"This is not the first time this has happened,” said Donta Hughes, a parent with three kids who attend Chaska High School.
He’s talking about blackface incidents at his kids’ school. There have been three such incidents involving students from Chaska over the past several years: one at a football game, another on social media and another with the school yearbook.
The fourth, and latest, was a 10-second video posted to social media app TikTok over the weekend. It shows two white 10th graders dancing, one of whom is wearing blackface.
“It's disrespectful to a whole race of people,” Hughes said. “The history of blackface has always been harmful … and it was always to make fun of black people.”
But in Chaska, a suburb southwest of Minneapolis, the accusations of racism extend far beyond blackface incidents.
A recent lawsuit against the district alleges African American students were called “monkey” by their classmates, and that a white student threatened to shoot a list of black students if they attended a school assembly on race relations.
Hughes said one of his kids was targeted by yet another incident last year, when white students posted an image of the faces of 25 black students superimposed on a Google map with a label calling it “Negro Hill.”
For him, it’s not just the persistence of these incidents that’s frustrating — it’s also the wider community’s response.
"On social media, on Facebook, you have people that are justifying what these kids are doing … You have parents saying, 'People are too easily offended.' Which we should be — offended by this — because it's not right,” Hughes said. “Last year when things were happening ... people were like, 'Oh, it's just two kids.' When do we have enough of people saying it's just two kids doing this?”
On Monday, Chaska High School Principal James Bach sent an email to families, telling them about the blackface video. He referred to the incident as "racist" and said he was upset and disappointed. He condemned the video and called on parents to talk to their kids about how their words and actions affect other people.
Hughes said this response is an improvement over some of the communication he's received from the district in the past that avoided the word "racism." But he said he wants clear information on how the school will be disciplining incidents like this.
"I think it's important that this community understand that just because it's not happening to them, [it] doesn't mean that it's not important,” Hughes said. “We have to stop making excuses for kids to be doing things like this."
A spokesperson for the district said officials can't share the consequences for this particular incident because of privacy concerns, but cited student handbook language that specifies a violation of district rules can result in a range of actions from a verbal warning to expulsion.
Tonya Coleman has three children who have attended Chaska schools. Last year, she moved her eldest, in high school, to a different school because of all the racist incidents. She also helped start an organization called ROAR, or Residents Organizing Against Racism.
“It started with my daughter coming home and letting us know that she hasn’t been taught any black history, and so that kind of springboarded into conversations with her school,” Coleman said. “It just started off as a compounding of things that happened here — from the blackface incident at the high school … and the response from the high school was less than adequate.”
She said once she started a Facebook group to talk about racist incidents in the Eastern Carver County district, “people were coming out of the woodwork” to share their own experiences with racist incidents, many of which weren’t just at the high school.
Coleman said she’s seen a lot of good things happen at Chaska since ROAR formed last year: an equity audit, an equity plan, the hire of an equity director. But she said this weekend’s blackface social media post is discouraging and appalling.
“In this particular year, a lot of emphasis has been on educating the district staff, the district administration,” Coleman said. “However, what is glaringly missing is education and focus on the students.”
Pam Wentink also has a daughter who attends Chaska High School. Last year she joined ROAR after hearing how racist incidents were affecting her daughter's peers. She and her daughter are white, but she said this weekend’s blackface video is exhausting to her. She said it must be even more exhausting for families of color, like Hughes and Coleman.
"On social media, one of the sad things for me is we're still kind of at this point where white people in the community are still like, 'Just get over it. Quit looking for problems. I was bullied when I was in high school and I turned out fine.’ There seems to be this disconnect between bullying, which is wrong, but it's different than racism,” Wentink said.
Wentink said she hopes the school will make the consequences for these sorts of incidents clear. More than that, she said, she wants the school and other white parents in the district to talk to their kids about racism.
"As a community, if we can't just in a clear voice say, 'Blackface is racist and that's wrong,' as opposed to, 'It's just a couple kids, they made a mistake.' ... I don't know how we can move forward," Wentink said.
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