The Chaska High School principal is calling a blackface video, which surfaced in mid-February and showed a student wearing blackface, “racist.”
It came after a pause in recent high-profile racially-related incidents in the area, including students wearing blackface at a football game that nearly made it into a yearbook photo; a social media image with the faces of over 25 African-American students added on a map labeled “Negro Hill”; the N-word written on a middle schooler’s stolen gym shirt; and a debate over Black History Month posters.
“To say that I am upset and disappointed is an incredible understatement,” stated Chaska High School Principal James Bach in a letter to parents.
“I want to be clear that blackface, or other racist acts, are not tolerated and students engaging in such acts will be subject to significant consequences.”
The video, shared on the social network platform TikTok, featured two high school students. One was wearing blackface, or wearing paint or makeup on one’s face to depict an African-American.
Blackface has a racist history, beginning in the 19th century with white performers mocking enslaved Africans.
Celine Haga, the district’s communications director, said staff investigated immediately after the video was brought to their attention on Presidents Day.
The district’s communication protocol, in place since May 2019, has three categories of incidents: low-, moderate- and high-impact, determining what communication to deliver to families. The most recent blackface incident fell in the low-impact bracket, since regular school activities weren’t directly disrupted.
But that doesn’t mean an email wasn’t considered necessary.
“In this instance it was deemed serious enough a communication went out even though it was a non-school day,” Haga said.
Principal Bach sent a letter to parents that day, denouncing the incident and calling attention to the community the district has tried to create.
“We have worked hard since the beginning of the school year to set the story straight about who we are and what we stand for as Chaska Hawks,” the letter stated.
He added though the incident occurred on social media, it doesn’t make it any less consequential and called on parents to talk to their children about repercussions of what they say and do.
Bach continued, saying blackface is “rooted in racism” and is meant to “demean and dehumanize” people.
“It’s not funny, in any context. It’s not acceptable, in any context. It is deeply harmful, and it is hurting members of our school community,” he said.
IN THE HALLWAYS
“To be frank, I cried reading the email from Mr. Bach,” said senior Maddie Stokesbary, who serves on the Chaska High School Student Council.
“It hurts my heart and rattles me to the core of my being every time an incident like this happens in the community.”
Though students aren’t strangers to these incidents, that reaction was shared by many, she said.
The video, which district staff say has been taken down, had students at CHS “shocked,” Stokesbary said
“Students of color and white students I’ve engaged with in these conversations have raw emotion about the incident, and there are a multitude who are frustrated and upset,” she said.
Stokesbary said she noticed students are frustrated with the community, district, staff and student group responses to racist behavior.
She said she’s also heard complaints the incident “drowned out the efforts” by those groups.
Stokesbary has been grateful for her teachers, calling them available, supportive and responsive. Many have also given space to talk about the blackface incident in class and ensuring students know there’s more support available.
At least two parents contacted by the newspaper said their children are reluctant to speak to the media for fear of peer retribution.
Haga couldn’t say whether disciplinary action had been taken toward the student(s), but did say the district takes the matter very seriously. She recognized the importance of families and neighborhoods in dealing with racism.
“Our ongoing commitment is to work alongside parents and the broader community so that an incident like this doesn’t happen again,” Haga said.
In his letter, Bach told parents resources are available for students, and they should reach out to their counselors should they need.
“While we can’t undo this act or the trauma it’s caused, our focus this week has been making sure that students impacted by the video have the support and resources they need to process and heal,” Haga said.
Bach said the work combating racism must continue.
“As a district, we are committed to creating safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments for each of our students. In our high school, that means we stand up for each other, we are accountable to each other, and we do what’s right,” he said.
Stokesbary said Student Council supports the school’s Student Equity Team and Diversity Club.
She said the two groups focus on “pulling the student body together” and leading both in the school and out.
The Student Council is partnering with other CHS student groups to host a Multicultural Day on March 13.
“I do think the school has made significant strides in providing opportunity for students to process this incident, and this year’s efforts focus more on small group feedback in contrast to last year’s whole school approach,” Stokesbary said.
CHS makes time for professionals of color to talk with students about their careers, she said.
The school has also provided numerous listening sessions for students to process the incident, and students say they will be providing more.
At the end of the day, Stokesbary will keep doing her part to make the school district a better place to be, for everyone.
“I have always, and will continue to always, make an effort to be kind, respectful, and accepting to everyone, acknowledging that it is often our differences that make us each unique and collectively strengthen us,” she said.