A group of seniors in Sullivan, Missouri was criticized after donning blackface for an intramural football game, which their principal said fueled a misunderstanding, the Riverfront Times reported.
“I thought, ‘Oh, they don’t mean anything by it. Just let it go. No one thinks anything of it,’” Sullivan High School principal Jennifer Schmidt. “I didn’t think anyone did. Evidently, someone did.”
Schmidt said the 12 seniors painted their faces black on Nov. 5 as part of a charity “powder-puff” football game organized by the junior class. According to her, the face paint was intended to be a parody of the football team’s habit of wearing eye-black on their own faces.
Members of the football team’s coaching staff reportedly acted as referees, and athletic department personnel posted pictures of the game on Twitter, though Schmidt told the Times that the photos were intentionally taken at a distance so as to not bring attention to the facepaint:
But the criticism began after close-up pictures of the group began to surface on Facebook. The Times posted one of the pictures on Twitter:
One of the critics is Leigh Kolb, who teaches English and journalism — including media diversity — at a college in Union, a town about 24 miles away. Kolb said that, while the photos were probably not malicious in their intent, they showed a lack of historical context.
“It was pretty clearly offensive to us,” she said.
Sullivan is about 60 miles away from St. Louis, which has seen several demonstrations against police violence in the wake of the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer in nearby Ferguson. The shooting, protesters say, is part of a larger pattern of racially discriminatory policies in the city.
Kolb said another student showed her a photo of a white man dressed as the officer, Darren Wilson, for Halloween, pointing a “finger gun” at another white man wearing blackface for a Brown “costume.” Both men are reportedly from another nearby community, Washington, which has a primarily white population.
In response to those types of displays, she said, topics like racism and blackface should be discussed on a systemic level.
“It’s not about the individuals,” she told the Times. “It’s about a lack of sensitivity for both the historical context of blackface and the Michael Brown situation itself, which many of us see as indicative of much larger issues surrounding institutional racism.”
For her part, Schmidt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she will not discipline the offending seniors, but she will ban facepaint from any future “powder puff” games.
“I knew they didn’t mean anything racial by it,” she said. “They just weren’t thinking.”