Students protest after racist photo surfaces

On Monday, Jan. 25, the high school parking lot looked a little different than usual. The typically vacant lot was packed with dozens of students and community members, clinging to signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” marching side by side, fists raised. 

The outrage demonstrated by these protestors was the result of a photo posted on Snapchat, featuring a white sophomore holding a cookie with the n-word spelled out in M&Ms, and this photo was the last straw in a string of individual incidents of student racism, many of which were also shared publicly at the protest that began with a walkout at 1 p.m. That photo has now been screenshotted by several other students and posted on multiple social media sites. 

The Cedar Falls School District received widespread backlash for the photo, with multiple parents posting on Facebook and emailing the superintendent, demanding harsh punishment for the student in question. They addressed the situation through a virtual assembly at the high school led by principal Jason Wedgebury. 

During the assembly, Wedgebury directly addressed the post to students, and he clarified the school’s position on the use of the n-word. “If you’re white, and you’re defending the use of the word, I suggest you do some serious self reflection and educate yourself on the history of this vile, vile word, and I think it ultimately makes a very strong statement that justifying and rationalizing your use of the N word is not OK, and it will not be tolerated.”

Wedgebury went on to tell students the plans in place to prevent further incidents of racism. “Our staff who are sitting here and serving you want to create a very inclusive environment and a safe environment for everyone, and we have made a collective commitment that any sight or sound, or any racial acts will absolutely become an office-managed piece.”

Cedar Falls Mayor Rob Green also took on the matter in a Facebook post on Jan. 22. “Racism has no place in our world. Racism has no place in Cedar Falls. Racist thinking is not welcome here,” Green wrote. 

While administrators have taken action, students are demanding more. At the center of these rising voices is the Black Student Union, a group founded this year that meets during school. Sophomore Natasia Johnson joined the group after she started seeing racist videos circulating on social media. 

“I actually didn’t join the BSU when it first started. I joined it after the TikTok of a student was posted. That Tik Tok included her lip syncing the n-word. I was highly upset about the situation and how someone could get away with degrading a race and destroying humanity. I talked to my mom about how something needed to be done, and she advised me to join the BSU in order for me to get others’ perspectives on the situation,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, the issue goes beyond the one photo. She said that she hopes education will stop these incidents from recurring in the future. “I decided to help organize the march because Cedar Falls High School has normalized racism for so long, and I was just tired. I was tired of feeling uncomfortable, unsafe and looked down upon. I was tired of feeling a disconnection from my education because of my skin color. I was tired of racial slurs being tossed around like a trendy TikTok song.”

Johnson also said that this is not the first time she has experienced racism. In fact, she said that she has been targeted because of her race in the academic setting before. “I have experienced racism at school. I was in industrial tech in line in order to sand my project. A white boy told me, ‘Get to the back of the line, like the old days.’ I was shocked, being so young, and although my parents informed me about situations like this, I was not prepared. His words made me feel inhumane, but I couldn’t show it. No one should have to go through that, no one should have to feel that type of way, especially not a child,” Johnson said. 

Johnson is not the only black student who has faced racism at school. After the photo posted with a racial slur, many other students of color have come forward to share stories of prejudice. One of those students is Dinari Turner. A senior, he spoke at the march and is also a member of the BSU. “I was in the locker room, and these kids were joking around, and they kept saying the n-word, and it was making me upset, so I asked them to stop, and they told me ‘shut the f up, you b**** a*** n****,’” Turner said. 

Junior Anisia Smith, a member of the BSU, said that she too has experienced racism. “Yes, I had an old friend that got caught saying the hard-r on video. She basically wasn’t remorseful; she played the victim, which irritated me the most. The school didn’t do anything about this issue except notify her parents,” Smith said. 

Story after story of similar incidents have been shared by not only students, but alumni as well. Cherie Kabba, an alumni of Peet Junior High and website designer for the Waterloo NAACP said she was not surprised to see racist instances being brought to attention. “In the mid ’80s I was a student at Peet Junior High in Cedar Falls. We were in the ninth grade. There were three open spots on the CF pom pom squad. I believe there were seven of us trying out. I was the only African-American. One of my best friends, a white girl; her name was Michelle, was talking with some other girls in the cafeteria. As I approached the group of girls talking, my friend’s back was turned. They were discussing who would make the pom-poms squad. I heard her say, ‘ … well, Cherie won’t make it, she’s an odd color.’ It was at that moment I begged my mom—who at the time was a student at the University of Northern Iowa—to transfer me to Northern University High School. The difference was CF had one or two black students. NU High had 33,” Kabba said. “In my very naïve state of thinking, 33 students that look like me were receiving fair treatment and equal education. I decided not to try out for the pom-poms at CF. Michelle and I did not speak to each other again, and my mom granted me my request. I transferred to NU High.”

Anisia Smith said that she hopes white students will find ways to support students of color, and said she hopes that a brighter future lies ahead for students. “It angers me and saddens me that at this age people think that’s cool. I don’t think her punishment was good enough. I hope white students will educate themselves and others and participate instead of just putting BLM in their Instagram bio,” Smith said. “Also, speaking out when your friend says something racist, call them out and let them know where you stand.”

Natasia Johnson said that until harsher punishments and broader education are enacted, these incidents will continue. “I believe that Cedar Falls High School needs to be consistent in order to prevent future racism at this school. They can’t pick and choose who to suspend. I also believe that we need to dive deeper and begin to change the guidebook and set a rule against racial harassment,” Johnson said. “We need to teach students about topics like this because although it is sad, some don’t know the meaning behind the terms they are using. We also need to teach the non-whitewashed version of black history because black people were not killers, stealers and destroyers. Black people were on this land first; we created most of the things white people took and called it their own.”

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