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Photo of coach in blackface for Halloween brings call for his firing

NASHVILLE, Ind. (WISH) – Brown County is rallying its support around a school employee who is in hot water with the district for a controversial Halloween costume.

The employee was dressed in blackface. The school’s superintendent recommended his termination. 

Richard Gist has worked for the school for almost a year as a high school football and track coach. He is also a substitute teacher for the school through a third party. The district is no longer using him as a substitute teacher, and Superintendent Laura Hammack has asked that he be terminated from his duties as a coach. The school board will decide at its Feb. 7 meeting. 

The community is protesting her request. 

The picture of Gist began circulating on social media. It shows him dressed as legendary reggae musician Bob Marley.

Gist declined to go on camera but said he admires Marley and his costume was meant as a tribute.

The picture was allegedly from Halloween around 10 years ago.

The superintendent said she learned of the picture from community members who saw it on Facebook and brought it to her attention. 

“The way in which a photograph of an individual in blackface is taken, no matter the intent, is extraordinarily important to us to consider,” Hammack said. 

After review of the photo, Hammack banned Gist from teaching in the district.

Hammack said, “When a post is made of a Caucasian in blackface, that it is terribly offensive. Therefore, it is my responsibility to ensure that students, families in our school corporation are absolutely coming to school in a place that is safe.”

But, hundreds of community members are protesting. An online petition has garnered more than 1,500 signatures in three days. Hammack said she is aware of the petition and will consider any feedback that comes her way.

One supporter on the petition wrote: “His motives were fine, his heart wasn’t to offend anyone but to honor him.”

Another supporter on the petition wrote: “He is a good coach.”

Brown County Tire mechanic Chad Guffey also signed the petition. “He’s a customer here at Brown County Tire. Great guy. Never had any problems with him,” Guffey said. 

Guffey added that Gist is not a racist and that he only meant to honor his hero. 

“Richard has idolized Bob Marley since he was a kid,” Guffey said. 

Gist released this statement to News 8:

I’ve done a lot of reflecting, processing, and trying to understand things. First and for most I want to let everyone who knows me and those who do not know me how truly sorry I am that my quick reaction to a situation has caused so much pain and has hurt so many. To understand the situation is to understand me. 

We are shaped by our environment, our experiences, and our education. I moved to Bloomington Indiana to further my experiences, and I embraced and loved the diverse city I was now a part of. People keep saying that “I should have just known“. But I didn’t. No one taught me about this. But my experiences showed me that when I made this decision to use makeup for Halloween over a decade ago, my African-American friends not only excepted (sic) it, laughed about it, but were arm in arm with me about this. Fast forward to 2019, when someone I didn’t know was offended, I needed more information. I was truly trying to understand the difference of reactions to this. 

What I have really come to understand, as important as anything, is that while I don’t look at a person differently for their race, gender, or ethnicity, it is pertinent and important to understand that being different than someone means their viewpoint and experiences are different as well. Being sensitive to their experiences and feelings is to be kind, and I was truly insensitive in the manner of which I was seeking more information.

I will continue to learn and grow as I further my education, which includes a cultural awareness class. There’s an opportunity to teach a large body of students about cultural awareness and understanding different viewpoints. I’ve dedicated my life to helping this community, and to teaching full-time in the future. My fate in this county lies with the school board. It’s not in my hands any longer. I pray that if they want a culture of learning that they use my experience to teach the students. Humbly, I asked to remain a part of that opportunity.