Recently, Akilah Hughes spoke out about an experience in a Midwestern high school where she was threatened with suspension for wearing a shirt that read “Kiss Me, I’m Black.”
She writes that “Growing up in a mid-sized Kentucky suburb, I got used to being one of the only black kids in most of my classes,” and that “it was a common occurrence to catch other black kids mouthing numbers as they counted exactly how many of us there were in our 2,000-student school. I don’t think there were more than 50.”
Black History Month was always torturous. Not because the subject matter wasn’t interesting. Because being the only black person in your class means you are often asked to be the voice of your entire race. Could I shed some light on the civil rights movement for the class? Did I know what plantation my enslaved ancestors lived on? Would I like to read the slave narrative to the class? The experience was stressful at best; horrifically obtuse and intrusive at worst.
So for her junior year, on St. Patrick’s Day, she “decided to make a funny shirt that celebrated my blackness in an overwhelmingly white environment. If I was going to be subjected to eighty million questions because my teachers weren’t educated on my history, they’d have to be subjected to my unabashed pride in my heritage. I got myself some puffy paint and created a masterpiece.”
But that’s when the trouble began.
I was nervous about wearing the shirt to school, mostly because standing out is really not what most high schoolers want to do, and I was proclaiming something my skin did already, but proudly. I didn’t need the approval of everyone, I had my own.
The first half of the day was fine. But then a teacher kept reading the shirt aloud as “Kiss Me I’m Irish.” Intentionally. Because… I actually don’t know why. It was obviously racially motivated, but I still don’t get why an educator would pretend to be illiterate.
After a long day of high fives and kids telling me either how much they loved it — or hearing kids whispering hateful stuff about it to one other, my principal took me aside.
The principal didn’t have a sense of humor about the shirt. Wearing a t-shirt that read “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” was perfectly fine. But if a black girl wanted to do the same thing, it was a problem.
“If you wear that shirt in this school again you’re getting suspended,” the principal barked.
“What? Why?” she responded.
“Because it’s offensive and not everyone can wear one!” he yelled.
“But everyone wears ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ shirts and none of them get suspended!” Now Akilah was yelling too.
“Don’t wear it again,” the principal said firmly.
Akilah’s mother had friends working for the Cincinnati Enquirer, the biggest paper in the tri-state area.
The paper picked up the story, but when the asked the principal for a comment, suddenly he didn’t have much to say.
The school was attempting to act as an apparatus of the State – mandating education, but then restricting mention of one’s heritage to European ethnicities. The principal never got in any trouble for his racist abuse of authority. But once the story got picked up locally, he also learned that information is power, and with the eyes of the public on his discriminatory policies, he wasn’t going to be able to enforce his will.
Akilah wore that shirt at least once a day for the rest of the school year: just to rub it in the racist principal’s face. Since then, she has asked Jen Mussari, to design a better, gender-neutral version of the shirt which is available here.
The thing that all of us should take away from this incident, regardless of our background, is that oppression and repression is widespread, rampant, and often low key. It isn’t always a Klan rally, or a burning cross. Sometimes it is a racist principal who discriminates and uses the power of the State and school to back up his bigotry. When that happens, getting the word out is powerful and can be our greatest tool for restoring the power back to where it always should have been: in the hands of the PEOPLE.
(Article by M. David, S. Wooten and Reagan Ali)