When a black student tells a white principal in a predominantly white school that another student’s behavior is racist, how should the principal respond?
That question came into focus at Kirkwood High School last week, when a white student left a chemistry class with charcoal covering his face.
Principal Michael Havener said the student meant to mimic a beard. But because the student had smeared his entire face, it looked more blackface to Kirkwood freshman Kiden Smith and her friends.
The use of blackface in the United States began in the 19th century with minstrel shows. White entertainers would paint their faces with burnt cork to perform racist stereotypes of black people. Much to the dismay of many, the offensive caricatures still occur in contemporary society, during the Halloween season and on mainstream television.
The 15-year-old and her classmates saw the student with black smudged on his face in the high school’s common area on the way to lunch. Upset, they told their grade-level principal, who is white.
“Our principal did not know what blackface was," Smith said. "So we tried to explain it to him."
He responded by checking with the drama department to see if the student was wearing makeup for a play. Meanwhile, a white school counselor approached Smith and her friends, told them to calm down and not to assume the student was being racist.
“I said, 'I know for a fact this school has a lot of racist students,'" Smith recalled. "And she said, ‘No this school doesn’t. Nothing like that happens here.’ And of course, since we were tired of talking about it and trying to convince her that these things happen, we just walked away. We were like, 'Okay, fine.'”
Smith and her friends later talked to a coach and an assistant principal about the incident. Everyone involved had a meeting with the head principal the following morning.
Havener said the student shouldn’t have been allowed to leave the chemistry classroom with charcoal on his face, and the school needed to have a conversation about it. The student who put the charcoal on his face apologized to Smith and the other students who were offended.
“We had an adult who was not familiar with blackface who asked other adults to provide some information for him,” Havener said. “I want to really emphasize it was a learning experience for everybody in that room, adults included.”
Smith expressed relief at the principal’s response, adding that she thinks the student who put charcoal on his face now understands why it was wrong.
“A few other people in the meeting don’t really believe it, but I think, for the most part, he won’t do it again,” Smith said.
Despite last week’s incident Smith said she likes going to school in Kirkwood.
“Sometimes, it is hard because, like I said, there aren’t very many teachers of color. The only teacher of color I have is my orchestra teacher. I have her in the morning and then she leaves because she works at the middle school also,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s hard because for situations like this we may not have many teachers to turn to. But, for the most part, it’s great.”
Smith plans attend Monday night's School Board meeting with her mom to bring the matter to the board’s attention.
“There’s already been many situations at the high school," Smith said. "Sometimes the administrators don’t really believe us because they need proof for it, or that it’s someone else’s word against ours. They always say if you need help go to a teacher, but if your teacher doesn’t believe you, then what do you do after that?”