BETHESDA – Several county students said they disapproved of a social media photo of students in blackface captioned with a racial slur.
Two students, who attend Walt Whitman High School, posed in blackface in a photo on Snapchat with a caption including the n-word, a racial slur, on or around April 28. Hours after the original post, one of the students in the photo posted a selfie with a different spelling of the n-word.
John F. Kennedy High School senior Layla Edwards, 17, said she believes it was wrong for the students to post the photo. A classmate showed her the photo on their smartphone. She took a picture of the classmate’s phone and posted that picture on Twitter, asking friends located in other parts of the county to share it, too.
“I mean, how can you look at someone doing blackface using the n-word and not see it as being racist?” asked Edwards, who is African American.
After the photo was reposted, hundreds of Twitter users either marked that they liked Edwards’s post, re-tweeted it or did both. As of May 7, it had 1,416 retweets and 958 likes. Edwards said she shared the photo because she wanted Bethesda residents to know that a racist incident had occurred in their area.
At Whitman, Principal Robert Dodd sent an email letter home to inform families about the existence of the photo.
“The image was posted on a private social media account but was seen by many of our students,” Dodd wrote to parents and guardians, later adding, “I want to emphasize as strongly as possible that this type of behavior will not be tolerated at Walt Whitman High School.”
Dodd wrote that students “who were involved” faced “significant consequences,” according to the MCPS’ Code of Conduct; however, the email did not specify what kind of punishment they would receive.
Edwards said she believes the students should be punished. She requested an apology addressed to all black students of Montgomery County Public Schools from the two students in the photo.
The school resource officer and Montgomery County Police (MCP) initially investigated the incident, but then turned the authority over to MCPS, MCP spokesperson Capt. Tom Jordan said.
Whitman senior Breanna McDonald, 18, said the blackface photo came as no surprise. She said racism is a problem that needs attention at her school.
“I was disappointed, but I wasn’t surprised, because this isn’t the first time things like this have happened at Whitman – not to like this full extent, but there (have) been other racial incidents that have happened at Whitman,” said McDonald.
McDonald described the circulation of the blackface photos as “spread(ing) like a wildfire.” She said she believes public attention to the photos helped inform area residents about an ongoing issue.
“Whitman is a well-placed school academically, but I think too often Whitman has pushed these incidents under the rug,” McDonald said.
McDonald and other students in the Minority Scholars Program (MSP), a student-led organization that motivates students to improve their academic habits, gave presentations about issues minority students at Whitman face to all students on April 29. The presentations were scheduled prior to the photo’s release.
McDonald said some of her classmates revealed that they were not aware of racial issues at the school before this, but they were informed by the presentations. Other Whitman students joined McDonald in starting the high school’s chapter of MSP last year. Several MCPS high schools also have MSP chapters on their campuses.
“This is the first (time) we’ve really had an organized way of talking about race that wasn’t like directly from a teacher; and it was just student-led and student-involved,” McDonald said about the presentations.
Sophomore Ezra Alef said some of his classmates listened to the presentations and paid attention, whereas others saw them as a break from class. Alef said he believes there is “racial tension” at Whitman.
“Like the incoming class, they obviously don’t know as much about ethnic groups and what they have to offer Whitman,” Alef said. “Everyone here is smart, no matter where they come from.”
According to MCPS’s Schools at a Glance report for Whitman, during the 2017-2018 school year, 66.8 percent of students are white, 15.2 percent of students are Asian, 8.7 percent of students are Hispanic or Latino, and fewer than five percent of students are African American.
Freshman Roosevelt Lyons, 15, said racist jokes are “acceptable” at Whitman, but he believes they are a problem.
“They do it here because it’s…acceptable. I just know, because I can see a lot of these people making (racist) jokes,” said Lyons.
Lyons said no one has directed the n-word at him, but that he believes racial jokes have more significance than the way students treat them.
“I don’t feel like it’s personal, but people shouldn’t say it,” said Lyons.
Other students, such as freshman Ali Khosravimaharlooei, 15, said while racist jokes are not unusual on campus, they are well-intentioned.
“I don’t think there’s racism (at Whitman),” said Khosravimaharlooei, who is of Middle Eastern background. “I’m a minority; this kid’s a minority (referring to a classmate); we’ve never encountered, like, malicious racism. People make racist jokes (like) here and there.”
The blackface photo also drew attention from local politicians. County Council president Nancy Navarro called the incident “severely disturbing,” “culturally insensitive” and “especially sad,” especially because residents have recently been having conversations about “racial equity and social justice.”
“These actions are not representative of the high expectations we have for all of our students who attend MCPS, and we stand with the school administration in holding those accountable for these offensive actions,” said Navarro.
Linda Plummer, president of the Montgomery County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the photo and caption pointed to the “national atmosphere” and were “shocking.”
Plummer praised Dodd for his letter said she wants to turn the incident into an opportunity to educate.
“The NAACP commends the principal of Walt Whitman for his strong and decisive action in addressing this recent ‘blackface’ incident,” Plummer said. “We know that ‘blackface’ has never been acceptable and has always been a harbinger of racist and white supremacist viewpoints. However, we do not know whether these young people truly understand the pain and harm they have caused.
“We see this as a ‘teachable moment’ that can benefit all of Montgomery County.”
Dodd wrote in his April 29 email that he planned to meet with Brian Scriven, director of MCPS office of School Support and Improvement, and Troy Boddy, director of MCPS’s equity initiatives unit April 30. They planned to talk about “incidents of racial intolerance,” examine “perception data” the school had collected from students and parents for the current school, and work on a plan to “directly address racism, organizational inequities, and cultural proficiency,” Dodd wrote.
As of May 3, Lyons said he was pleased with the principal’s response to the incident. Dodd, a first-year principal at Whitman, approached Lyons and his group of friends, who are all African Americans, and apologized for the photo. He had served as principal at two other schools previously.
“It was great. We had presentations (from MSP) and like announcements and I talked to Dr. Dodd personally,” said Lyons. “We told him, like, it’s fine; we know it’s not you. But he apologized to us personally, and I appreciate that.”