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‘What’s dangerous is if you don’t discuss it’ NSU professors explore history of blackface

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NORFOLK, Va. - Since the revelations that two of Virginia's top leaders wore blackface at one point in the 80s, the news has dominated headlines and gotten people across the state talking.

(Left to right) Norfolk State University professors, Dr. Khadijah O. Miller and Dr. Bernadette Holmes

And that's exactly what needs to happen, says Dr. Khadijah O. Miller, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Norfolk State University.

"It's dangerous if we ignore it or just say, 'Oh, that was a long time ago,'" Miller told News 3.  "It’s dangerous if we don’t acknowledge the history and how it influences how we think about certain groups of people."

While most people recognize any form of blackface as racist and demeaning, there are still some who question why it's considered so offensive.

News 3 spoke with Miller and fellow NSU professor Dr. Bernadette Holmes to provide historical context about the use of blackface and how it continues to have an impact today.

It began with minstrel shows, a form of entertainment in the early 19th century.

"Minstrelsy’s purpose was to provide a comedic parody to insult and exaggerate and dehumanize African-Americans," Miller explained. "Blackface was used with exaggerated lips, bulging eyes and other physical characteristics to mimic and insult and to really deny African-Americans full citizenship."

It was an instrument of oppression, says Holmes, a professor of sociology.

Like Miller, she says she hopes this opens up a deeper conversation that needs to be had in our country.

"We have to have critical conversations around the issue of race and racism and stereotyping and what does that mean in terms of our interpersonal relationships, but more importantly for me, what it means in terms of structural and systemic racism that still exist in this society, and I think that conversation needs to happen and this is a way to begin that dialogue," Holmes said.

For full coverage on Gov. Northam's yearbook photo controversy, click here

Click here for more coverage on Mark Herring's blackface controversy 

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