“Wait a damn minute,” said Yoni Yohannes, an African American senior at Yorktown in an Instagram post of the banner. “They really used us as the shading.”
In the collage, the dark outline of the logo was created using Yorktown’s students of color, segregating them and leaving them, quite literally, in the margins.
After the complaints started coming in, the administration hurried to take the digitally generated banner down and sent an apology.
“I want you to know that this banner was intended to celebrate the Class of 2020,” Principal Kevin Clark wrote in an email to the school’s community.
“While we did not create this banner, we did review it and did not recognize that the background photo unintentionally grouped students by colors in their photos,” he wrote.
This is a lesson about the racism that’s right in front of us. The racism that through one lens — a white lens — can seem invisible.
It’s a painful lesson for a school that made national news in recent weeks because of one man using another kind of lens to capture a different set of senior portraits.
Matt Mendelsohn, a former news photographer whose daughter is a junior at the school, has been driving to at least a dozen houses a day this spring to retake the senior portraits of their remarkable final year in high school to reflect the current coronavirus reality.
The portraits are stunning pieces of work, poignant little biographies of the things that the kids aren’t doing in lockdown — swimming for a personal best time, playing in the state championship soccer game, soloing in the spring band concert. He’s used a long lens to take all those photos in safe, socially distant front-lawn portraits.
The administrators who ordered the banner from one of those online companies were trying to create another photo tribute to the seniors in the same spirit. But their lens failed when the banner arrived.
Joseph Ramos, one of the editors of the Yorktown Sentry student newspaper and a senior, reported on the student outrage over the banner in a series of tweets.
Joseph posted an email written by another senior, Natavan Karsh, to the school administration.
“I noticed two strange things about the senior class banner that is hanging along the fence outside the football field,” Natavan wrote. “First of all, not every senior is pictured on it. The banner seems to repeat the same fifty or so people over and over.
“More importantly, however, I noticed that many African American or Hispanic students seem to be along the black outline of the Yorktown logo. I do not know if this was intended, but if the picture were at all organized by skin color this is absolutely disgusting,” she wrote.
There was outrage on social media as people saw the images of students of color being used as shading and margins in the school logo.
“At first, I didn’t catch the alignment,” Yoni told me when we messaged about it. “But then I realized that the poster featured blacks and Latinos arranged as a shading to the Yorktown logo. . . . I saw my face and the faces of my friends and classmates multiple times in the shading, which raised questions as why they would do that.”
He said he knew it wasn’t intentional and appreciated the apology the school issued this week.
“I don’t want people to think that my school is a racist school — it’s far from the truth,” he said. “Many of the Yorktown staff are amazing people and the environment that they created helped me and many students succeed as high schoolers.”
It’s especially hurtful in a school where 65 percent of the student body is white, in a county with a long and painful history of school segregation.
There were years of protests and rancor after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, including at least three cross burnings and Nazi marches in Arlington. It took four black 12-year-olds walking past helmeted police officers on Feb. 2, 1959, to begin Virginia’s school desegregation.
So to hail a class in a banner that puts all the dark-skinned kids in the black lines, while the white kids are featured front and center, is painful.
“Upon realizing our oversight,” Clark said in his letter, “we immediately removed the banner and notified the printing company of this issue.”
This is not a printing company issue. Those photo mills use algorithms to sort and organize the colors of photos with no thought to the people, the emotions, the meaning behind every image.
Of course, the administrators who work with kids of color every day didn’t mean to literally segregate kids on a banner. That would be moral malpractice. In an email, Yorktown Assistant Principal William Lomax — the only person of color among the school’s eight top administrators — wouldn’t tell me if he saw the banner before it went up. “As Dr. Clark said,” he wrote, “this banner does not appropriately reflect our graduating class or our values, and we sincerely apologize to any student who felt offended or marginalized.”
Whether Lomax saw it or not shouldn’t matter. It’s not about having a person of color on staff to help all the white people understand whether something is offensive.
It’s about white people learning to use the right lens, the way Mendelsohn does, to see the situation sharper and more clearly. To white eyes, the banner seemed fine. No white eyes were drawn to those black lines in the banner and how precisely they divided students by race and ethnicity.
Along our journey of understanding, many of us who are white have made similar mistakes. They were not intended to hurt, but they did hurt. I know I’ve had my share. I’m still learning.
Learn from the pros. Swap lenses — it’s the only way to see the real world.
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