Students of Memorial High School in Houston, Texas report rising tensions among the student body after Rachel Goodwin, 17, tweeted a photo of some of her classmates dressed up as “thugs” for a themed dress-up day held annually for rising seniors. According to Buzzfeed News reporters, both Goodwin and the students featured in the shared photo are receiving threats online and at school.
Although the official theme was “Jersey Day,” some of the costumes featured more than just jerseys. These costumes, in fact, were tailored to an altered version of the themed day, referred to by the students who observed it as “thug day.” Rather than just jerseys, “thug day” featured mostly white students dressed in du-rags, cornrows, gold chains around their necks and drawn-on prison tattoos while some students even flashed gang signs in posed pictures. Unsure how the participants of the offshoot “thug day” connected jerseys with the aspects of black culture that they appropriated, many of the non-participating students were horrified at the clear connection those who participated drew between everyday elements of black culture and “thuggishness.” Goodwin told Buzzfeed News, “From as early as 2015, the kids have been dressing up in offensive costumes.” She continued to say, “the kids wear du-rags and cornrows to be ‘thuggish’ but those things are not thuggish. They are cultural and part of people’s everyday life.”
Buzzfeed News emphasizes Goodwin’s attempt to bring social awareness and a sense of accountability to those who participated in “thug day,” however, her public tweet that called attention to the participating students’ shocking behavior has sparked schoolwide tensions that have devolved into highly personal attacks on both the offending students and those who spoke out against them. Goodwin has personally received a multitude of death threats from classmates, as well as more general threats and the releasing of her home address in various attempts to get her to remove the tweeted photo which some students argue has endangered the lives of those whom she publically criticized. School officials have been sensitive to the threats Goodwin and others who spoke up against the cultural appropriation and has allowed Goodwin and others to take a hiatus from attending classes until they feel safe enough to do so. However, this courtesy has also been extended to the offending students who have been targets of the same online threats and doxing as Goodwin, some of which are offers of direct experiences of thuggery if the offenders choose to expose their home addresses.
Attention To Cultural Appropriation
In addition to Goodwin, senior Alexis Ofori, 18, who estimates that she is one of 50 black students at Memorial High School, reported her dismay to Buzzfeed News. Having noticed the occurrence of cultural appropriation on what was intended to be “jersey day” as early as 2018, Ofori was initially afraid to speak her mind as she is a minority within the minority of the student body. Even Ofori’s parents discouraged any initial involvement for fear that she would put her safety at risk. Ofori pointedly remarked to reporters, “it was surreal to see trust-fund babies with prison tattoos.” She continued to reflect on the intentionality and premeditation of the offending students’ actions, stating “[They] consciously looked up a Mastering Cornrows 101 video, or walked into a black hair salon, full of people with different experiences from yours, sat down, and thought you belonged there — that those braids were yours because you paid for them.”
“Thug” = Coded Language
Adding to the hurt the offending students’ actions caused was the lack of attention paid to an article Ofori wrote for the school newspaper addressing the workings of cultural appropriation. Ofori told Buzzfeed reporters, “”The fact that this happened regardless, and that the article was ignored, hurt a lot because we put so much effort into it.” She continued to say, “Several people were so quick to say that [cultural appropriation] didn’t exist and white people are also called thugs. Those that say that don’t understand the history of that word and that it’s coded language.” While Ofori is frustrated with the offending students, Buzzfeed News underlines that she does not blame the school’s administration for the students’ actions. Yet, Ofori draws attention to the majority-white population of the school and the concurrent lack of education regarding issues of cultural appropriation.
A Responsibility To Educate
Senior Kelsy Meza, 18, was also vocal about her disapproval of the offending students’ actions, expressing her confusion to Buzzfeed News over how the group of offending students managed to connect the wearing of jerseys to du-rags and cornrows. When she confronted some of these students online, she was met with derision and laughter that reportedly made her feel unsafe returning to the classroom. Meza told Buzzfeed, “After I said my opinion, they were kind of laughing at me. I felt like they were going to laugh at me in class.” While Buzzfeed has yet to get in touch with Memorial High School’s administration, officials of the school and its school district have previously spoken to the Houston Chronicle, stating that they have taken action against the offending students. However, what action has been taken remains unclear. No matter the consequences given for their actions, concerned students maintain that the school has an obligation to socially educate its students on the serious matter of cultural appropriation. Meza suggested to Buzzfeed News, “[The school] should really do an activity — some bonding activity — where [students] can realize that what they’re doing is wrong. And not have other kids reinforcing it. I want the school to do something.”