Blackface Prom Asks Indicate it’s Time to Remedy Closet-Racism


 

I wrote this article in response to some racist incidents that occurred in May 2017 at my old high school in Los Gatos, California. 

There is, as always, a lot to write about, but this week, an act of unbridled ignorance and “unacceptable” baldly racist conduct at Los Gatos High School takes the cake. I attended Los Gatos High School and graduated just about four years ago. My friends from those times know where it is, but for everyone else, Los Gatos is a relatively small town on the fringe of the South Bay Area, the last town you pass through before entering the mountains on your way to the coast. Many of its residents are either older white retirees, or else families who are usually somehow employed in the Silicon Valley tech business. The population is overwhelmingly white, although a decent percentage of students at Los Gatos High School are also Asian-identified (ex. I had friends who were Vietnamese, Filipinx, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean) or mixed-race. When I attended school there, I could count the number of Black and Latinx students on my hands. According to this source, the total enrollment of non-white students is 30%.

As you might guess, this relatively non-diverse environment creates a nice bubble for the residents, one where the issue of race is rarely confronted, simply because there are so few instances where it comes up. Even in my English and history classes, which are designed to deal with controversial social topics, racism was rarely discussed, and often thought of as a thing of the past. I can remember only a few instances where teachers pursued the issue enough to impress upon me that racism still exists, in Los Gatos and in other parts of the world. But even these well-intended lessons were not enough to break through the blissful ignorance that I was afforded as a white person who never had to go too far out of my comfort zone to understand other cultures, ethnicities, and racial identities.

Until I went away to college and began studying racism, while also being surrounded by and learning from students who were not white and who had different experiences than me, my ignorance continued. When I finally became friends with Black students, Latinx students, Filipinx students, Native American students, students whose parents are immigrants or are immigrants themselves, students who are first-generation college students, students whose parents are landscapers or farmworkers, students whose families come from Compton or South Central L.A., my ignorance was finally shattered. And today I am appreciative of the teachers at Los Gatos High School who tried to break through this ignorance early on, but saddened overall by the realization that Los Gatos High and the town of Los Gatos continue to put diversity education and conversations about race on the back burner. Because when we do this, here’s what happens:

Quoted from Danika Lyle’s editorial in El Gato: “On Friday, May 12, an LGHS senior asked a girl to Prom in blackface makeup. The ask was a recreation of a Bitmoji-Snapchat message he had sent to the girl earlier. The Bitmoji is an African American avatar with blue hair, glasses, a tank top, a bow, and a bright Prom poster. He asked the girl at her house without a bow, tank top, or blue hair dye, but did choose to blacken his face. The student posted pictures of his ask on Instagram, and as I write this article, the post remains.” (Danika skillfully goes on to explain why blackface is offensive. If you need further information on that topic, please read her article.)

This is not okay. Many LGHS alumni have been posting or commenting about the incident saying that they are not surprised, and I can’t feign to pretend I am either. I am, however, disappointed and horrified by the students’ behavior, as well as the arguments other students have made to back him up. My younger sister, who is a current student at Los Gatos High school, The incident exposes not only the intensity of racial ignorance present at Los Gatos High, but also perhaps the lack of empathy and compassion necessary for students to understand and stand up to acts of racism rather than defend their perpetrator. While I am not advocating for the punitive punishment of the students involved in this incident, I do believe that the situation needs to be remedied somehow.

     In a statement released by the Los Gatos High School administration this Thursday, administrators said, “We are aware of two prom asks this spring that have been of a racist nature and want this choice of behavior never to recur. Our obligation is to protect student safety and respond to actions that may create ‘an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment’ (California Education Code). We are taking action and responding to the situations as a school and care to do so sensitively… We are also working to develop additional programming to support increased cultural sensitivity throughout the student body.” I applaud the administration for taking a strong stance on the incident. Now, here comes my call to action:

If you are a current student, an alumni, or part of the staff at Los Gatos High school, it’s time to weigh in on this situation and what “cultural sensitivity programming” should look like. As members of this community, it’s our responsibility to have the conversations and take the actions necessary to ensure that students take racist conduct seriously, understand its harm, and do not repeat it. Call or email the staff about the issue, make requests for education on specific topics, like “Why Blackface is Offensive” or “Why it’s Important Not to be Racist” or “How to be Non-Racist”, or even “How to be a Good Collaborator in the Movement for Racial Justice”. Talk to each other; your students, peers, and/or colleagues, or fellow alum. Discuss why this is not okay and what we can do about it! For a long time I have dismissed Los Gatos as a closet-racist town beyond my help, but I recognize that as a former student, it is my responsibility to help eliminate, through dialogue and education, the quiet specter of racism from this community.

If you are not tied to the community of Los Gatos (congrats), take this story to heart and think about how it applies to your own community. And, if possible, share this piece and the articles I have linked to so that this incident may not go unnoticed. We need to put pressure on the school and community to change. The more eyes on Los Gatos and its seedy racist underbelly, the better.

Lastly, remember that its in incidents like these where the practices of allyship and solidarity become most important. This is a situation where white people need to recognize unabashed racism in their own community and address it, swiftly. Remember your place and the importance of your voice in issues like these. If you’d like to know more about this, please read my last post on solidarity. 

With love and energy to fight for what’s right,

Madeleine

P.S. Unfortunately I was not able to get ahold of the infamous photo that was posted of the incident on Instagram. I believe that school codes or laws protecting minors unfortunately must prevent that.

Images: Both are not mine and were found via Google. 1 shows the front of Los Gatos High School, and the other shows North Santa Cruz Avenue, the main downtown strip. Just to give you an idea of the wealth in the community. 

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