Around 30 white students at Memorial High School in Houston, Texas, sported cornrows, baggy sports jerseys and gold chains on Tuesday for what many students called “Thug Day.”
The day is part of the school’s annual Spirit Week, which is created by the school to celebrate rising seniors. The theme of the day was “Jersey Day” but many students call it “Thug Day,” current Memorial High School senior Rachel Goodwin told HuffPost.
Goodwin tweeted several photos of her classmates wearing sweatbands and fake tattoos that read ”$wag” for Spirit week, and her tweet quickly went viral. Other photos show female students dressed in baggy pants, sporting fake face tattoos and handcuffs. As of Friday morning, the images had received over 16,000 retweets.
The outfits sparked controversy online, with many criticizing the students for appropriating and mocking black culture.
“Black people with this hair are denied jobs, internships, and get harassed at their schools. Here, Memorial High School students, are using it as costume,” one Twitter user wrote. “It’s rude. It’s racist.”
Jersey day has been used as an “undercover” thug day for years, Goodwin said. “The faculty has never changed it or disciplined the students wearing the things that offended many students,” she added.
Memorial High School administrators responded to the controversy by canceling the rest of Spirit Week. Administrators also sent a letter to parents, writing that “any instance of an inappropriate or offensive dress violation will not be tolerated,” according to local outlet KHOU11.
Administrators did release a statement to ABC13 that reads, in part:
On Tuesday, some rising juniors wore inappropriate dress and body/hair decorations as part of an alternative, unapproved response to the theme day. As a shared expectation about the theme was clearly violated, MHS has cancelled all remaining dress theme days for the remainder of this week. While the majority of rising juniors followed the approved dress theme on Tuesday, any instance of an inappropriate or offensive dress violation will not be tolerated. Students found to be in violation of the Student Code of Conduct and dress code will be given a consequence. MHS is focused today on preparing all students for finals and ending the school year well.
HuffPost spoke with seven current and former students, including Goodwin, who said that racism and bigotry are rampant at Memorial High. Ava Lahijani, an Iranian Memorial High student, said that racism is pervasive at the school but is “swept under the rug” all too often.
“As a black student I am already not represented well at my school,” junior Laura Fields added. “To see these events happen on Tuesday deeply offended and saddened me. I couldn’t grasp how the staff could let this happen again after years of the same thing.”
Fields said that this type of behavior is “nothing new” for Memorial: her sister graduated four years earlier from the high school and “thug day” was still happening.
Monica Day, a 2016 graduate, confirmed “thug day” has been happening for years, just under a different name. She told HuffPost that when she was at Memorial High in 2015, a few of the themed days for Spirit Week were “Swag Day” and “Senioritas Day” which, Day said, devolved into the same offensive costumes. She said on Senioritas Day many students wore sombreros and mustaches, and one female student wore a Border Patrol outfit.
Katherine King, current senior and co-editor of Memorial’s student magazine The Anvil, told HuffPost that the students who dressed up for thug day “cannot blame ignorance” because the magazine just ran a cover story about cultural appropriation in its March issue.
During her freshman year at Memorial High in 2016, Gabby Hamlin said someone graffitied a wall at the high school with racial slurs and anti-Semitic insults. She added that she’s received death threats since speaking out against the Spirit Week theme.
“These last few days, I’ve been full of necessary rage against people who invalidate people like me,” Hamlin, a black student, said. “Playing with a defined stereotype that hurts black, and other minority communities isn’t appropriate for a high school spirit day.”
When reached for comment Memorial High School directed HuffPost to speak with Spring Branch Independent School District administrators. Spring Branch ISD did not immediately respond to HuffPost.