Black History Month controversy: Student’s unapproved display of rappers sparks demands for more…

Rachael Schmidt

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Originally published on February 12, 2016

Principal Andrew Ishibashi canceled two blocks of classes on Feb. 5 to hold school-wide assemblies in response to students’ and parents’ complaints that a group of photos a student hung up without official approval were culturally insensitive.

The display showed a bunch of photos of rappers, along with a meme of President Obama and a sign saying “Happy Black History Month #Gang,” which were “insensitive to the racial stereotyping of black people that is far too prevalent in our society,” according to a letter Ishibashi sent out to the school community.

Early Friday morning, Ishibashi and the administration were alerted of the photos and they were immediately removed. The student was suspended and has apologized.

Meanwhile, administrators are promising increased emphasis on student cultural sensitivity.

“I felt like the photos were insulting us, like saying that, ‘black people are only good for rap music and hood movies.’”

The student’s improvised display included eight photos — all taken off the Internet — printed out in black and white and taped on the inside of a library window facing the catwalk and courtyard.

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On one sheet, “Happy Black History Month #Gang” was typed in all-caps. On each of six other sheets of paper were African-American rappers Chief Keef, Young Thug, Migos, Mac Dre, Kanye West and Ice Cube with actor Chris Tucker in a scene from the movie Friday. Another sheet of paper showed a meme of President Barack Obama with a fade hairstyle and an earring with the words “Nah, Michelle and me don’t talk no more.”

(An image of the display, which may be offensive to readers, can be found at the bottom of this article.)

Some viewed the choice of figures in the photos as insensitive to the central concepts of Black History Month. “The people up there are very significant black figures, but Black History Month is about acknowledging our ancestors and our accomplishments in history like civil rights and movements for equality through figures like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the first African-American woman to be in the Senate,” said senior Chrislyn Earle, vice president of the Black Student Union (BSU). “Those figures [in the photos] were not fit for that category. I felt like the photos were insulting us, like saying that, ‘black people are only good for rap music and hood movies.’”

The student who put up the photos is a student of color but not black. He said in a Facebook message interview that he first posted some photos a few weeks ago. He said he initially posted pictures of rappers that he and his friends listened to, and added new pictures of different rappers each week as entertainment for his friends.

He said that neither the administration nor the librarians knew of the pictures. “I didn’t realize it was something they would get mad at,” he said. The official Black History Month display is outside the library doors and features books written about and by prominent African-American figures.

The student said that he did not intend for the photos to be offensive. “That’s true, there are more important black people in history, but in my pictures I only wanted to show rappers and actors,” he said. “I didn’t mean to say all black people are good for is rapping and acting.”

The student said that he meant #gang to be the equivalent of #crew or #squad, often used to mean “friend group” in social media, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“I apologize for what I did.”

Ishibashi said in his letter that even if the act wasn’t intended to be offensive, it was still insensitive: “While the intent was not malicious, the student who put the message up has been made aware that it was insensitive.”

The student tweeted that he was suspended for a week. He said that he feels bad and wishes he hadn’t posted the photos, since many problems such as hate messages have resulted. “I can see how [the photos] were offensive and I apologize for what I did,” he said.

The student said that he has faced racial stereotyping and negativity himself. He cited one example of a Lowell teacher calling him “Mohammad” in front of the whole class. He also said that his friends are sometimes racist in their jokes, but he ignores it. “I don’t blow it up, I just deal with it or push it away,” he said.

The administration put together the assemblies in about ten minutes, according to Ishibashi. “As a principal I thought it was the right thing to do and we needed to do it now,” he said in an interview after the assemblies.

“As a principal I thought it was the right thing to do and we needed to do it now.”

During Block 5, assistant principal Holly Giles announced over the intercom that all students would attend an unscheduled yet mandatory assembly in the auditorium, either Block 6 for underclassmen or Block 7 for upperclassmen. Teachers released their students from classes accordingly.

Some students and teachers expressed frustration over the disrupted classes, especially classes that had tests scheduled for that block.

At each assembly, Ishibashi encouraged students to combat these situations from happening again by becoming more familiar with other cultures and students and supporting Lowell’s Multicultural Night held the same evening. “I want all of you to know that we don’t support any of those such types of actions at Lowell,” he said during the assembly. He also offered to buy any students or staff tickets to the event if they could not afford it.

Ishibashi closed by inviting students to post messages and photos on social media with the hashtag #WeBelong.

Ishibashi dismissed students in the Block 6 assembly back to their classes. He canceled the rest of Block 7 for students in that assembly, provoking cheers.

“With our diverse student body, we want all of our students to have a voice, be heard and be respected for who they are.”

BSU members expressed appreciation that Ishibashi held an assembly to address the photos. However, some felt that what Ishibashi described as the reason behind the assembly was too vague. “Some people didn’t even take the assembly seriously,” Earle said. “Kids were cheering because they didn’t have to go to class.”

Administrators have begun contacting clubs to invite student leaders to give input on cultural sensitivity for the school and staff with the help of various clubs, including the BSU, the Gender Sexuality Alliance, Jew Crew and La Raza. The administration announced Thursday that Social Awareness Week, Feb. 22–26, will address how to help all students feel included at Lowell. “With our diverse student body, we want all of our students to have a voice, be heard and be respected for who they are,” according to a SchoolLoop announcement.

Ishibashi posted a notice of the incident on the school’s SchoolLoop homepage on Friday and sent a hard copy of the notice home with students during registry earlier this week.

*The following image may be offensive to readers.

A student taped these black-and-white printed images to a library window, which displayed onto the catwalk. Six African-American rappers are depicted: (from top left to bottom right) Chief Keef, Young Thug, Migos, Mac Dre, Kanye West and Ice Cube, with actor Chris Tucker from the movie Friday. A meme of President Barack Obama with a fade hairstyle and earring with the words “Nah, Michelle and me don’t talk no more” is shown on the bottom right. A group photo of students has been blurred out. This is how the display, which is non-official, looked on Feb. 4. Photo by Ophir Cohen-Simayof and Kiara Gil

Christopher Hackett, Stephanie Li, Whitney C. Lim and Ophir Cohen-Simayof contributed to this article.

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Black History Month controversy: Student’s unapproved display of rappers sparks demands for more…