Aunt Jemima O.K. On The Box, But Not In School

November 6, 2009

Last week a kid on Long Island was sent home from school for dressing as Aunt Jemima.  The 17 year old boy, who had been dressing up as different female characters for Halloween since third grade, seemed surprised by all the fuss, as did his classmates.  Was his costume a racist statement, inadvertent or not, or much ado about nothing?

Yesterday Michael Meyers wrote an op-ed that was published in Newsday. Mr. Meyers, an African American, is Executive Director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.  He affirmed the kid’s first amendment right to shock, and concluded the article with these words: “This student has done us all a big favor by reminding us that freedom of expression can oftentimes be offensive. So what? In a free society, free expression warrants the widest of berths and protection”.

I tend to agree, and the U.S. Supreme Court does too.  Actions by the government that limit free speech and expression are immediately suspect. Check out the Supreme Court’s holding in R. A.V. v. St. Paul.   This of course does not mean that words are harmless.  The old childhood adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me” was never true. Words can harm, and not just emotionally: The Klu Klux Klan, Nazi Germany, and many other examples throughout history serve to show how powerful words can be as an incitement to violence.

The reaction to this story is mixed. There’s no doubt that some consider the costume to have been more than harmless Halloween fun.  NPR’s Jennifer Ludden had an interview with blogger Carmen Van Kerckhove about this subject last week.

In the end, common sense should prevail, but it rarely does. As Mr. Meyers writes, “Acting shocked and aggrieved on behalf of “offended” black and minority people is something school authorities do often – even when blacks, like me, aren’t bothered by race-based silliness or simple youthful Halloween exuberance”.

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