A white Colorado second-grade student was sent home from school last week after he showed up to school in blackface. Sean King, 7, covered his face in black paint to portray Martin Luther King Jr., as part of an assignment that required students to dress up as a historical figure.
“They thought it was inappropriate and it will be disrespectful to black people and I say it’s not,” Sean told Colorado’s NewsChannel 13. “I like black people. It’s just a costume and I don’t want to insult anybody.”
King was removed from school after he refused to wash the black paint of his face.
“Sean seems to be a decent kid who wanted to honor Dr. King in some way. I think it would be good for the young man to understand and his family to also understand why there are still people who are offended by black face worn by white people,” Steve Klein from The King Center in Atlanta told NewsChannel 13. [source]
The problem with this situation began with Sean King’s parents, who allowed him to leave the house in Black face in the first place. Suggesting that the school district is making a big deal out of this situation and defending this choice because its intent was to honour Dr. Martin Luther King evidences exactly how ignorant they are. There is never ever a reason that Blackface is acceptable, and despite the ridiculous support this family has been given, MLK did not work for the right of White people to engage in clearly racist behaviour.
I think that what the principal did was correct, but at the same time, I believe that part of this problem is that schools stay to what they believe to be safe topics like MLK, without dealing with things like White privilege, White supremacy, Blackface and even ongoing stereotypes that continue to cause harm to Black people. Children represent the possibility of change and if they aren’t going to learn about their privilege at home, it is exceedingly important that they learn about this at school. This situation is so messed up that Sean King actually believes that he stood up to oppression by refusing to wash off his makeup.
I don’t blame the child because he is not in a position to know better. Not only is he not aware of the implications of Blackface, he has no understanding that standing there saying how much he likes Black people, as though we are one big monolith actually inflames the situation. His parents see this as a situation of a teacher complaining and making a big deal out of nothing. The truth of the matter is that even if no one complained about the Blackface, it is still offensive. You cannot show respect for a Black historical figure by engaging in racism. It is my hope that the school will follow this up with some education about Blackface, because Sean King needs to understand why what he did was wrong, as he is clearly not going to learn this at home. This incident should be the start of a conversation, not the end of one.
update: The news did a follow story on this incident. Now apparently young Sean King and his family are worried about people being mean to him. The King family is considering pulling Sean from the school and they still see Blackface as nothing more than a costume.