Some parents and community members are furious at what they perceive as a tepid response by administration to a student appearing in blackface at a recent annual historical fair at a Millburn elementary school.
When a white fifth-grade girl showed up to the school’s annual Wax Museum event — which aims to teach children about the accomplishments of influential people throughout history — dressed as Martin Luther King, Jr., complete with black makeup on her face, she was allowed to participate in the event without any teachers, principal or administration apparently intervening. Parents also charge the school knew about the child’s choice of costume several days before the event. In addition, parents say she was placed next to the only child of color in the grade participating in the event.
The incident came to light when a photo of the child made the rounds on social media among Millburn High School students. [Editor’s note: Village Green is not naming the elementary school where the incident took place to protect the student’s identity.]
While many parents have expressed shock, one said she was not surprised. Pinky Adda, mother of three children, said she and her husband were prepared to encounter racism when they moved to Millburn, “Less than 2% of the population is black,” she said. “In a wealthy white town, diversity just isn’t a priority, that’s the plain honest truth.”
Superintendent Dr. Christine Burton wrote in an email sent to families last Friday, “In Millburn, we are proud to celebrate the diversity of all of our students and families throughout the school year. One program that embodies this philosophy is the Wax Museum presented in our elementary schools [where] students take pride in honoring their subject by learning about them, and presenting their findings in an authentic way. This week, the way in which one of these historical figures was represented has drawn some concern. While no offense was intended, we recognize that some may have taken it that way. Please be assured that across the district we will ensure that guidelines for programs such as these are culturally respectful. This is a teachable moment. We appreciate your sensitivity and attention to this matter.”
For parent Kristen Licciardi, Burton’s email did little to address what many see as a much larger issue, “I’m very disappointed with the vague response from the district in email on a late Friday afternoon,” said Licciardi. “There are too many members of the community that want to dismiss this out of fear for the school or the district with little regard for how hurtful something like this is for people of color in our community. Blackface has such a long, hurtful, disturbing legacy and if our students and community don’t understand that, it’s time to educate them, starting at the elementary school level. I wish we could have seen a response like that which came out of Brick this week, at least they owned their mistake.”
She is referring to another incident where a child appeared in blackface at a school event in Brick, NJ.
Parents interviewed for this article were quick to state they do not blame the child, whom they see as uninformed about the history tied to her choice. Rather, they are angry with the parents, the teachers and principal who allowed the incident to occur. And they are consequently angry with the district’s claim of innocence on behalf of the staff involved.
“Blackface isn’t something you can ignore and claim ignorance,” said Adda, “if you’re an adult and you’ve lived in this country for any length of time you know it’s offensive. Their inability to acknowledge how racially charged blackface is and to admit they messed up is what is most upsetting.”
In a follow-up statement to Village Green, Dr. Burton said, “I would add that the situation should never have happened and we have taken measures to ensure that it doesn’t in the future. We send our apologies for the occurrence and assurance that there was no malice intended on the part of the student, staff or the District.”
“It was unbelievable to me that this child was able to get through a dress rehearsal, a photo shoot, and three hours at the wax museum in front of the whole school without one single staff member stopping to think about the implications of ‘blackface’ in our community,” said a 5th grade parent who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t fault the child or the parents since they didn’t intend to hurt anyone but I am disgusted with the school and the district for failing to see how offensive this is and for normalizing something that is racist. What upsets me even more is the complete lack of leadership and failure to make this right with either an apology to parents or an explanation to give our own children about what they saw and why it should never be tolerated. The silence speaks volumes. This town and this staff is in dire need of some diversity training.”
Another parent added, “I was shocked at a school that teaches kindness to all, that the principal and lead teacher would allow this child to wear blackface. How offensive.”
“Again, the problem isn’t with the child,” Liccardi stresses. “It’s claiming ignorance on behalf of the staff or district. The fact is if we can’t as a town get on board with some sort of curriculum that addresses the underlying racism surrounding this head-on we’re headed for bigger problems.”
Adda said her son recently experienced racism when another child “told him he didn’t like his face because it’s black.” The teacher and the child’s parents were mortified, Adda said, but she and her husband have prepared their children for these types of things and choose their battles. “We don’t want to be accused of always playing the race card, so we’ve let a lot of micro aggressions go. This isn’t the first time this has happened, and I’m certain it won’t be the last. It’s always, always brought back to intention.”
Millburn High School senior and Black Lives Matter activist Kendra Soh, 17, blamed “ignorance and white privilege” for the incident and said the girl’s parents should have known that blackface is offensive to black people.
“The girl did not think she was doing anything wrong, but that is because she was not told it was wrong,” said Soh. She compared it to a non-Jewish student dressing up as Hitler out of ignorance. “I’m not comparing Hitler to [MLK, Jr.], but that probably would have provoked the same response, especially from Jews. We’re constantly told to remember history and be mindful of it so it won’t repeat, but when it comes to black history it is just a costume and ‘she should get a good grade for commitment,’ as one of my peers believed.”
Soh continued, “The fact that we even have to separate our history by calling it black history like it’s not world/American history is sad. If the roles were reversed the child would’ve gotten hell for it. It’s a shame to think about how someone had to help this child get the face paint and apply it. The bottom line is, race is not a costume and it is imperative that people, adults and children, understand this.”
Another MHS senior and Black Lives Matter activist Naomi Merlain, 17, who attended the elementary school in question, said she was “shocked” to see the photo of the girl.” I walked through those very hallways and was taught by the same teachers…I understand that it was never the intent of the child or even the people around her to cause an issue for others. But as a young black woman, I was disrespected.”
Merlain said, “My skin isn’t a costume that can be painted and wiped off for a presentation. I can’t wipe off my blackness, even if I wanted to. It is not something that can be used so lightheartedly while completely ignoring the history that comes with it. Blackface was a dehumanizing, humiliating comedic act used to portray blacks as savage, ugly, stupid, and less than human beings. It is not a fun costume for a school project. It is not something to be taken lightly. And above all else, my skin color is not and will never be an innocent costume. ”
Requests by the Village Green for clarification on the district’s plan to stop such incidents in the future remained unanswered at the time of press.