High school students in southern New York are courting controversy over a questionable skit performed during a homecoming rally on Friday. Waverly High School in Tioga County, New York, is facing harsh criticism in the aftermath of a pep rally during which students wore blackface and reenacted singer Chris Brown’s 2009 assault of his then-girlfriend Rihanna, CNN reports.
A graduate of the school used CNN’s iReport to call out the event, and a photograph taken during the skit was posted on Facebook and iReport. Some students and community members are now accusing the rally of being racist and glorifying domestic violence. Chris Brown and Rihanna, who are both black, made headlines in 2009 when Brown physically attacked Rihanna the night before the Grammy Awards and later plead guilty to felony assault.
The alumnus who posted the iReport, Matthew Dishler, told the Associated Press that the participating students were likely unaware of the skit’s offensiveness, but school administrators should have put a stop to it.
“There were adults who should have stood up and said, ‘Hey, guys, this is not OK. Blackface is not OK. Is it illegal? No. But you should really not do that,’” Dishler, 24, said to the AP via telephone.
Rose Garrity, the director of nearby A New Hope Center, an aid group for victims of abuse, told the AP that administrators should not have allowed students to make light of the decidedly un-funny topic of domestic violence.
“They were trying to make something funny that is far from funny, and they were being incredibly racist while they were doing it,” Garrity told the AP. “I doubt any of those children had any idea about the history of racism and minstrels or anything like that.”
Blackface traces its roots to 19th century white actors who used dark makeup to imitate African Americans and often perpetuated racist stereotypes. Schools such as Smith College, University of Southern Mississippi, Northwestern University, Texas A&M University and Whitman College have all had to address student blackface controversies in recent years.
Although they did not win, the three white seniors who acted in the 30-second parody were participating in the “Mr. Waverly” contest and were competing to earn the most audience applause, CNN notes. Waverly Central School District Superintendent Joseph Yelich told CNN that school officials had approved the Chris Brown skit before the pep rally. He said the school is now working to make it a “teachable” situation.
Some people, however, think the incident has been blown out of proportion. Last year, a Waverly student wore black makeup in a satire about Tiger Woods.
“I don’t think it was offensive at all,” Chelsea House, a 2011 Waverly graduate who saw the pep rally during her homecoming visit, told CNN. “There’s nothing wrong with blackface. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up as a black person. Black is but a color.”
Many of those who expressed disappointment to CNN about the performance said any insensitivity on the part of the students likely stemmed from ignorance. The population in the town of Waverly is 97 percent white, according to 2010 figures.
Waverly alumnus Vlad Chituc told CNN that school officials should indeed take the blame.
“The administration should be creating an environment where minorities are welcome, not the butts of racist jokes that make light of domestic violence,” he said.
Superintendent Yelich said in a statement to the Daily Review that Waverly will set clearer standards for student behavior in the future.