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.