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Taking ownership of our learning: What we can learn from Ralph Northam

Amid a firestorm of controversy over a racist photo in his yearbook and a bizarre press conference in which he admitted to using shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has resisted calls for his resignation. Instead, he has emphasized his newfound efforts to understand racial inequality in America. His staff have reportedly instructed him to read prominent works on race in America, such as “Roots” by Alex Haley and “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He has also declared his plans to dedicate the rest of his term to fighting racial inequality in Virginia.

On the surface, these actions may seem commendable — a humbled man earnestly atoning for his sins by educating himself on issues he previously did not understand. But the reality is that the whole controversy could have been avoided if Northam had taken the responsibility to educate himself on these issues before political necessity forced him to do so.

There is a lot that we, as Princeton students, can learn from Northam’s mistakes. Of course, there are the obvious lessons: don’t wear blackface, don’t put racist images in your yearbook page, and don’t moonwalk in a press conference meant to apologize for wearing blackface. But there’s a more subtle message lying beneath this scandal: we must all take the initiative to educate ourselves about the complex issues of the world, even if they don’t directly affect us. That means taking advantage of the resources available to us — the breadth of classes, books, and knowledge — to understand the various intricacies of the world we inhabit before we go out and influence it.

Notice how I didn’t mention “peers” in that list of resources. While the diversity of Princeton’s student body means students have the opportunity to learn from a range of perspectives, that doesn’t mean we should rely on others to explain the complicated issues in the world to us. We should take that responsibility ourselves.

Northam said that he only realized the offensive nature of blackface after a staffer of color explained the history of its use. Of course, it’s great that this aide gave Northam a perspective he hadn’t considered. But relying on others to explain something you could so easily have learned yourself is not resourceful, it’s lazy. It shows that you can’t be bothered to delve into these issues yourself. It also puts the onus on the “other” person — the ones whose perspective you don’t understand — to explain themselves to you; it puts them in the uncomfortable position of being a spokesperson on a certain topic.

I’m reminded of something my former English teacher, who is Muslim, said to me last year. She noted the exhaustion she faced having to explain herself and her religion to people who hadn’t taken the time to do their own research. 

Instead of immediately looking to that one black friend to explain the harms of racial profiling, or your Jewish friend to explain the history anti-Semitic tropes, maybe just pick up a book, or listen to a podcast about the topic before discussing it with your friend. You will have learned more, which will lead to a more productive conversation.

I have come to this realization, not only through watching the Northam fiasco, but also through my personal experience. There have been multiple times this year when I’ve felt like I should educate myself on topics I didn’t quite understand. I’ve heard people debating the Israel-Palestine conflict and said to myself, “I should read more about that.” I had read a surface level article about conflicts in the Middle East and felt momentarily compelled to delve in deeper. I haven’t, however, done that yet.

Instead, I have come up with a multitude of excuses — “I don’t have time,” “I’m tired,” “It doesn’t relate to me” — that really just boil down to laziness. Northam’s situation has shown me that laziness is no excuse. This laziness leads to ignorance, which can lead to the harm we’ve seen play out in the past few weeks in Virginia.

It might seem like a lot of work to learn about issues that don’t directly impact your day-to-day life. But the reality is that all these issues relate to us because our actions affect other people. Learning about them allows us to gaining a fuller understanding of how the world works, and our place in it. At the end of the day, we’re at college to learn. And as many of us prepare to enter positions of power in the world, we have the responsibility to learn as much as we can before we shape it.

Shannon Chaffers is a first-year from Wellesley, Mass. She can be reached at

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