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High school punishes black student for yearbook photo with partial N-word, lynching artwork

She tried to punish her peers’ expression the year before, though

Yearbooks are definitely not the place for political expression or challenging artwork, judging by the latest high school administrator freakout.

A black student was suspended by her Princeton, New Jersey, high school after she submitted a “senior collage” photo with her and several friends that included her father’s artwork in the background, the Student Press Law Center reports.

It included “the n-word and images of lynchings”:

The n-word in the painting is not immediately recognizable, with the ‘N’ and the ‘E’ obscured by people in the photo. The other painting appears in the upper left corner of the photo, partially blocked by a person.

Jamaica Ponder’s parents are asking the borough’s civil rights commission to investigate Princeton High School for disproportionately targeting students of color with disciplinary practices. They are demanding the school take back its suspension of their daughter.

MORE: Yearbooks confiscated because of ‘Build That Wall’ quote

The school called the photo with partly obscured artwork in the background “racist,” and the yearbook staff apologized for not catching the photo before publishing and distributing the yearbooks:

It has been brought to our attention that there are senior collages that included insensitive, racist, jarring, provocative content that should not have been printed. … Perpetuating racism or injustice of any kind is never okay.

We recognize that the copyediting of our book needs to be strengthened and feel responsible for any pain caused. … We want our school’s yearbook to reflect our necessary community efforts toward social justice for all marginalized groups, including race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and religion.

MORE: High school erases pro-Trump message from yearbook photo

It’s not clear who or how many people complained about the photo, which Jamaica Ponder said was not shot in front of her father’s challenging artwork in order to draw attention to it.

Ponder wrote in “teenage diaspora” magazine Multi, which she edits, that she believes the suspension was retaliation for her school activism, and called out the administration for hypocrisy:

Princeton High is sending the public a message: Jamaica Ponder can and will be stopped. Alongside that they are also reinforcing messages they’ve been sending for years: Black students will get suspended at 9x the rate of white students. …

I was suspended over a yearbook.

A yearbook in which the Japanese and Chinese teachers’ names are switched, because what’s the difference anyway? …

I was told that intent was irrelevant. It didn’t matter that it was an oversight. No, the yearbook staff is not in anyway responsible. Yes, you are disrupting a safe, community platform by incorporating letters that are also in the N-word- making it basically the n-word. No, we don’t care if you’re black- I mean we do, but not in this case.

Ponder’s defense of artistic expression and free speech is quite limited, however.

Last year she publicized an absurdist beer pong game at her high school with the theme “Jews vs. Nazis” – partly organized by Jewish students – calling it “heinous,” “racist” and “insane.” Her post went viral, the police got involved and Ponder got quoted in The New York Times.

She refused to entertain the idea that the game “should be excused by the notion ‘Boys will be boys,’ or ‘This is teenagers being stupid.’”

Read SPLC’s report and Ponder’s article.

MORE: Jamaica Ponder gets classmates in trouble for ‘Jews vs. Nazis’ beer pong

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IMAGES: Oxalis37/Flickr, cropped photo from Multi Magazine

About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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