New York students spark outrage after being filmed wearing blackface and making racist gestures

'The video perpetuates the sense that black bodies don’t belong in our schools'

Two white students at private Brooklyn prep school caught in blackface video

A video of three white students from a private prep school in New York filmed in blackface while making racist gestures has resurfaced online and attracted significant controversy.

The six-second video clip was recorded over two years ago but recirculated this month, thrusting Poly Prep Country Day School into a national conversation about racism.

On Friday, hundreds of Poly Prep students, dressed in black, walked out of an assembly, filtered into the hallways and staged an hour-and-a-half sit-in, which was first reported by the Polygon, the student newspaper.

On the same day on the eve of the holiday weekend honouring Martin Luther King Jr, the video was included in a montage of other imagery that swept across social media.

The montage included a viral video from the University of Oklahoma of a female student with her face painted black and using what sounded like a racial slur, and a video of white male students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats who had encountered a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War outside the Lincoln Memorial.

By Saturday, the Poly Prep video which shows two students in blackface seemingly imitating monkeys had gone viral with the help of an article from the Daily News.

On Sunday, mayor Bill de Blasio weighed in. “Poly Prep has some real explaining to do. And what’s absolutely clear is that a conversation about racism at the school is long overdue,” Mr de Blasio said on Twitter.

“On the King holiday weekend, we are now dealing with blatant racism of a younger generation,” said the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose two daughters are alumnae of Poly Prep. “They’ve been emboldened.”

He added: “We have a problem.”

Jennifer Slomack, a spokeswoman for Poly Prep, confirmed one of the students involved in the video is no longer at the school, while the other two are. All three students were in sixth grade when the video was made.

Ms Slomack declined to comment further on the students, citing privacy laws.

“We do not tolerate racism or prejudice in our school or in our communities,” she said in a statement.

“We took immediate action as soon as we learned of a highly offensive video, taken years ago, being circulated on our campus. It was an egregious violation of our community values and code of conduct.”

Neither of the two students still at the school had been disciplined.

New York City’s private schools are overwhelmingly wealthy and white, and are increasingly becoming part of the public dialogue about segregation as the city moves to integrate public schools.

“We should not view this incident of white girls in blackface gyrating as apes in isolation,” said David E Kirkland, executive director of the Metropolitan Centre for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.

“The video perpetuates the sense that black bodies don’t belong in our schools.”

About 39 per cent of the 1,083 students in kindergarten to 12th grade at Poly Prep identify as “people of colour”, according to data the school provided to the New York Times.

Current and former black students described a culture of intolerance, even as the school promoted diversity. For some, the video was the latest in a string of slights.

“I would like to say I was disappointed,” said Jeovanna deShong-Connor, a senior who is co-president of the student group Umoja, which organised the demonstration on Friday. “But I have been hearing hateful speech since I was a freshman.”

She added: “I felt it was my responsibility, our responsibility as the senior class to really do something.”

The events unfolded over a week. On 11 January, a freshman posted the video on a private website for students, according to the male student’s mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

She said he felt that taking it to school authorities would not get the same results as making the video public to students.

“I’m proud of him for what he did. When you say, ‘See something, do something about it?’ That’s what he did,” she said.

The mother said her son has not received paperwork for registration for next year as other students have.

“He just wanted to speak up. Now, he’s the bad guy,” the mother said, crying. “I’m just worried for his future.”

The school responded to the episode with a letter to parents and students that members of Umoja felt was tone-deaf because it emphasised that the distribution of the video violated the school’s code of conduct.

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“It came out like the sharing of the video was worse than the content of the video,” said Talisha Ward, also a senior and co-president of the student group.

The Monday after the video was posted, school administrators began taking steps to talk to students and faculty members about the video and racism in general through special assemblies and one-on-one conversations.

At one gathering, a dean explicitly called the video “racist”, Ms Ward, 17, said.

But some students felt that the overall student body did not understand the gravity of the problem. As a result, students began planning what would become Friday’s demonstration.

New York Times

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