OPRF student apologizes for Snapchat photo

'I did not check my white privilege,' says 17-year-old who uploaded blackface picture

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

An Oak Park and River Forest High School student who uploaded a racially charged photo to social media showing him in blackface has come forward to apologize. During an interview on Monday, the 17-year-old OPRF senior confirmed that he is the person in the photo and that he posted it to his Snapchat account on Sunday night.

"Vote me for BLU president," reads the caption above the picture of the student in blackface. Underneath that statement he wrote, "For those who don't know BLU is Black Leaders Union," and inserted an emoji depicting a neutral face beside the bottom caption.

Within hours, the teenager said, he noticed the backlash the photo had provoked among his friends and acquaintances and took it down. He then posted an apology to his Snapchat account, he said.

"I was at a friend's house and we were exfoliating. I had a black charcoal face mask," he explained during an interview. "The photo was posted as an off-handed joke and I didn't stop to think about the racial circumstances or the effects it would have."

Since he uploaded the photo on Sunday night, it has been screenshot, shared on Facebook many times and widely circulated among OPRF students. The words, 'hi racism!' are scrawled in neon green digital handwriting across the version of the photo that has been making the rounds on social media. He said that those words are not his and must have been added by someone else.

The student and his mother, who declined to be identified because of concerns about her employment, said that District 200 officials, fearing for his safety, told him not to go to school on Tuesday.

The teenager said that he's written an open apology and takes full responsibility for his actions, adding that he doesn't want to be viewed as a victim. The student and his mother had expressed a desire to voluntarily reveal his identity, but Wednesday Journal editorial policy states the paper does not identify minors accused of wrongdoing.

"I posted an offhand comment on social media and I wasn't really thinking," the teen said. "I want to make sure that everyone knows how I feel, that I'm very regretful and would love to learn from this experience. People's anger is justified. I did not check my white privilege. I did not think about what I posted. There's no excuse. I did this and I take responsibility for my actions."

Some people close to the student, including OPRF teacher and community organizer Anthony Clark, were shocked by the photo.

The student said that he has been involved in marches organized by Suburban Unity Alliance, the nonprofit Clark founded last year to fight against racism in the suburbs. The teenager said he has even volunteered on Clark's campaign for U.S. Congress and participated in the Woman's March in Chicago earlier this year. In Monday's interview, the student described himself as a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights and racial equality.

Clark shared the offensive photo on Facebook before taking it down after speaking with the student and his mother on Monday. Clark said he, the teenager and the mother also met with Amy Renzulli, the founder of School of Rock, of which the 17-year-old is an active member. Clark said that he has set up a meeting between the student and members of BLU that will be held at his home on Wednesday. 

"We all had painful and open dialogue covering everything from systemic racism to white privilege, culminating the conversation with understanding that talking is not enough, apologies are not enough," Clark wrote in a statement.

"My son did something embarrassing and we feel awful about this. He did a dumb thing and we can't excuse it out of ignorance," said the student's mother.

"I told him that he put something ugly out into the world and, even if he didn't mean it, it's still out there," she added. "All he can do is try doing something good. If his coming out and taking the heat for this and responsibility for this helps show other people a way forward, that's the best thing to come of this."

The teenager's act, his mother said, flies in the face of the household's collective process of self-education. She said she had just finished reading a book about white privilege and its attendant harms called White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson and noted that Ta-Nehisi Coates' bestseller about white supremacy, Between the World and Me, had been on her son's "reading shelf forever."

"We try and be good allies," she said. "This is the first time any of us have ever been on this side of the issue. It's not a place we're comfortable being."

The student's mother, however, cautioned those who would "rush to judgment" based on a photo uploaded to social media.

"Sometimes teenagers do dumb things that go against what they themselves believe in," she said. "God forbid your kid does something stupid and wrong. It happens. I think that our political environment encourages [snap judgments], because they encourage hatred and division.

"I'd ask people not to not be angry, but to take a step back. He is remorseful and wants to try to make it up to people. That doesn't mean that I'm trying to make him out to be the victim in any way, because I know he is not and so does he."

On Monday evening, the OPRF administration released a statement on the incident.

"We share the hurt and dismay that this action has caused our school community. We take such matters extremely seriously and are investigating," the statement from Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams reads. "In handling this, we must consider the impact the posting has had and will continue to have on all parties. In the coming days, we will be determining how best to address the matter for all involved."

Publisher's note: The teenager involved in this incident is related to a Wednesday Journal employee.

Contact:
Email: michael@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Alice Wellington  

Posted: October 17th, 2017 5:11 PM

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan - so anyone who disagrees with your groupthink is a troll? No dissenting opinion ever allowed in this virtuous town?

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: October 17th, 2017 3:50 PM

I have to ask- how do all these troll comments get approved? Why verify through facebook at all if they are only going to post garbage? Alice Wellington's account is clearly a troll account.

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: October 17th, 2017 3:47 PM

It's okay, Jeffrey. Mr. Vara doesn't have much of a grasp on the English language either.

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: October 16th, 2017 3:37 PM

"voters" whose votes you're seeking... No one said I could spell.

Jeffrey Smith  

Posted: October 16th, 2017 3:36 PM

Mr. Vara - are you the same Ralph Vara who is running for the Illinois Senate against Camille Lily? If so, is it a good idea to denounce the votes whose votes you're seeking?

Alice Wellington  

Posted: October 16th, 2017 11:40 AM

That's because we live in the society where firefighter can lose his job over bringing a watermelon to treat his coworkers, and student school trip can get cancelled over a tossed banana peel. Oh, and speaking of white privilege... Take two minutes to watch this. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnAPWKGMtDM

Ralph Vara  

Posted: October 15th, 2017 6:49 PM

Lighten up people. He is a 17 year old kid joking around with his buddy's. I swear to God you would think he killed someone. What kind of people have time to turn this into an issue and have it reach local news?! The way you self righteous, judgmental Oak Park people are making this kid feel is much more of a concern than the joke he made. The people judging him are probably the same people calling all whites "privileged" ...hypocrites! I don't know who you are kid but I pray to God these fools didnt break your spirit.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 2:55 PM

@Alice I don't think you fully understand the concept of "white privilege." It's not really about affluence, though it's often misinterpreted that way.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: October 12th, 2017 12:56 PM

How quaint of the student, but a mere apology will never suffice in Oak Park. Instead, Oak Parkers demand that he be thoroughly doxxed, pilloried by the villagers in Scoville Park, renounce his white privilege, pay reparations, forfeit all personal property to the village, and write a 10,000 word essay on intersectionality. Only then will Oak Parkers have the revenge and righteous indignation that so richly crave.

Alice Bethany  

Posted: October 11th, 2017 8:24 PM

Go to the Appalachia Mountains and then run and tell about White privilege. Such an appalling term. The truth is that even if we deem affluence as privilege (which can and does include people of color), the human condition is such that everyone is challenged by life in one way or another from time to time. That term is shallow and therefore deceptive but it appeals to the victim mentality, which certain members of society wish to exploit in others. Beware of anyone who promotes others as having it easy while you are struggling. You might think they understand and sympathize with you but they are disempowering you with words...

Alice Bethany  

Posted: October 11th, 2017 8:18 PM

Carol: LOL!!!! LITERALLY!!!! xD

Carol Ann  

Posted: October 11th, 2017 9:30 AM

Lighten up!

Leslie Stevens  

Posted: October 11th, 2017 9:18 AM

The teacher was most likely saddened, angered, disgusted and disappointed as he knows this kid. I am sure he meant no harm by posting it. However, not so sure the kid who created meant the same.

Josh Vanderberg  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 8:37 PM

So, a 17 year old boy just happened to be exfoliating with a black carbon mask? I mean, I guess....

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 6:51 PM

The student did not post it to a public account. He did not post it to thousand-plus member FB communities. The only ones who saw the original, hurtful, and teaching moment post, were his SnapChat friends. Who promptly taught. And he clearly has the capacity to learn. It's the adults who spread it over everything. And too often did not view it as a teaching moment, but a sword with which to slay each other. Those injuries are not in this boy's head.

Camile Lindsay Kumi  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 6:07 PM

Speaking of white privilege...white privilege is committing an extremely racist and offensive act, thereby hurting hundreds of your black and brown classmates, their families, and the larger community, but still being given the opportunity to have your "innocent" characterization of events be published in the paper before those classmates' thoughts and concerns are given a voice. Wednesday Journal, I hope we hear the other side tomorrow. How do his classmates feel about his actions and why?

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 6:03 PM

This was a 17 year old man. Let's pop this bubble we all live in and speak the truth. This could have been any one of ours. This young man could have been mine. I'm not going to sit here and let you demonize Mr Clark because he called this behavior out. We should all be doing that. Teach your children, your young men and women, that this is never acceptable, but when you make a colossal mistake, you own up to it. You apologize to the faces of those you hurt and denigrated. You make amends and restore their dignity. And you learn from it. And you teach others what you've learned.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 5:37 PM

I absolutely agree with you, Mr. Hale. The kid did a stupid thing, no doubt. And yes, he offered a heart felt apology. But Mr. Clark is the adult in the room. He's the teacher is he not? Fanning the flames - as you put it -throwing gasoline onto the proverbial fire - as I put it - is not what I would expect from a teacher at OPRF.

John Abbott  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 5:33 PM

thanks, Michael, for this thorough and responsible piece of journalism. I realize this is not the last word on the topic, but hope it gains the widest possible readership as this conversation continues.

Jon Hale  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 5:16 PM

Two things: 1) The kid posted what looks to me for all the world like a heartfelt response and apology: "I posted an offhand comment on social media and I wasn't really thinking," the teen said. "I want to make sure that everyone knows how I feel, that I'm very regretful and would love to learn from this experience. People's anger is justified. I did not check my white privilege. I did not think about what I posted. There's no excuse. I did this and I take responsibility for my actions." 2) The article says: "Clark shared the offensive photo on Facebook before taking it down after speaking with the student and his mother on Monday." As a teacher at OPRFHS and an adult, Clark should not have fanned the flames without first talking with the kid, whom, the article implies, Clark already knew.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 1:50 PM

I agree with Alex. No one Dare blink an eye with any bad thoughts....we all know its only when you get caught.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 1:09 PM

I so enjoy when leftist Oak Parkers start eating their own.

Gail Vijuk  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 12:11 PM

Jenna Brown Russell - so the fact that he was "exfoliating" and that's why he had the black matter on his face somehow excuses this behavior? The issue was never about how that stuff got on his face, or what it was made of. The issue at hand is what he did with that picture. It's disgusting. And yes, teens are notorious for their poor judgement, but that doesn't excuse them from the consequences of those decisions.

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 12:04 PM

We all have so far to go. We have so much to teach our kids. And Jenna, you are doing exactly what you are railing against. As usual.

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: October 10th, 2017 11:23 AM

The glib stupidity of youth transcends cultures. I am heartened to hear the circumstances, and saddened that the photo was circulated, via Anthony's post, so broadly across many groups. It was incideniary, and brought forth lots of hate, when the purported goal is the opposite. It seems anger is first, information second. The label used is 'outrage porn' and we all seem addicted. We need to all do better, not just this kid.

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