Racism is unacceptable, period. But, before we collectively judge the character of the college students involved in recently resurrected racially offensive 70s and 80s college yearbook photos, let’s pause and ask ourselves an important question: Did I ever do anything stupid in college and if so, does that define who I am today?
I know what you’re thinking. “Yes, but I never posed for a racially offensive photo smiling in blackface or wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood, holding a noose.” If you thought that, you’re in the majority.
A February 20 USA Today article, “Blackface, KKK Hoods, Mock Lynchings: Blatant Racism in 900 College Yearbooks,” features results of a recent nationwide survey of college yearbooks during the 70s and 80s. A front-page story in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle leads with a provocative headline that reads more like a blanket statement, “Racism Common in Old Yearbooks.” Let’s do the math: 200 examples of racially inappropriate photos found among 900 college yearbooks, each about 150 pages in length—or the equivalent of 1/1000th—hardly constitutes something “common.”
Are the yearbook photos acceptable? Not at all. The question is: Where was the oversight? How did the faculty yearbook advisors allow the photos to be published in the first place? The students involved are certainly accountable, but what about the adults? Where were they in the process?
The deeper issue offers an opportunity for dialogue about race and cultural norms across generations. What may have been perceived as “acceptable” forty years ago is considered morally reprehensible today. If we know that to be true, why is this still happening in popular culture? Late-night hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, and comic Sarah Silverman, are among several celebrities being called out for their use of blackface, and rightly so. It was unacceptable then, and it still is today.
If we’ve learned anything from this latest controversy, it’s that people and brands should consider a thorough audit of their documented pasts, understanding that what happened decades ago may become a crisis today. That includes public-facing organizations and media outlets. If they shine a spotlight on others, they should prepare to face the same scrutiny.