February- Yearbooks and Young Mistakes

February has been a tumultuous time for Virginians.

On the first day of Black History Month, photos from Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbooks surfaced that appeared to show him in either blackface or a KKK costume. Though the Governor denied being in the photograph, over the course of a splashy news chase, he publicly admitted to wearing blackface as a costume in his young adult years. Within days, two other Virginia politicians under Northam were also linked to racially insensitive yearbook comments and blackface costumes, embroiling the state government in a massive scandal.

Virginians now face the question of whether past offensive mistakes accurately reflect a person’s character, and whether such transgressions warrant consequence many years later. Yearbooks across the country serve as a physical record of youthful errors- even editions of the Menchville’s yearbook within the last decade have contained pictures of offensive blackface costumes. As the managers of a student publication, the Lion’s Roar staff is especially wary of what we publish, and how it might come across in the future. Here’s what the staff had to say about records of young people’s bad decisions, and how far society should go to enforce accountability:

Kelly Ritenour, Clubs and Activities Editor- “I think it’s a difficult subject because certain things were socially acceptable during the time that those yearbooks were made, but I definitely feel like we should still hold people accountable for what they did because they consciously chose to do it. It needs to be brought to the public and, you know, they need the chance to own up to it and apologize for it, but I feel like it can say a lot about character. A lot of people have changed and become more educated, but that’s not necessarily the same for everybody.”

Leo Cabral, Style and Fashion Editor- “Back then I think everything was, I don’t know, not as sensitive? It’s a very different climate now as opposed to when my grandma was young. We should call them out, but people can grow and change.”

Jay Mendez, Sports Editor-  “The decision-making part of your brain isn’t fully processed until you’re 25, so I think some people make stupid decisions when they’re younger, but they don’t realize this until they are older. Sometimes the consequences that come are extreme, and sometimes the consequences are well-deserved. Sometimes it’s very obvious that you shouldn’t have done that, but if it’s a minor thing, the consequences need to be appropriate.”

Beth Ellis, Science Editor- “I feel like people make bad decisions a lot when they’re younger, and things were not as sensitive back maybe as they are now, but I feel like these mistakes should still be acknowledged today because they show people’s character.”

Alondra Rivera-Pena, Arts and Entertainment Editor- “I think people should be held accountable, but to an extent, because stuff like this happened a long time ago when things were different. They should still have a chance to apologize or own up to what they did.”

Laura Madler, Editor-in-Chief- The revelation of past offensive transgressions is not an issue that can just be ignored. As a journalist, recent news events have led me to develop a heightened awareness of what we publish- how will these stories look 10, 20, 30 years down the line? With that being said, I think we need to take in the full scope of this issue. Bad decisions aren’t going public on a case-by-case basis; the sudden, mass revelations in Virginia government are showing how widespread these transgressions are. It may be infuriating, and no doubt these public figures are still responsible for their actions, but we must realize that it is hard to apply today’s standards to yesterday’s culture. We’ve made a lot of progress in creating an accepting culture where actions like this aren’t tolerated, but if we depose everyone who made a bad decision in their youth- we’ll have no one left to lead.