Those Little Rascals!
Our Opinion/Our Gang of Lovable nitwits gets into trouble again
(Originally published in the High Plains Reader 10/27/2011)
Discrimination in Fargo Schools Continues
By Cindy Gomez-Schempp
“Buckwheat”, the racial slur used by Mike Nygaard, an assistant principal at South High to degrade a black student, comes from the television show ‘Our Gang’, or ‘The Little Rascals’ as they were also known. The story has sparked some outrage in the community and the school has officially “punished” Mr. Nygaard by leaving a frightening note in his permanent file or some such nonsense. He reportedly gave an apology and will undergo training to make him seem more sensitive. Some people argue the punishment is not sufficient, others disagree. The victims, however, are getting a raw deal as usual.
This phenomenon is not new. Parents of children of color have always found themselves demanding justice for discrimination that is not seen, not recognized, and not adequately dealt with. The list of discrimination issues in the school keep piling up, while each time the school system quickly sweeps everything under the rug and as Superintendent Rick Buresh put it “tries concluding this episode and returning our school to the school climate we think it needs to be”. Conclude the episode? This isn’t the Little Rascals! This is racism at its worst and it is destroying our children’s self esteem. Parents and kids have complained forever of the intolerable racism in schools and the responses have been inadequate. Meanwhile, white administrators and school board governments call the evidence of racism “the education gap” and are continually baffled that approximately 80% of whites graduate high school, while only 40% of kids of color do.
The reason has to do with ignorance of racism and its impacts. In today’s colorblind society, identifying, reporting, and combating racism as this young man and his family did is rewarded with an apology and punishment behind closed doors. Ridiculing and victimizing the family a second time, the administration wants to “conclude the episode” as quickly as possible. If racism is as terrible as we all say, something we all have learned to try to identify and stop, why aren’t school officials showing elation at the opportunity to honor the experience of this young man and his parents by explaining to other white children and teachers why calling a black child “Buckwheat” is cruel, oppressive, lascivious, and dehumanizing to a child? What arrogance possesses the South High administration or school board to think the people of color in that school system will continue to allow their children to be subjected to an individual that would commit such an act, and worse, who is so ignorant of his own racism as to be dangerous in his inability to recognize when he inflicts harm? To hear a woman of color’s opinion of what should be done watch a clip of this video on the “People Speak” tab of thepeoplespressproject.org website.
And it is our educational system which fails to teach us enough about racism, its function, and its effects on every aspect of American life, that leads to unjust outcomes like the one in this case. A community of people who have been shielded from the ugly history of genocide and racism that helped to found this nation is much more likely to feel a kinship to the guy being crucified for calling a black kid “Buckwheat” than the outraged person of color calling for his dismissal. The same society also produces hordes of people ready to defend racist attitudes that no one (who’s white) really thinks of as racist anymore. One woman on Facebook commented that she thought the boy should be grateful to be compared to such a nice and beloved character. In our society, justly punishing racism is often seen as “reverse” racism by many whites. To add insult to injury, victim outrage is frequently met with indifference, oppression, and escalating forms of retaliation. It isn’t hard to understand why for victims it seems that school administrators are trying to cover their ugly history of racism and discrimination rather than correct it.
We hope Mr. Nygaard’s “sensitivity” training includes the history of “Buckwheat” and what it means to blacks in America. While “Buckwheat” might just roll off Nygaard’s tongue and appear to the ignorant as rather innocuous, the dehumanization of blacks is anything but. The “Picaninny” is the most dominant racial caricature of black children in American history portraying them as bug eyed, red lipped, and frequently fleeing from the jaws of some beast, chasing fried chicken or watermelons which they would eat with wide gaping mouths ravenously. They had nothing to do and nowhere to do it, but they were frequently portrayed crawling, climbing, squatting, and generally wearing little or no clothes. A Picaninny’s life was frequently in peril and entertaining to see die; images frequently showed them being run over, eaten, or lit on fire. They were also called coons, inky kids, bad chillun, chubby ebonies, black lambs, crows, monkeys and opossums and frequently featured next to animals. These images reinforced eugenic scientific thinking at the time that believed blacks were like animals, inferior to the white race and destined for extinction. Though black children have historically been impoverished, the picaninny reinforces that all blacks live in squalor and they were frequently shown half naked or fully nude with genital exposed and enlarged buttocks indicating both a lack of modesty and encouraging the sexualization of black children and by extension exposing them to sexual abuse. The forerunner to the Little Rascals was called ‘Ten Picaninnies’. Buckwheat is one of the most memorable picaninnies in the history of picaninnies. In fact, picaninny is a word rarely heard today as a racial slur, it has been replaced with “Buckwheat”. To read more on the history of “Buckwheat” and picaninnies see: http://tiny.cc/JimCrow
It is unjust that parents and children who are victimized by discrimination are not heard publically. The public should be heard too! If you want to do something, made yourself heard. The People’s Press Project is giving people in the community who have suffered discrimination in the school system a chance to be heard! Watch the school board meeting online and visit the .gov section of this week’s HPR and find out details on how you can add your voice to the conversation or visit thepeoplespressproject.org for more details.