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Local News

Teens wearing facial masks spark blackface concern in Mokena

Lincoln-Way District 210 resource officer inquires about incident

A woman reported a blackface incident to police Saturday after she saw a group of young people at a Mokena gas station in black facial masks.

The white teens had applied black peel-off facial masks before going to the Speedway at 19724 Wolf Road about
3:15 p.m. Saturday, Mokena Police Chief Steve Vaccaro said.

“[The masks] had to dry for a certain period of time, so they went to the Speedway to get slushies,” Vaccaro said.

He said the Freeman-brand masks were made out of volcanic ash and were supposed to clear pores. Facial masks such as this one typically are applied as a gel or liquid on an individual’s face.

A young woman took offense to the masks and told police it appeared the teenagers were depicting blackface – the racist practice of a white person darkening his or her face.

Blackface stems from minstrel shows in the early 1800s, in which white performers with blackened faces depicted blacks as lazy, ignorant and prone to criminal acts, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Vaccaro said police determined there was “no criminality,” but a school resource officer from Lincoln-Way School District 210 did reach out to the department for information on the incident.

Jen Hannon, director of community relations for District 210, said an SRO from the district was in touch with Mokena police Saturday.

She declined to answer any questions about the incident, including whether the District 210 community was informed about the communication or whether students learn about the history of blackface in school.

Photos circulating on social media showed a boy and two girls sitting in a car at a gas station with darkened faces.

An Instagram caption identifies them as Lincoln-Way Central High School students. Lincoln-Way Central, located in New Lenox, is 85.4% white and 1.4% black, according to Illinois State Board of Education data from the 2017-18 school year.

A family member of one of the students did not respond to requests for comment.

Commenters both jumped to the teens’ defense and said there was a problem with their decision. Frankfort resident Emily Biegel, who is a director for the Southwest Suburban Activists, said excusing their behavior is the definition of white privilege.

“I think it’s important we confront these issues and speak to these young people,” Biegel said. “If they’re claiming ignorance, they’re lacking critical information. I’m not convinced this isn’t the 2019 equivalent for blackface – I don’t think teenagers know where to buy shoe polish.”

She said community leaders are doing residents a disservice by not addressing incidents of racism. Swastikas were found painted on public signs in February in Mokena, and a similar incident occurred in October 2017.

“I think every town is going to be a microcosm of what is happening nationally. Everywhere people with racist, biased ideals are emboldened to show them off, especially when they can be covered up with excuses,” Biegel said. “Nothing has been done; the M.O. is to sweep things under the rug. You can’t ignore things and hope they go away.”

Biegel said she hopes this might be the tipping point to start the conversation.

“From my understanding, it’s not a blackface incident,” Mokena Mayor Frank Fleischer said. “The kids involved put some stuff on their face, and while they were waiting for it [to dry], they went out, and they just happened to be in a store.”

Fleischer said he does not want to “blow it out of proportion,” but if there were another issue he considered racist, it would not be tolerated.

“You have my word it would be followed up on,” Fleischer said.

Blackface has been in both local and national news in early 2019. A video was shared of white Homewood-Flossmoor High School students with their faces apparently painted black in late April, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was forced to issue an apology in February after yearbook photos of him in blackface were uncovered.

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