After a bomb threat derailed a black student empowerment assembly at John Muir Elementary School in September, 2,000 Seattle teachers proudly wore t-shirts declaring “Black Lives Matter” to their schools in a stand of solidarity.
Peter Colino was one of those teachers. He's taught math at Ingraham High School in North Seattle for 10 years.
Two weeks after the demonstration, for Halloween, Colino proudly wore something else to his classes: a blackface mask.
Colino, who is white, was dressed as Michael Jordan. For his costume, he donned Jordan’s #23 Chicago Bulls jersey, sweatband, black gloves, and a rubber mask of the all-star athlete’s face. Some stunned students took pictures and videos of Colino in class, which circulated around the school through Snapchat.
One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, received screenshots of the pictures from her son, a former student of Colino’s, and sent them to The Stranger.
Her son, who is African American, had received the Snapchats from a friend, she explained during a phone conversation. He'd messaged his mother, who was at work, until she finally responded.
“He’s never texted me while he was at school, [but] he sent me the picture and I was just floored,” she said. “I couldn’t even believe the lapse of judgment.”
Her son had been thrilled that Ingraham participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstration, but now, "he was just disgusted. I was very grateful that he’s not in that man’s class anymore."
Aside from this incident, she said she's loved IHS for its inclusive curriculum and progressive staff.
But this wasn’t the first time Colino had worn his Michael Jordan outfit. He’s been sporting the costume—mask and all—throughout his 18-year career in the Seattle public school system, he told The Stranger in a phone interview.
“I tell my kids [every October] that Michael Jordan is coming to visit,” Colino said. “My intent was to honor Michael Jordan.”
Colino said he shows a five-minute video of the basketball player’s career highlights at the beginning of class.
Around 2 p.m. on Halloween, Colino said the school’s principal, Martin Floe, notified him that someone found the Michael Jordan outfit hurtful.
“The minute someone said it’s hurtful, the mask didn’t go back on,” he said. “I’m glad it was brought up to me. I talked to the kids at the beginning of all my classes [the next day]. They said 'this is not for you.'"
What the students meant, he said, was that his costume embodiment of Black identity amounted to disrespectful appropriation.
“I know what I did was not appropriate and looking back, I’m embarrassed about it,” said Colino, who also helps coach the school's cross-country and boys' soccer teams. “I don’t want to hurt those that I care deeply about, and my actions did that.”
But why did it take this long for Colino to hear and understand that his costume is objectionable?
At least two past students felt uncomfortable and unable to speak out. The student body at Ingraham is predominantly white (56 percent), with about 9 percent African American students, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Zufan Mitiku, a senior at IHS, was a freshman the first time she saw what she calls Colino’s “favorite” Halloween costume. She remembers that he stood at his classroom door to greet his students and asked each one to shake his hand—covered in the black gloves meant to be Jordan's Black skin.
“I was just a young student,” Mitiku said. “I was startled, because I didn’t know how to handle that.”
The next year, Mitiku founded the school's Black Student Union, which is designed to help students handle situations like this one.
Dana Williams, 58, who works in the school’s attendance office and advises the Black Student Union, first saw the photo of Colino in his costume in a picture, and to her it looked like he was creating "a caricature" of Michael Jordan. The most disturbing part, she said, was the black gloves.
After years of experience, Williams said she is able to laugh at instances like these even though she finds them offensive. But she wishes her students didn't have to.
“These kids are going to hear all their lives, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you,’” Williams said. “It’s not intent [that matters], it’s impact.”
Williams said that Principal Martin Floe required Colino to apologize to all of his classes. Floe declined to comment at all.
A SPS spokesperson said the district is investigating the incident.
When asked to characterize Colino, Mitiku described him as friendly, sarcastic, and genuinely interested in his students’ lives. She was disappointed that what happened to her, happened again.
"Mr. Colino could have easily put [his costume] on without the mask, without the gloves," she said.
Colino is like many well-intentioned white people at Ingraham, who may support the Black Lives Matter movement—the contemporary equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement, in response to the high-profile deaths of African Americans at the hands of police—but who are in need of more education, Mitiku said.
"Although this shouldn't have happened, this is the perfect time to address it," she added.
Colino said he never considered the mask and gloves to be a form of blackface.
“That word never came into my mind. I would’ve never done that if that’s what I thought it was,” he said. “It was wanting to make the classroom fun, I guess, and it was wrong.”
So is a mask considered blackface?
Although full-face makeup is more common, a mask is still a form of blackface and a damaging act of cultural appropriation, said Vince Schleitwiler, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s American Ethnic Studies department. He declined to comment directly on Colino's specific costume, but said that a blackface mask is part of a "larger set" of symbols and signs that "have an effect."
“It’s important to say clearly and unequivocally that blackface is racist and harmful,” began Schleitwiler. “We’re in a country where Black people have been dehumanized, where Black bodies have been stolen and assaulted with impunity, where Black labor has been expropriated, and where Black lives have been deemed valueless. On top of that, the cultural practices of Black people have been turned into playthings—playthings, ultimately, of mimicry and mockery.”
Colino planned to meet with the Black Student Union on Thursday. He said he sees the incident as his own "teaching moment."
“No one, especially in the kids in the Black community, should feel like this school isn’t a safe place for them,” Colino said. “There’s so much non-overt racism that happens in our society all the time that they don’t need a teacher that they trust and like to not [be trustworthy]. They need to know I’m their advocate completely. I have work to do to get their confidence back.”
UPDATE, 3:10 p.m.: After this story was posted, the Seattle Public Schools e-mailed the following statement:
Seattle Public Schools does not tolerate or condone staff behavior that reinforces racial bias or stereotypes. We take this commitment very seriously. We are examining and updating our policies and practices to support racial equity and students’ identity safety. While we can’t discuss personnel matters, we are investigating and taking appropriate action
UPDATE, 5:15 p.m.: This afternoon, Martin Floe, principal of Ingraham High School, announced in an e-mail to parents of IHS students that a teacher has been put on administrative leave during the Seattle Public Schools investigation. Peter Colino was not mentioned by name in the following release:
Dear Ingraham Families:
I am writing to address an incident that occurred at our school on October 31. On Halloween one of our teachers chose to dress like Michael Jordan, including wearing a black rubber facemask and gloves. His decision to wear this costume caused disruption to learning and discomfort among students.
The teacher has been placed on administrative leave while further investigation is conducted.
Students’ emotional, psychological and physical wellbeing is a top priority for all of us at Ingraham. His behavior is in opposition to Ingraham’s values of racial diversity and inclusivity and have impacted our students negatively.
While as a school we have been engaged in trainings and conversations on race and equity and positive adult-student relationships, this incident clearly illustrates the need for continued work in this critical area. The District’s Department of Race and Equity is supporting us in this work.
I offer my apology to the great community of Ingraham. We must and will do better. If you have questions or concerns, please contact me directly at 206 252 3880
When reached for comment, Colino said he didn't know about Floe's e-mail. He said he'd found out about the leave notice about an hour ago and didn't "know how long it's going to be."
Colino said he met with members of the Black Student Union this afternoon and apologized for his costume.
"It’s what education should be. We talked about the difference between appreciation and appropriation," he said. "We all make mistakes and we should all learn and grow from it."
This post has been updated.