When a the photo surfaced of two white students at Nazareth Academy in LaGrange Park wearing blackface masks during the regional basketball game between Nazareth and Orr Academy, I thought it had to be a nasty prank.
After all, it’s easy to manipulate a photograph.
But I received the same photo from several credible sources that claimed to have witnessed the blackface incident.
Turns out, the photograph wasn’t a fake.
As unbelievable as it sounds, two white male students on Nazareth’s “Spirit Team,” wore black masks during a routine to rev up the crowd for the playoff game against Orr on March 7.
The students also posed for photographs in the school’s gymnasium wearing the offensive masks.
After an Orr administrator complained about the students performing in blackface, a school official asked the students to remove the masks.
Keiana Barrett, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, called the incident an “unfortunate demonstration of racial insensitivity.”
“At a time when we should be teaching our students racial tolerance, this reeks of derogatory and degrading intolerance by the entire school culture,” she said.
Instead of using the incident as a teachable moment about racial insensitivity, officials at both high schools stonewalled the media, hoping the furor would die down.
But the photograph continued to cause such an uproar, Nazareth Academy’s principal recently sent a letter of apology to Orr Academy, claiming the students did not know that the black masks would be offensive to Orr students.
According to Deborah Tracy, students routinely participate in “black out” and “white out” days during athletic games.
On those occasions, students wear all white or all black clothing.
In this instance, two of the students also wore blackface masks. One of the students in blackface also wore a t-shirt with a giant N, and the other wore a t-shirt with a giant O.
Tracy acknowledged that under the circumstances, the student’s attire could have been interpreted as sending a negative racial message, but denied that was the intent.
“The two students that wore the black masks did not realize how offensive that was to an African-American school. The students thought they were dressing in black from head to toe as part of the black out theme,” she said.
“Unfortunately, there was a picture taken, and I’ve spent the two weeks dealing with this. Our students have African-American friends. We have African-Americans on the team. In my heart of hearts, I know they didn’t intentionally mean that offense. It was ignorance,” she said.
The principal said she was unaware of the controversy over the blackface masks until she saw comments on social media.
In her apology letter to Orr’s principal, Tracy characterized the incident as a “misunderstanding.”
“Nazareth Academy regrets any possible misinterpretation of the black hole/black out theme…the two students wearing black masks were asked to remove them right at the beginning of the game. To the extent there was a misunderstanding of our theme, we apologize for any offense taken,” the letter said.
Barrett called the apology letter “cavalier.”
“Based upon the school’s interpretation, they didn’t see anything wrong,” she said.
“Once it was brought to the attention of administrators at Nazareth, they had to make the leadership decision to explain to the students why [blackface] is offensive,” the CPS spokeswoman said.
“It does not appear that has happened. We hope this is going to result in an over all change in how Nazareth’s Spirit Team goes about trying to get the crowd motivated.”
I don’t think there’s any question about that.
“We’ve never had to say remember not to wear black masks,” Tracy told me.
“I have to tell you, we won’t ever go anywhere near it again. We are very sorry.”