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As Tyrone Thompson, 33, grabbed the microphone, he inhaled a deep breath before asking his question. “How do we teach our kids that racism isn’t right?” he asked. “That blackface is not good? Because it all starts with the youth.” He was questioning panelists at an event titled History and Politics of Blackface held at University of the District of Columbia’s new Institute of Politics Policy and History (IPPH) speaker series. Politicians, students, and residents were in attendance to discuss current issues on blackface, and racism in general, on Tuesday night.
“It takes discussions of difficult issues in life to bring self-awareness,” said Thompson, a former DC Public Schools teacher. “This is something that is key. These hard discussions about these hard topics is a conversation that only prevents a demonstration, as they say.” Thompson explained that the saying means that usually a violent demonstration starts with a protest from someone who is uneducated about the hatred and deeper issues behind practices like blackface. “Uneducated or unaware of the hatred that affects and causes on people that are offended with something like blackface, it is very powerful,” said Thompson.
Along with Thompson, many in attendance agreed that the issue of being self-aware and properly educated can decrease racist behavior and increase understanding of how to identify it. Aaron White, 18, a political science major at UDC, says blackface is an issue that has to be discussed in America and around the world. “I don’t think racism is going to stop,” said White. “It is going to continue to happen. It’s just how are we going to respond and how are we going to continue to educate our young people,” he said. White attended the event to have a conversation on both blackface and race, and to stop the hate that is attached to the two. “Overall, how can we sit down and have a conversation without getting upset about something that offended me that I don’t like. How can we stop that?” he asked.
Luckily for White, The IPPH specializes in examining social justice issues through conversations with nationally renowned leaders who are experts on the topics at hand. “Well blackface is unfortunately a current topic, especially with what is happening in Virginia and their political figures,” says Aimee Anthony, the associate director of programs for IPPH, when asked why IPPH decided to host this specific event. “Because IPPH is talking about issues in politics, policy, and history, we felt that this was an interesting current topic that dealt with history.”
She also explained that this was IPPH’s first program, and the organization really wanted to focus on a popular issue that has not received the proper attention needed. “We also felt that there weren’t enough organizations addressing this topic,” said Anthony. “And because it keeps coming up in culture and the news, that we could take this on as our first program to address something that people are interesting in debating.”
The IPPH hopes to continue talking about issues in current events throughout the year. Former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt is the organization’s founding director. It launched in January. The featured speakers for the discussion on blackface included Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture; Doron F. Ezickson, D.C. regional director for the Anti-Defamation League; and Dr. Bobby Austin, sociologist and former VP of student affairs at UDC. Former Washington Post reporter Mary Ann French moderated.
“I believe two things,” said Austin to the people in attendance. “We can change this but you have to create a new moral mind in America,” and “We must make some room for people to change.”