Former Fredericton High School students say outfits chosen by the graduating class that incorporated stereotypes of Black culture were disappointing.
A group of mostly white students arrived at the school Monday dressed for their graduation photos. All of those students wore jeans and white tank tops, but some incorporated bandanas, do-rags, and gold jewlery to portray a theme they referred to as "gangsters" on social media.
A few students added twists and braids in their hair that resembled cornrows and box braids.
"I find it extremely disappointing ... but unfortunately, I'm not surprised at all," said Savannah Thomas, a former student at Fredericton High.
Thomas, who graduated in 2018, said she experienced acts of racism and cultural appropriation during her time there.
She said in her graduating year a boy in several of her classes greeted her every day with the sentence, "Hey, what's up my [N-word]."
"He would ask me how to do gang symbols and put cornrows in his hair and went as far as showing me videos of Black men being shot," Thomas said.
She said she told her teachers but they said nothing could be done because they hadn't heard the boy say such things themselves. Thomas said this was one of several incidents she experienced at the school.
"I knew something like this was bound to happen again, I just didn't know when," she said.
She said the grad photos that circulated on social media promoted a stereotype of Black people.
"I think whether you're 10 years old or 20 years old, you're old enough to be educated on what's right and what's wrong," she said.
Thomas said there should be efforts to prevent such incidents in the future with an approval process for theme days and events.
Olivia Rowinski, who graduated from Fredericton High School two years ago, said she was in disbelief when she saw the grad photos on social media that she described as stereotyping Black culture.
"I didn't have any words," said Rowinski.
She said she looked at the photos on Instagram and tried to gather context from people she knew at the school to understand why those outfits were chosen and deemed acceptable.
"I kind of had a wave of emotion and I probably had a good hour of crying because I was just really disheartened to see this at a school that I graduated from," said Rowinski.
Throughout her time at Fredericton High School, she felt safe and included, and never imagined something like this would happen there, she said, but her identity has always been a topic of interest throughout her academic career.
"It's a very lonely and depressing experience when you are attending an educational institution that is already moulded to support a predominantly white student population," said Rowinski.
Rowinski said some students did cross a line, and she doesn't think the reactions that stemmed from the incident are dramatic. The school needs to take responsibility and should be educating students on the matter.
"What frustrated me the most is that kids were dressed this way long enough throughout the school day to pose and take photos and post them without staff and teachers interfering to tell students that how they were accessorizing themselves was wrong," she said.
"It definitely could have been prevented."
Students felt they had teacher approval
A student who took part in the graduation photos would not elaborate on what the intention or theme of the outfits was, but said many teachers and administrators initially supported the attire.
"We were told how great it was that we were all dressed together as a grad class... that our outfits looked awesome," said John Smith, a 12th grade student at Fredericton High School whose real name is not being used in this story because he claims he received death threats after the incident.
Smith said the school vice-principal approved each student's outfit before their photo could be taken.
But after photos of the students were posted on social media, the principal issued a statement condemning the costumes.
Principal Stephanie Underhill Tomilson said she was "embarrassed" by what took place and that the administration were only "made aware" of the photo initiative that afternoon.
"We felt like the email had a completely different view on us than what she and what other staff members had been expressing earlier in the day,' said Smith.
Making change at school
Thomas, who studies philosophy and interdisciplinary leadership at Renaissance College in Fredericton, wants to help educate these students about cultural appropriation and her personal experience as a Black woman who once attended the school.
She sent an email to Underhill Tomilson on Wednesday morning offering to provide an education session for each homeroom class at the Fredericton High School.
"I've done presentations like this before and what I planned on doing is sharing my personal experience … to give examples and explain in depth what stereotyping is," said Thomas.
"I find students, especially at this age, would relate more to people who are closer to their age."
Thomas said she would be willing to repeat the lesson to each homeroom class virtually, to abide physical distancing regulations.
She said Underhill Tomilson had not responded to her email as of Thursday morning.