Cultural traditions clash in school play controversy

Posted at 10:10 PM, Dec 05, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-06 00:10:55-05

DAVIS COUNTY, Utah -- A Christmas play at a Layton elementary school has some questioning the lesson plan.

First graders at North Davis Preparatory Academy were asked to dress in black and paint their faces black for a holiday play observing a Spanish tradition.

The Spanish immersion school focused on several different countries and their holiday traditions for this year’s play.

“We have people from various cultures and various backgrounds, and we know what our intent is, but if somebody else hears it differently, then we have to find that way to have that understanding,” Principal Deborrah Gomberg said.

According to the school lesson, in Spain, children learn of Christmas’ three kings, who have helpers that bring toys to good children through their chimneys. These helpers are covered in soot from head to toe, so students were asked to wear black and paint their faces black.

Gomberg admits some parents weren’t OK with the request.

“He said, ‘but if my child’s picture ends up on Facebook, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand,’” Gomberg said. “’I said, ‘OK I get that.’”

North Davis Preparatory Academy has 14 teachers from Spain, and they said that’s more than any other school in the country. When those Spanish teachers learned others found their Christmas tradition offensive, they themselves were offended.

“Some people think that some people think that this is racist, that they are racist,” Gomberg said. “It’s been very hard for them, but they also understand this is a different culture and that’s why they came here was to learn.”

Parents in the audience at Thursday’s play understood the controversy but didn’t see a problem themselves

“I can see why in America that would be considered a derogatory thing, but I think in the culture it’s coming from, it isn’t,” said Rebecca Monson, who has a first grader who attends the school.

The local NAACP calls the lesson racist, and they issued this statement:

“The NAACP is outraged that students are being asked to dress in blackface for any situation regardless of circumstances. This should never be tolerated and the NAACP takes offense to this type of behavior. Regardless of the tale of this play, it is racist to portray such an act using blackface. The NAACP takes it extremely serious that teachers are teaching students to be involved and to take part in negative stereotyping in such a way that it is legitimate and has cultural value. These teachers and those involved are considered to be furthering the spreading of racism.

In the early ‘50s, the NAACP responded to the show Amos and Andy by initiating a boycott of its sponsor, Blatz Beer. By April 1953, Blatz withdrew its sponsorship and CBS announced 'the network has bowed to the change in national thinking.' It was withdrawn from the CBS network schedule. NAACP protests also resulted in blackface scenes being cut from TV showings of films such as Babes in Arms and Holiday Inn. Likewise, the NAACP strongly urges officials at North Davis Prep school in Layton, Utah to reconsider using blackface to portray persons in this play. Further investigation will be done by the NAACP.”

Gomberg said she’s happy parents are speaking up, and she said the issue has created an important conversation she hopes her students can learn from.

“Even if it means sometimes a tense situations, it’s still an opportunity for a conversation that helps us become more understanding of others,” Gomberg said.