GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — District officials in western Michigan say that a senior photographed in blackface committed an offensive and unacceptable act.
A Forest Hills Northern High School senior, who is white, put on dark brown makeup in what appeared to be an attempt to make himself look black. Photos of the student were posted online and shared thousands of times.
Some students said the Friday incident was offensive because it resembled blackface. Several students organized a “blackout against blackface” district-wide protest Tuesday where they wore all black to show their solidarity against racist actions.
The senior found makeup another student had left behind and used it to cover his face, said Dan Behm, Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent. The incident occurred in a classroom with a substitute teacher present, he said.
The senior didn’t realize his actions would be offensive, Behm said.
“Unfortunately, this student is unaware of the long historical record of racism related to people in blackface,” Behm said.
The school has zero tolerance for such behavior, Behm said. The school held an assembly Monday condemning the behavior.
“Either way, the response is the same,” Behm said. “Whether it were intentional or unintentional, the response needs to be the same and this is that we look and we say, ‘How is it that this occurred?'”
The student hasn’t been to school since the event, he said.
The incident is a sign that there needs to be a cultural change, said Tavian Moore, president of the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP Youth Council.
“This issue is breeding a culture in which students don’t feel like they can go to school and learn,” said Moore. “And it’s not one incident, it’s been multiple incidents.”
Another incident at a Forest Hill school raised concerns last fall when students brought a Betsy Ross 13-star flag to a football game. Some found the flag offensive because it’s sometimes associated with white supremacist groups and the football game was being played against a Grand Rapids team made up of mostly black players.