Athletes are known to wear black paint under their eyes to diminish glare. The eye black tradition has expanded, and many athletes wear more than a stripe of paint. Some wear a face full of eye black. It’s like wearing war paint, and athletes of all races do it.
But when J.A., a white middle schooler in California, put eye black paint on to show school spirit during a football game, he got suspended and forbidden from attending any further sporting events.
Here’s how it went down in California on the night of Oct. 13, when Muirlands Middle School student, J.A. attended a local high school football game in San Diego, during which many game attendees wore face or body paint. J.A.’s classmate painted J.A.’s face during the game and it was smeared across his face, throughout the game without anyone objecting. It was not minstrel style, however, and did not cover his forehead, nose or mouth area.
A week later, Muirland Principal Jeff Luna called J.A. into the office and suspended him for two days. The offense was “painted his face black at a football game.” The principal said the incident was “offensive comment, intent to harm.” The principal believed it was a case of “blackface,” or mimicking the skin color of black people.
J.A.’s parents went to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression,” which helped push back o the suspension and punishment.
“By contrast,” FIRE told the school, “J.A. followed a popular warpaint-inspired trend of athletes applying large amounts of eye black under their eyes, which has no racial connotations whatsoever. There is no evidence that J.A.’s face paint caused any sort of disruption, much less a material and substantial one. His family says the school principal didn’t even cite any complaints about the face paint when meting out the punishment. As such, school administrators have no authority to discipline J.A. for his demonstrably nondisruptive and constitutionally protected expression.”
“As the First Amendment protects J.A.’s non-disruptive expression of team spirit via a style commonly used by athletes and fans — notwithstanding your inaccurate description of it as ‘blackface’ — FIRE calls on the school to remove the infraction from J.A.’s disciplinary record and lift the ban on his attendance at future athletic events,” the FIRE organizationwrote. “J.A.’s appearance emulated the style of eye black worn by many athletes … Such use of eye black began as a way to reduce glare during games, but long ago evolved into ‘miniature billboards for personal messages and war-paint slatherings.’”
Read about this case at Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.