The Confederate flag is a symbol of different things to different people. To many white Southerners, it represents their genteel, Antebellum past; black Americans often view the Confederate flag as a threat, a reminder of a time when their people were enslaved. Bearing that in mind, should children be allowed to wear items emblazoned with the Confederate flag to school?
That’s the question that was raised by school officials in East Windsor, NJ, after they suspended a student for being uncooperative about removing a sweatshirt with the Confederate flag on the front. Kreps Middle School assistant principal Jermaine Blount called Jane West, mother to eighth-grader Torri Albrecht, to tell her that several teachers and students complained about the sweatshirt Albrecht was wearing. In reality, only one staff member had complained.
There is some splitting of hairs about whether or not Albrecht was suspended for refusing to take the sweatshirt off (she says it reminds her of her home state of Virginia) or if she was suspended for the way in which she refused to take the sweatshirt off. Regardless, West says “she wants the school to formally apologize to her daughter, rescind her suspension and grant the teen permission to attend school outside the district,” NJ.com reports.
West plans to withdraw her daughter from Kreps, as she says Albrecht has been consistently targeted by school officials, first for wearing an I Heart Boobies bracelet, then for her Halloween costume, and now for this sweatshirt. That leads me to wonder if it’s the shirt the one staff member had a problem with or if it’s the child wearing it he or she can’t stand.
My daughter is only in first grade (and she started kindergarten late), and in just a few months in the public school system I can already see how one or two children in each class get labeled early on as “problem kids” and are then scapegoated for the rest of the year, in a sense bullied by their own teachers. I can’t totally imagine how hard it is to teach 20-30 students all day and having to deal with one or two who are disruptive. But I do know what it’s like to have a 6-year-old with a pooping problem, and I know that if I only view her as “the kid who poops her pants all the time,” I’m not giving her credit for or encouraging all of her other wonderful qualities. Being constantly told “you are the problem” is maybe what turns kids into problem children.
That issue aside, let’s talk about the sweatshirt itself. Is it okay to wear a Confederate flag sweatshirt to school? That depends largely on whether or not you or those around you see the symbol as racist or a threat. I think probably the best way to handle a problem like this is to calmly explain to the student exactly why others might feel the shirt is inappropriate. These are referred to as “teachable moments” for a reason, no? I wonder if any of the staff who addressed the issue at Kreps took the time to say to Albrect, “We understand you see this flag as a symbol of your home state of Virginia, but other students might feel you’re being supremacist.”
I can’t help but think of an incident that took place last November at Denair Middle School in California where a student was asked to remove the American flag from the back of his bike so as to avoid racial tension. How would an American flag cause racial tension, you ask? According to the Superintendent, “Our Hispanic, you know, kids will, you know, bring their Mexican flags and they’ll display it, and then of course the kids would do the American flag situation, and it does cause kind of a racial tension which we don’t really want.”
Or we could all just take pride in our heritage and move on, yeah?
Of course, it’s not that simple when your heritage involves slavery.
The thing is, this story isn’t just about Torri Albrecht and the school officials who have been harassing her. This story also involves Albrecht’s mother, Jane West. Jezebel ran their take on this news with the headline Mom Defends Daughter’s Inalienable Right to Wear Racist Shirt to School. That sort of says it all. Per First Amendment rights, should Albrecht be allowed to wear a sweatshirt saying absolutely anything at all? Sure. As long as it complies with the school’s dress code, “which bans any attire that creates a significant disturbance,” according to NJ.com. One adult complaining about a shirt is not “a significant disturbance,” so unless others complained, Albrecht should have been left alone, at least on a technicality.
But should West have known better than to dress her daughter in a sweatshirt that has the potential to create such controversy? Probably. I’ll admit that I had a magnet on my fridge (that I got years ago while touring the South with a show) that bore the Confederate flag. When my man-friend (who is black) saw it for the first time this summer, he said, “What the f*ck is that?” I said, “Oh, I got it in South Carolina or something. I bought it because I thought it was hilarious that these are still all over the South.” And then I threw it away immediately. He tried to stop me, saying it was no big deal, and I countered with the same response. “No, it’s fine,” I said. “I’ll throw it away.” Then we shrugged it off and moved on.
Maybe Albrecht should have been so courteous and compliant.
The Complicated Truth: Does My Three-Year-Old Have Race Issues?