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North Middle principal criticized, apologizes after Black History Month voicemail

SPENCER — A principal received backlash and calls for her resignation after sending a pre-recorded message to parents that Rowan-Salisbury Schools deemed “inappropriate.”

The voicemail sent on Feb. 24 by North Rowan Middle School Principal Denita Dowell-Reavis was referencing a Black History Month celebration at the school. She has since apologized for the incident.

The original message stated, “Good evening Maverick families. We wanted to remind you that we are observing Black History Month and students are encouraged on Thursday to wear dashiki, or they can wear read, black or green as we commemorate the month. And then on Friday, we would encourage students to dress like a character from the culture. That could be a novelist, a historian, an athlete, an actor, a politician, a scientist, whomever you desire that you’d like to pay tribute to. And we look forward to seeing everyone dressed up Thursday and Friday as we close out the observance of Black History Month. Thanks and have a great evening.”

The message received attention from local leaders on social media. During a Facebook Live stream about the message, Mission House Pastor Anthony Smith the voicemail was racist. Smith said the issue is not about the intention of the message. People can unconsciously propagate racist ideas, he said.

“It goes back to Europe,” Smith said. “When Europe began to explore Africa you had philosophers and scientists that determined that Africans really had no culture, that they really had no history. Quite frankly, there were European scientists and philosophers that literally said that Africa was ‘no place,’ almost like a fictional apparition.”

Smith said the racist idea that African people were bestial, like animals living in a field, began to emerge. He pointed to the use of the noun “character” in the voice message as a term used to reference fictional people.

“Booker T. Washington was real. Martin Luther King Jr. was real. Rosa Parks was real. Fannie Lou Hamer was real. George Washington Carver was real. WEB de Bois was real. They were not characters. They were real people, flesh and blood, Black people that made significant contributions to humanity.”

Smith said the implicit message is blackness has a fictional quality to it.

“The thing is this goes beyond the conscious mind, this is sub-conscious, this is unconscious. That’s why we talk a lot about implicit bias, because we live in a racist society that trains and socializes and forms people to have racist assumptions, often times unconsciously,” Smith said.

Smith also described telling children to show up wearing dashiki as a shallow way to honor African culture. Dashiki is a colorful, traditional African garment.

Ash Love, a local activist Smith collaborates with, shared similar thoughts on the issue and described connotations of racist American traditions.

“In one 50-second message, a white, woman principal demonstrated cultural appropriation, white supremacy and mocking, the historical sentiment of minstrel shows, risked a school full of blackface, and it was simply culturally ignorant,” Love wrote.

Love said Black History Month should not be confused with Halloween. Historical Black figures are not cartoon characters, she said.

On Feb. 27, Dowell-Reavis sent an apology for the original message.

“While I meant no disrespect to students and families in that message, I am deeply sorry for using the word ‘character,’ which I understand is inappropriate and offensive,” Reavis said in the recorded apology. “I am deeply sorry for my word choice. I look forward to continuing to hear your voices and feedback, and to working in partnership to ensure our students are successful. Have a great evening.”

Smith said on March 4 he met with Dowell-Reavis and other stakeholders. He had previously called for a new principal, and on March 5 said she should have never been placed at the school. Love called for her to resign.

RSS furnished a statement to the Post acknowledging the incident that stated, “The district is aware of the message that was sent on Feb. 24, 2021 at North Rowan Middle School. The reference to a “character from the culture” was inappropriate and the principal has apologized for using this terminology. As with any significant concern brought to the attention of the district administration, we investigate and take action as appropriate.”

Dowell-Reavis previously served as principal at Faith Elementary School. She could not be reached for comment.

About 45% of the students at North Rowan Middle are Black, according to the state’s latest demographic data for the school.

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