On Wednesday, February 8, 2017 five boys at Chugiak High School boys unconsciously brought the national discussion on race, racism, and history to Anchorage, Alaska.
I say unconsciously because they are teenagers and, being teenagers, they are, by nature, unconscious of the long-term consequences of their immediate actions. At most, teenagers are reflections of their society, seeking ways to push the boundaries and grow into a self-image of themselves that they are desperately trying to construct from the very cultural material they are rejecting as their parental inheritance.
Teenagers do think enough to take calculated risks. After all, parents still wield a tremendous amount of power in their lives. Society reinforces that power, legally insisting parents are responsible for the actions of their children. Any violation of the social contract is borne by teenager and parent alike.
Consequently, it appears the Chugiak Five decided to use a newer version of social media — a safe space — that their parents don’t frequent. So, instead of using Facebook, they took a staged photo of themselves posing enthusiastically with the Confederate flag — modified with a flaming mudflats girl silhouette superimposed upon it — and posted it to Snapchat. (This must be the Valley approved version, because it isn’t historically accurate.)
The caption read: “If your [sic] offended . . . hah! That sucks. That’s your problem.”
The gimmick feature of Snapchat is that posts only last for 24 hours. That was enough.
Within that time, the image created a controversy great enough to inspire most of the handful of African American students who attend the school to choose to stay home, after local news picked up the story.
The Anchorage School District (ASD) went into damage control mode. ASD spokesperson Heidi Embley issued a standard reply, essentially arguing that school buildings are unique in their purpose to provide a safe, learning environment for students.
A meeting was held with the five young minds and the district is seeking to balance freedom of speech with cultural sensitivity and personal safety concerns. The district sent out a statement and no repercussions for the students’ behavior is forthcoming.
Because of federal law, Embley could not answer any questions about the students’ intentions.
The Black Committee of the 2004 Graduate Class
The reaction from the African American community was also standard. February is recognized as Black History Month. With the ASD not giving any answers as to “Why did they do this?” the idea that the white students did this on purpose to be hateful or racist are the readily available assumptions.
Anchorage business woman, Kenyada Waters, who is African-American, grew up in the Peters Creek/Chugiak area during the 1990s.
“I still feel like as a black person”, she said, “I don’t belong out there just because of the atmosphere. It’s not very cultural and Black people are very few. Sometimes when you go to the store they [i.e. white people] kind of look at you like, ‘What are you doing in this community?’ even though they don’t say it. You see it in their facial expression and their body language.”
I had more racial issues in elementary school. I think it has a lot to do with kids being younger and their household having more of an impact on them, and them doing what they see and hear. I got called a nigger several times at Chugiak Elementary. I never dealt with racial slurs personally at Chugiak [High School] that I can remember, but there [was the] stereotypical misunderstanding of Black culture and ignorance, especially when you talk about Black history! Their misperception of our history and the sufferings of our people — they’re looking at it as, “We should get over and act like it never happened!” That mentioning of our past is a complaint, whining, and that those issues don’t currently exist! [That] we are overreacting.
Waters remembers an incident during her junior year (2002-2003) when an English teacher asked two African American female students to play Tituba, a slave, in a play presentation of The Crucible. She remembers the teacher being confused as to why the parents considered the request disrespectful.
LaTia Smith graduated with Waters in 2004 from Chugiak High School. She was among the “Black Sisterhood,” as they were nicknamed, who bonded together due to their circumstances. An adviser named Mr. Kat encouraged the dozen or so students to stand up for themselves when confronted by ignorance and hate, even if that meant engaging in self-defense.
“It was even worse for me as far as culture goes,” Smith said. “I lived out in Wasilla.”
The group of high school friends remember Smith as the most combative. Waters said Smith scared the white students, telling them she would “bust them in the mouth.” She did hit one boy for stepping on her shoe.
When asked what can be done to improve the situation, Smith is pessimistic.
There’s nothing they can really do because of the demographics being predominantly White. They are blind to the fact that Black, or anyone else, really exists. They don’t understand. I remember having a discussion about Blacks and welfare/public assistance and how they [white students] felt that the recipients shouldn’t be allowed to purchase certain products (crabs, steaks, etc).
Smith now lives in Atlanta as a travel consultant. “I remember moving here thinking, ‘O-M-G, I’m not moving here — the black people are in charge,” she said. “I just know it’s going to be ‘ghetto,’ and, looking back now, that was such an ignorant statement to make, or even think, but I was culturally brainwashed.”
Her view appears to support the comments under the news articles which have come out. Many of the comments, as is standard when discussing the Confederate flag, primarily defended the it as a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, not a symbol of racism and the Jim Crow South.
Readers implored the school district to use this opportunity to teach students the real reasons behind the Civil War, which they purport were states’ rights and government overreach.
If nothing else, this incident demonstrates that race remains a contentious issue with real life consequences. Whether the Chugiak students meant it as a racist statement or not, they show a disconnect between cultural identity and the political reality that American history is internalized differently.
How this is reconciled appears to be the burning question of a generation with no standard answers, only standard defenses, which maintain the disconnect.