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When White People Say, ‘That’s Bad!’ It Matters

By Abe Haile

A page from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photographed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 2019. The page has four photos: on the top left, a portrait of Ralph in a suit and time; in the middle, a candid photo of Northam standing outside, trees in the background; bottom left is Northam seated on the ground beside a convertible; and on the right side is a candid photo of two people, the one on the left in blackface, the one on the right in a klansman's robe and hood. Below that photo states, "Alma Mater: Virginia Military Institute; Interest: Pediatrics; Quote: There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I'll have another beer."
A page from the 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook photographed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Feb. 1, 2019. The page has four photos: on the top left, a portrait of Ralph in a suit and time; in the middle, a candid photo of Northam standing outside, trees in the background; bottom left is Northam seated on the ground beside a convertible; and on the right side is a candid photo of two people, the one on the left in blackface, the one on the right in a klansman’s robe and hood. Below that photo states, “Alma Mater: Virginia Military Institute; Interest: Pediatrics; Quote: There are more old drunks than old doctors in this world so I think I’ll have another beer.”

I’m willing to bet you and everyone you know had never heard of Virginian Governor Ralph Northam before this month. A racist photo from Northam’s medical yearbook surfaced depicting two individuals—one dressed in minstrel blackface and the other in full Klansman garb.

Keep in mind this year book page in question was Northam’s personal page with four pictures he handpicked and submitted to the yearbook committee.

Northam initially apologized for taking part in this 1984 racist buffoonery, then changed his story less than 24-hours later, claiming he was neither of the gentlemen in the photo. Unsolicited, he did however admit to dressing up in blackface for an unrelated Michael Jackson costume just a few months after the photo in question.

Let’s give Wreck-It Ralph the benefit of the doubt and assume he wasn’t either of the distinguished racist doctors in that ‘good ole boys’ photo. Then, let’s ask him why he—as a 25-year-old medical student—felt this picture would stand the test of time any better than a Harlem Shake tattoo.

I’m more curious about this nuance than any other aspect of the story. In fact, as an American black man, I don’t find this story all that shocking.

Blackface worn by white performers in America is synonymous with Jim Crow laws intended to keep African-Americans segregated to a lower quality of life. Blackface was one of the original racist fear-mongering tactics used in this country to spread hateful stereotypes about black citizens.

It’s not that I don’t care that Ralph Northam wore blackface. I just don’t find it all that alarming that a 25-year-old man who grew up in the capital state of the confederacy might have been a racist college kid. Call it desensitization if you please, but black people have been putting up with mainstream blackface right into this decade.

Unlike Ralph Northam, I am willing to bet you and your closest people have heard of both Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon. Within the last 20 years, both of these highly successful late-night talk show hosts have dressed up in blackface on their respective prior television gigs. Kimmel on multiple occasions went blackface as both Oprah Winfrey and Karl Malone (retired NBA Hall of Famer) on The Man Show. And Fallon donned dark brown makeup to impersonate comedian Chris Rock during a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Fox News was quick to pounce on the Jimmy’s for being the only two late night hosts to conveniently omit the Democratic Ralph Northam’s story from their monologue all week.

But the late-night hosts aren’t the only famous white people who have thrown blackface caution to the wind in recent years. In 2012, Billy Crystal wore blackface to impersonate Sammy Davis Jr. during the Academy Awards. Robert Downy Jr. found time to change out of his Iron Man suit in May 2008 and into blackface for Tropic Thunder (August 2008). The Ben Stiller-directed movie grossed $188 million worldwide and sat at #1 in the box office for four consecutive weeks.

So, excuse me for finding it odd that white politicians have for some reason chosen now to start “caring” about this extremely racist display. It just seems like this learning opportunity is being co-opted for ulterior motives.

4:39 PM – Feb 2, 2019: President Trump tweets Ralph Northam’s behavior is “Unforgivable!”

4:59 PM – Feb 9, 2019: President Trump tweets on Elizabeth Warren entering the presidential race: “…Pocahontas, joined the race for President…See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” Trail of course referring to the Trail of Tears in which tens of thousands of Native Americans died in blatant genocide as the result of the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

6:53 AM – Feb 10, 2019: President Trump tweets: “African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!”

I appreciate the President speaking on behalf of African Americans. And I’d like to add my own thoughts. Northam said in a press conference that he learned how hurtful his Michael Jackson blackface was shortly after wearing the costume thanks to a conversation he had with a person of color. The Governor says he learned from this discussion how racist blackface is and that he apologized to the man and swore to never do it again.

Look at Northam’s track record and determine for yourself if in fact he genuinely learned anything from this said transformational conversation with a person of color: He’s against Confederate statues in public, he’s advocated for Virginia’s poor by working to expand Medicaid, and he has worked to remove policies prohibiting felons from voting (credit to Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 4, 2019).

So, what’s it going to be America? Are we going to retroactively punish every white person who has ever donned blackface now that our racist President has deemed the act “unforgivable”?

Given that a recent poll found that 39% of white American adults say the use of blackface as part of a Halloween costume can be acceptable, I’m not sure a zero-tolerance punishment approach is going to serve us in the long-run.

Instead, I wonder how many white Americans who have worn blackface are humble and brave enough to engage in a difficult blackface conversation with a black person where they might hear how hurtful their behaviors were to a fellow American. What if Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon each held an intentional listening session with a black American on live television?

It’s that kind of accountability that can really produce results.

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Happy Black History Month!

By Raegan Quattlebaum

This post will be the first of many in a series I’d like to call The Young, The Black, and The Professional, where I will be discussing my experience as a young black professional in a white dominated space and city.

Who is this for?

Today’s message is specifically for my fellow people of color (POC) who encounter microaggressions in their daily lives. However, ff you don’t identify as a POC, don’t worry. This message applies to you too. That’s the beauty of our intersectional identities!

I promise that most people will be able to relate to some part of this post.

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Equity in Fundraising: Why Every Supporter Matters

By Jenny Medrano

This post is the first in a series called DEI: Beyond the Buzzword.  Program Manager, Jenny Medrano shares insights and lessons learned while navigating diversity, equity and inclusion in her daily life.

To say that I used to be scared of asking people for money would be an understatement.

It would be more accurate to say that I hated fundraising with a passion. Or, that I felt like I was causing all of my Mexican family- dad, mom, and all of their ancestors living and dead, a lifetime of shame by begging. Or, that by asking for money I would literally be choosing my own death as I plummeted into a tornado of anxiety before each cold call (yes, I am EXTRA but it’s true).

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Happy National Coming Out Day!

By Kim Jackson, Building Bridges Intern

Today, on National Coming Out Day, I would like to start a dialog about bullying within the LGBTQ youth community.


…picking up your child after school. And when you ask them how their day went, they burst into tears. You ask what is wrong, and they tell you that one of their classmates told them that they don’t want to be their friend anymore because their moms are lesbians, and that being gay is wrong. They pick on her because one of her mom’s doesn’t fit into what society tells us a mom should look like; they tell her that 2 women cannot get married. This is a true story that happened to my daughter.

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Looking Back, Paying It Forward: Reflections from Liz Hamel

From Liz Hamel, Director of Programs

Dear Community,

With a full heart I’m announcing that I’m leaving my position as Building Bridges Director of Programs as of August 20.  As I make this change, I’d like to share some of my many emotions and thoughts with you.

Reflective & Grateful

Image with a quote from the blog post, overlaid on a background of the northern lights.

  • When I joined Building Bridges as a Summer Facilitator in 2014, I was at a crossroads in my life. I was questioning where I fit in the social justice world, my naturally conflict-avoidant self wasn’t fully aware of how powerful cross-identity spaces could be, and I wanted to be a part of social change rooted in empathy, healing, and inclusion, not shame, denial, or dismissal.
  • In Building Bridges, I found that healing community—I could be myself and all my identities were embraced, and I was also challenged and pushed to grow. A place where power dynamics and tension were named so that systemic inequality and oppression weren’t just “society’s” fault, but were playing out in the room for us (and me) to own. A space where youth were the experts on their own lives and weren’t fed the “right” answers, but instead encouraged to speak their truth, question, disagree, and explore the line between difference and injustice. I built connections with the most amazing people I may never have met otherwise, who shared so vulnerably and listened so intently, even in the most painful moments when developing empathy is the hardest. I knew I’d found a place like no other I’d experienced and one that represented the world I want to live in.
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“White Polite” Against the Fight for What’s Right

by Amanda A Andrews

Imagine the moment where you felt the most vulnerable. Now, imagine sharing that feeling in a circle of 20 people you’ve known for one week.

A green bar over a photo of paper bags labeled “Black, White, Latinx” says, Phrases like we’re all one race the human race or why can’t we all just get along both sound great, but don’t address any of the history that created the problem or the social systems that maintain them.

For some people that can seem intimidating or even impossible, but for Building Bridges that kind of vulnerability is in the foundation of the organization.

Building Bridges was founded in 1994 to facilitate transformative dialogues between Israeli, Palestinian, and American young women. Each summer young women would join together for a two week intensive to where they could open up about their identities and the social systems that influence their lives.

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Year-Round Transformation

2016 was a tumultuous year, with lots of changes for our organization, our communities, our nation, and the world.  The US Presidential Election held a mirror up to the conflict, discrimination, and biases still alive and well in this country.  What we saw was painful.  What we saw challenged us.  What we saw reaffirmed the importance of our work.

And what we saw motivated the incredible generosity of our community!  We are humbled and invigorated by the outpouring of financial support we received in December.  Raising over $30,000, this year-end campaign ensures that we can kick off the new year on a strong foundation.

We enter 2017 with gratitude and hope – gratitude for people supporting positive transformation and hope for positive social change towards a more just, inclusive society.

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Alumni Perspective: Why Standing Rock Matters

By Amanda Andrews, Building Bridges Middle East US 2013-2015 and Current Alumni Fellowship Member

In this era of social justice and progressive movements, it can be hard to keep up with all the changes. It can be overwhelming, even for those people who are interested in social justice movements.

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Building Bridges Colorado 2015 Summer Facilitators

Adiam Tesfaselassie's photo - CO 2015

Adiam Tesfaselassie

Aili's photo

Aili Miyake

 Amy Sevegny's photo - CO 2015

Amy Sevegny

Ananas' photo - CO 2015

Ananas Mustafa

Fadumo Adan

   Ilhan Dahir's photo - CO 2015



Liz Hamel's photo - CO 2015

Liz Hamel

Processed with VSCOcam with a5 preset

Marte Samuelstuen

Melissa Ivey's photo - CO 2015

Melissa Ivey

Raegan Quattlebaum's photo - CO 2015

Raegan Quattlebaum

Veronica Rael's photo - CO 2015

Veronica Rael

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Welcome to the Team, Megan!

Hello, friends!

We are excited to share that a new member has joined the Building Bridges team! This September, we Megan Devenportwelcomed Megan Devenport as our new Executive Director.

Megan is a community social worker with more than 10 years of experience. She brings a wealth of new expertise to our work; her background includes direct service with young people, community-building, and advocacy. Most recently, Megan was the Program Manager for Denver Shared Spaces, helping nonprofits connect commercial real estate with social impact. She has also worked as a counselor with young people and their families. This varied experience informs her work, and brings to Building Bridges a rich set of skills and expertise that will support the organization as we grow and work with young people here in Colorado.

With excitement and hope,
Jaala Hemingway
Building Bridges Board Chair and Alum

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