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Illustration by Maria Fabrizio

As I prepared to call Michael Kizzie, R’81, an African American alumnus who appears in a recently unearthed and grotesque yearbook photo, I felt apprehensive and conflicted. On the one hand, I was appalled by the photo of him that surfaced on social media — a smiling Michael with a noose around his neck, surrounded by unidentified classmates in KKK costumes. I had already publicly condemned the photo as an affront to our values of diversity, inclusivity, and equality in a message to the entire university community.

On the other hand, I felt empathy for the lone person thrust into this harsh spotlight. I tried to put myself in Michael’s shoes, but I had trouble imagining how he might have ended up participating in the disturbing scene captured in the photo. But I remembered what I teach my mentees: Listen generously to comprehend the seemingly incomprehensible.

So I called Michael, and I’m pleased that I did. He acknowledged his full responsibility as a participant in the photo and agreed that we must use this otherwise ugly moment as a learning opportunity about racism in America. He has graciously offered to come back to campus to continue our conversation and participate in a university program.

In the wake of the revelation that Virginia’s governor donned blackface in medical school, universities from every part of the country have been grappling with dark moments in their own histories, often documented in yearbook photos. Yet, unlike other countries that have made great strides addressing past transgressions, such as Germany, we as a nation have never emotionally dealt with the aftermath of slavery, segregation, and lynchings.

I believe we must probe the depths of our historical subconscious and give voice to the ominous silences of the past.

There are notable exceptions, such as author and activist Bryan Stevenson’s Legacy Museum in Alabama, which connects our history of racial inequality to contemporary racial disparities in the economy, criminal justice system, and elsewhere. But to borrow the words of writer W.G. Sebald, we have primarily shown an “extraordinary faculty for self-anesthesia.”

To achieve deeper racial understanding on our campuses and in our country, I believe we must probe the depths of our historical subconscious and give voice to the ominous silences of the past.

At the University of Richmond, our community has been showing a strong collective commitment to doing just that, even before the yearbook scandals broke.

Students, faculty, and staff had already excavated a number of racist yearbook images, including the one of Michael, as part of a student-led effort called Race and Racism at the University of Richmond, a project that aims to develop a shared understanding of UR’s racial history.

Through the Presidential Commission for University History and Identity that I convened in the fall, we are seeking to create a fuller, more inclusive story of who we have been and are, telling the previously untold stories of people such as Barry Greene, R’72, Madieth Malone, W’72, and Isabelle Thomas LeSane, W’72, the first African American alumni of Richmond’s undergraduate program.

And through the President’s Advisory Committee on Making Excellence Inclusive, we are working toward becoming a community where all our members thrive regardless of background and where no one feels like a guest in someone else’s home.

We know that we have more work to do, but I was pleased to tell Michael about the steps we are taking to become the exemplary intercultural community that we aspire to be. As an institution of higher education, our students — past, present, and future — deserve no less.