OPRF High School coaching staff (drill & cheerleading), regarding your explanation for the different ethno-racial makeup of the cheer squads and drill teams in the TV series America to Me, a few questions:

1. Who decides what constitutes “a background in dance”? Does dance instruction in traditional African dance count? What about “hip hop”? Is this a legitimate “dance form”? And are you telling me that African-American girls don’t take ballet, modern or contemporary dance classes, etc.? As the young folks say, OPRF Athletic Department, are you serious with yourself right now?”

2. What is the explanation for the cheer squads being predominantly African American? As a former collegiate Big Ten cheerleader, I know that a background in gymnastics is key! So are you saying that the black girls are more adept at gymnastics than the white girls? Is this why the cheer squads are predominantly African American?

This is my take on the (for the most part segregated) cheerleading & drill teams at OPRF. They have to know that the optics are terrible and to allow this type of segregation at our high school is inexcusable. As a longtime resident of Oak Park and a parent of two African-American children (both of whom are graduates of OPRF over 15 years ago), this same segregated drill team and cheerleader squad pattern was in existence way back when my children attended the high school.

Wake up, OPRF administrators. These young women are ambassadors of our community! This is a long-standing perception problem (within the OPRF student body). The school needs to become intentional in diversifying these high-profile organizations: aggressive recruitment efforts toward racial diversification of both cheer and drill teams; “re-imaging” both so that the black and white girls feel neither pressured nor stigmatized to join one organization over the other; hiring cheer and drill team coaches who are able and willing to accommodate and integrate “diverse” cheer and dance styles. 

And please spread the cheerleaders out across the entire football stadium and allow both the drill and the cheerleaders to perform at halftime.

One final note: Back in the late 1960s, I was on the first racially integrated cheer squad at a West Side Catholic high school for boys; I attended an all-girls Catholic high school (we were their “sister” school). I remember the first time I walked onto the field; I heard this older white woman in the stands utter, “Well it’s about time!” I knew exactly what she meant as she saw this (very first) integrated cheerleading squad enter the stadium. 

During our time together, we cheerleaders grew as people, in that we got to know each other — moving beyond the racial stereotypes that society tried to brainwash us with about each other. We also learned to compromise on the different (“racial”) styles of cheerleading (that do exist), learning to appreciate and celebrate each other and these different styles. 

If we could achieve this balance and compromise as teenagers, with no adult coaching staff, then, OPRF, what’s your excuse?

Janice Matthews Rasheed, PhD, LCSW, is a retired professor with Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work.

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