how far we’ve come yet how far we need to go. One step forward, two, three, four, five steps back.

Here’s the latest “what the heck was he thinking” moment; one, I add with disgust, broke in the headlines on the first day of African American History Month in a state where 400 years ago the first slaves were hauled off in chains onto the shores in Virginia.

“Yes, that was me in that yearbook picture and I apologize,” admitted a squirming, embarrassed Ralph Northam, Virginia’s governor and “star” of the latest chapter in our never-ending narrative on race in America. A day later he backtracked – a reverse Michael Jackson “moonwalk” in blackface that he admitted to – with a denial that he was in fact in the picture. And like wildfire, calls for his noggin and resignation rippled across the nation dripping with the word “racist,” knocking the Mueller investigation, a wall on the southern border and an upcoming super bowl out of the headlines.

Believe him or not, please hold this situation in your mind for now. There are some important lessons in life that we can extract from the governor’s hooded ghosts from his past.

But first this.

The old expression that a person’s real character is evident by what they do when nobody’s looking (or think nobody’s looking) is on point. And given that the Northam bruhaha happened in my home state this is personal, very personal.

Here’s why.

Not to cast dispersion on the Eastern Virginia Medical School, Northam’s alma mater, or its students past or present, but I am unnerved at the thought that some, many or a lot of those who participated in or sat silently during those acts of racism are now practicing physicians – I repeat that, practicing physicians! If black lives didn’t matter to them as medical students, how could this have played out in levels of care provided to African-American patients since then?

Now if I could sit face to face with those medical students back then who knew – or should have known – about the damaging effects of blatant acts of racism back then, I’d pose the following questions to them:

  1. Knowing what you know now and back then, what could you have done differently to interrupt what happened?
  2. If you knew deep inside that the acts were morally repulsive and wrong, why on Earth did you do nothing?
  3. And last, what’s the possibility that unconscious bias against people of color, African-Americans in particular, may have infested your medical practice since then?

Let’s go a bit deeper with this “nobody’s looking” mindset using the recent super bowl as our backdrop.

Did the Northam matter surface during a super bowl party I attended, primarily with “my own kind?” Absolutely. Did it come up in other homes, bars, etc., with others amid “their own?” My hunch is that it did. Some of them anyway.

So, what did we/you say about the Northam situation in the comfort of “our own,” things we/you would dare not say in the presence of “those others?” And what does all this say about us?

In the end, to Northam’s back-slapping, beer guzzling, blackface painted pals back then who are now practicing physicians, do not doubt for a moment that “nobody’s looking” at your beautifully-framed medical degree on the wall when they walk into your office while wondering what you did or not do at that time or during the years since then.

So, if you really think that “nobody’s looking,” (or tape recording) think again.

Terry Howard

One thought on “When Nobody’s Looking: the Northam Moment! – by Terry Howard”

  1. I was heartbroken when the photo was revealed. I had briefly met Gov. Northam last year, and had followed his tenure as LT Governor and his campaign. His record in office had been one of inclusion and equality. He has been a champion of expanding access to health care, of restoring voting rights to those who have served their sentences, and has vocally called out statewide and national politicians who are currently engaging in racist rhetoric, and provided a very clear alternative to the openly racist Corey Stewart in the last election. Although his response to the photos has been ambiguous at best, and is very inadequate. I am not aware of any allegations of racist behavior since the medical school yearbook was published. I know I have said things decades ago that I deeply regret now. I told transphobic and homophobic “jokes” that I abhor today as a proud trans woman in a same gender marriage. The point of restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have served their sentences is that people can change, that they can be rehabilitated. That they should not be judged solely for what they did years ago, but also by how they have lived their live since and what they have done to make amends for their transgressions. I hope people view Northam through that lens.

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