The black, green, and red of the Pan African flag rippled under a rain filled sky yesterday afternoon, as H-F students, alum and parents took to Kedzie avenue in protest of the blackface incident involving four students the previous week.
Ronald Williams, H-F alum and co-organizer of the demonstration, says it was the H-F administration’s response to the video that led him to take action.
“When you look at the difference in the way the administration handled this situation, in comparison to incidents involving African American students, racial bias has to be examined,” he said.
Like Williams, H-F parent and alum Aja Allen finds inconsistencies in the administration’s responses to behavioral issues. She believes the perceived disparity is tied to race.
Last October, Allen, along with several dozen H-F parents, was notified that her son’s social media postings were suspected to show gang affiliation. Administrators said those students were not to return to school until parents attended a mandatory meeting.
While some parents perceived the letter as a threat of impending expulsion, HF principal Jerry Lee maintains that the letter was only intended to communicate a sense of urgency.
The principal has since apologized for the strong wording in the letter and admits that the incident could have been handled with more sensitivity. Still, Dr. Anderson says she cannot apologize for the decision to share the concerning information with parents and students.
Allen said it’s reactions like this that make black residents feel unwelcomed by the H-F community.
“This is a racial divide on an epic scale,” she said. “My son was threatened to be expelled if I didn’t attend a mandatory meeting, but H-F is not doing anything to discipline these Caucasian kids. It’s racist.”
Anderson says the truth of the matter between the two incidents has gotten lost.
“This (blackface) incident occurred on a weekend, off of school property,” she said at a meeting held at Flossmoor Community Church following the walkout. “By Illinois law, we are limited in our authority on this matter. The law also necessitates that students have a right to privacy; no matter what consequence I give, I cannot broadcast it to you.”
The principal adds that “there is a belief that there has been some different treatment of these students, that we are protecting them somehow. Untrue,” she said. “We need to have a conversation rooted in fundamental truth, in order to move forward.”
H-F junior Carson Tully says it isn’t the administration that she marches against, but the respect of all students that she marches for.
“I’m here to protest the injustice in the community, and the disturbance it’s created,” she said. “I’m protesting the boys and their actions. I believe Dr. Anderson and Dr. Mansfield are doing all that they can to handle the situation.”
Still, parents and students were not the only participants with a divided perspective. Student demonstrators viewed the incident of blackface from varying vantage points, as well.
Senior Matt Harkins, who says he has “been the only white person in his neighborhood growing up,” found the incident to be an outlier in H-F’s otherwise racially tolerant and accepting atmosphere.
“I pride myself on going to a school that is so diverse and inclusive,” Harkins said. “I don’t believe in barriers. No matter your color, creed, religion or sexual orientation, we’re all human. I think that’s what the H-F community is about. I don’t see any racial tension.”
While Harkins maintains that an isolated incident of racism does not reflect community values, senior Angel Covington finds that the viral video is a part of a larger trend.
“At the end of the day, it all comes back to white privilege. They threatened to expel the black athletes for supposed gang association that also happened off campus, but these kids called themselves ‘The Cracker Club,’” she said. “Is that not a gang?”
As talk of the video circulated on social media, national news sites and in community forums, questions concerning the students’ awareness level of blackface as an historical ill have been raised.
This, however, is not a detail upon which H-F students remain divided.
“They knew exactly what they were doing,” Tully said in a quick, matter-of-fact tone.
Freshman Peyton Black comes to the same conclusion. She argues that even an unawareness of specific historical events would fail to exonerate the students in the video.
“Regardless of whether they knew the actual term ‘blackface,’ they put on black paint and said racial slurs to workers at McDonald’s,” Black said. “This clearly shows that they knew what they were doing, using African American stereotypes to mock.”
Senior Kenneth Powell says the darkness of racism is far too dangerous to be excused by passive ignorance.
“People die because of racism,” Powell said. “All it takes is one look in the mirror to know you’re wrong. You have white skin, you put on black paint and you play into racist stereotypes. Ignorance is not an excuse.”
As the H-F community works to come to terms with the incident, Flossmoor resident, sociologist and peaceologist Dr. Peter St. Jean hopes to push residents towards peace through open dialogue. He invites H-F students, parents and alumni to attend the second peaceology meeting at Flossmoor Community Church from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 5.
“By having conversations with your fellow persons, by believing we can lead our fellow residents to answer some of our questions now and carry ourselves into the next phase of understanding … that is the goal,” he said.
H-F’s Harkins says the responsibility to create a future where all residents feel safe and included lies with the youth.
“Our younger generation needs to step up to the plate,” he said. “We’re the ones dealing with more diversity in our schools and neighborhoods. We need to know that we can change things as much as older people. Our voice speaks volumes.”