Virginia Gov. Says He Knew Blackface Was Wrong But Amid Scandal, 'Reality Has Really Set In'

The embattled governor sat down with Gayle King on CBS This Morning

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty

Embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam is speaking out about the racist photo in his medical school yearbook.

In a new interview with CBS This Morning that was broadcast on Monday, Northam told Gayle King that he wasn’t aware of the “implications” of blackface.

“I was born in white privilege and that has implications to it,” Northam said. “I didn’t realize really the powerful implications of that. And again, talking to a lot of friends, that has come crystal clear to me this week. I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive and yes, I knew it in the past. But reality has really set in.”

Earlier this month, on Feb. 1, a photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook was resurfaced, appearing to show the politician and another person wearing racist costumes — with one dressed in blackface and another wearing KKK robes, according to The Virginian-Pilot.

The outlet reported that the photo, which appeared in the 1984 yearbook for Eastern Virginia Medical School, was found in a half-page design dedicated to Northam.

Ralph Northam YearbookCredit: EVMS

At first, Northam apologized for the photo.

“Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” he wrote in an initial statement made on the same day the photo was reported. “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”

“I recognize that it will take time and serious effort to heal the damage this conduct has caused. I am ready to do that important work. The first step is to offer my sincerest apology and to state my absolute commitment to living up to the expectations Virginians set for me when they elected me to be their Governor,” he added.

However, Northam then went on to claim that he was not, in fact, either of the people in the photo and refused to step down amid growing calls for his resignation.

“When I was confronted with the images yesterday I was appalled that they appeared on my page,” Northam said during a press conference on Feb. 2, “but I believe then and now, that I am not either of the people in that photo.”

During the same press conference, Northam admitted to darkening his face for a costume.

“That same year I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume,” Northam said. “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that. It is because my memory of that episode is that vivid that I truly do not believe I am in the picture in my yearbook. You remember these things.”

Northam addressed the press conference and his claim that he is not pictured in the image during the CBS interview.

“When you’re in a state of shock like I was, we don’t always think as clearly as we should. I will tell you that later that night I had a chance to step back, take a deep breath, look at the picture and said, ‘This is not me in the picture,’ ” Northam told King. “And I also had a number of friends and classmates from medical school that called and said, ‘Ralph that is not you’ and that was comforting as well.”

“Yes, again, when I stepped back and looked at it, I just said, I know it’s not me in the Klan outfit. And I started looking in a picture of the individual with blackface. I said that’s not me either. And that’s why I felt so strongly about going in front of the camera on Saturday and clarifying,” the governor said.

Northam also added to CBS that the first time he had seen the photo was after it had surfaced on Feb. 1.

“I was shocked to see it. And I really believe that the fact that if you look at the unpreparedness of me to react to this, both on Friday night and Saturday, that really confirms that this is the first time,” he claimed.

Northam also told King that he believed that the controversy happened “for a reason,” also implying that he will not be stepping down as governor.

“And there is a reason— I believe— that this happened,” he said. “That we are in a position to learn. I will focus on race and equity. That’s something that, for the next three years, is gonna be my commitment to Virginia. And I really think we can— make impactful changes.”

“I have a lot of work to do,” he continued in the Monday interview. “But I will do everything I can to regain Virginia’s trust.”

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