NEW ALBANY — Lingering concerns about whether some costumes worn at a recent middle school basketball game were racially charged were addressed with members of the New Albany Chapter of the NAACP and administrators from the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. on Tuesday night.
The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People invited district officials and parents from Parkview Middle School to talk about gorilla costumes and President Barack Obama masks worn by some Highland Hills students at a game on Feb. 7. Parents voiced concerns that the motivation for wearing the costumes and masks were racially charged.
Lisa Barnett, a parent of one of the players on Parkview’s team that night, said she thought the district had downplayed the issue in media coverage by limiting the incident to three students and appearing to not understand the seriousness of the issues discussed.
“There were more than three masks, it seemed like a whole cheering section right in back of our basketball team that either had on black nylon masks, they had on Obama masks and a bunch of gorillas and monkeys,” Barnett said. “I couldn’t focus on the game because of these masks behind our boys.”
She said another parent with her asked one of the students why they were wearing a black nylon mask and said they were representing the black boys.
In an article in the News and Tribune on Feb. 12, Steve Griffin, principal at Highland Hills, said he thought students were emulating students at college games with the costumes. Bruce Hibbard, superintendent, also said in that article that he thought the students did not have the intent to offend others.
Bill Briscoe, assistant superintendent, said he understood why the district might have been viewed as insensitive or dismissive of the issue after media coverage, but wanted to assure the community that they understood the gravity of the incident.
“We could have done a better job responding to those questions,” Briscoe said. “I’ll say this — what happened was wrong, it was offensive and we know it was hurtful to people. We hope that the three kids and their parents learned from this. This is a teaching situation.”
He also said he hoped students in the stands and in the halls of the school also took away a lesson from the incident.
Nicole Yates, president of the New Albany NAACP, said some of the images used by students have long been recognized as racist icons in reference to blacks.
“It is no secret that it has been in the past that African Americans are referred to as gorillas or anything, monkeys and what have you,” Yates said. “And so it was offensive and it was offensive to a lot of people, a lot of parents. We know that Parkview in Jeffersonville has a great deal of African American students there.”
Mary Thomas, another parent of a Parkview player in that game, said it’s difficult to understand what it’s like to be of another race and that racism is ingrained at home.
“It really doesn’t sit well with me,” Thomas said. “Most white people do not realize what it’s like to be black, honestly. We know there’s very few blacks that attend the school, but they see it. Our president is black. And I don’t understand why a student was wearing a Barack Obama mask.”
Raymond Cousins, a member of the NAACP in New Albany, said he graduated from New Albany High School in 1973. He said back then, he felt the effects of blatant racism and didn’t want the current generation to experience what he did.
“It’s not right, it hurt our children’s feelings and it always breaks their self-esteem down,” Cousins said. “And I think somebody should be reprimanded for this, this is not tolerated.”
Yates said she also remembers how it felt in middle school as one of the only black students there and why she thought students at that age do know the meaning of racism.
“At 12, I probably knew better,” Yates said. “I went to Pineview and at 12, I knew what racism was. Me and my twin sister were the only blacks in our grade and I clearly at 12 probably knew what that meant. But whether these kids had that intent, I don’t know.”
Other members of the organization said they didn’t think 12 year olds necessarily understood what they did or why people thought the costumes and masks were racist.
Sharon Jones, director of student programs and cultural responsiveness, said Griffin met with his counselors to discuss a plan of action and information to share with students about racism. She said one of the counselors wanted to make sure it was a one-time incident.
“But [she said] these are my kids and I want them to know better, I don’t want this occurring again,” Jones said. “I want to make sure they understand the perception and what racism means because realizing that not everybody looks like you that not everybody thinks like you.”
Griffin said whether students were aware of the racist connotation of the costumes, he and other educators need to make sure students are sensitive to issues of race in their schools.
“It’s my responsibility to help them know that if they don’t, and even if they do, that’s not appropriate at Highland Hills or any school,” Griffin said. “I had eight great years of teaching at Jeffersonville High School before moving over to New Albany-Floyd, so I have a personal connection to Greater Clark and the people of Jeffersonville. It was something I should have caught prior to people being offended, I sincerely apologize for that.”