University of New Hampshire administrators this week reaffirmed the college’s commitment to an inclusive learning environment in the wake of images of blackface being sent to visiting high school jazz performers during a jazz concert on Saturday, March 9.
As they waited to perform at the Clark Terry Jazz Festival at the Memorial Union Building (MUB), a jazz band of African-American high school students from the Boston Academy of the Arts reportedly received an image of “doctored blackface,” which was sent to students with Apple iPhones via Airdrop, according to Senior Vice Provost for Student Life and Dean of Students John Kirkpatrick. Airdrop is a cloud file-transfer service exclusive to Apple devices including smartphones, laptops and desktop computers that utilizes a WiFi or Bluetooth connection.
A screenshot of the Airdropped image, obtained from Foster’s Daily Democrat and in turn from one of the students, shows an individual covered in colored tubes with black lines drawn on their face to represent blackface. The photo featured a caption that read “celebrate black history month” and the screenshot showed that it and another unidentified image was sent from “Mark’s iPhone.”
“It was jarring to everybody, and it’s one of those things that you’re not [expecting],” Kirkpatrick said in an interview on Monday as he stressed the difficulties officials faced in uncovering the sender’s identity. “It’s not being sent by email, it’s just an Airdrop photo; and for the black youth that were there, it was kind of jarring, as well as [for] their coach…if you were a betting person, you’d be hard pressed to think that it was somebody at UNH that would do that…but you don’t know.”
The students showed the image to MUB officials and an on-duty UNH police officer, who encouraged them to send a report of the incident to UNH administration. Per a March 15 statement from UNH Media Relations Executive Director Erika Mantz, UNH “immediately” launched an investigation to find the sender of the image; a concurrent investigation by UNH Police, led by UNH Police Chief Paul Dean and other local law enforcement agencies, in cooperation with the Boston Public Schools system, discovered that the sender was a visiting New England high school student. Kirkpatrick stated that investigators uncovered the sender’s identity through obtaining their phone, which they used to trace back to the sender’s place of origin.
Kirkpatrick added that UNH later contacted the student’s school, which is working with Boston Academy to conduct a “disciplinary review” into the student to determine further courses of action.
In an email to The New Hampshire, UNH President James W. Dean, Jr., reiterated Mantz’s statement and the conclusion of the investigation, adding that, “We are relieved that no member of our [UNH] community was involved.”
When reached for comment about the investigation, Police Chief Dean declined to state further details concerning the investigation, the sender or their high school due to the sender being a juvenile. Mantz’s statement added that the incident was not a “criminal case,” but that it and “racism have no place on our campus or in our society.”
“People wondered why anybody would do that; was it to screw them up before their performance, you know, to try to get in their heads or who knows why,” Kirkpatrick told The New Hampshire. “As a criminologist myself, I know that lots of crime is not exactly rational behavior.”
He stressed, however, that regardless of the sender’s true specific motivations and despite UNH having limited jurisdiction over the responsible out-of-state student, the incident by itself was “offensive” and ran “counter to our stated values here at the University of New Hampshire.” The dean added that the incident reflects larger conversations being held at both UNH and across the nation about defining acceptable behavior and debates between creating inclusive environments for different peoples while maintaining freedom of speech and respecting different points of view.
“Look, the world is changing, and 2019 and beyond – and the contact you can have and the range of your contact in immediate ways through social media and the information – is extraordinary,” Kirkpatrick said. “And I think we as educators have to think about talking about difference, and that you don’t have to agree with somebody to respect them as a human being…Everybody has a history that is precious to them, and we shouldn’t be diminishing or saying, ‘mine is better than yours;’ we’re all human beings, we’re more alike than we are different, and there has to be a way for us to engage each other without diminishing each other…”
Per Kirkpatrick, the annual jazz festival honors the late Clark Terry, an African-American jazz artist and trumpeter who often visited jazz festivals at UNH and served as an affiliate professor of music as a part of a 40-year relationship with the university, according to the UNH College of Liberal Arts website. The March 9 event, located in the Granite State Room, welcomed performances from 55-60 New England high school and middle school jazz bands, as well as performances from guest artists, UNH students and the UNH Jazz Band, per the website. Terry died on Feb. 15, 2015.