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‘Aunt Jemima’: Racial slur or good luck cheer?

Chantel Cherry 13 their home North Chicago. Chantel plays basketball Neal Math Science Academy team was subject racial slur when

Chantel Cherry, 13, at their home in North Chicago. Chantel plays basketball on the Neal Math and Science Academy team and was the subject of a racial slur when playing a team from Lake Forest. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 26, 2013 2:25AM

NORTH CHICAGO — What’s in a word?

Or, in this case, two? Depending on what side of the gym you were on, the words “Aunt Jemima” were either part of a movational phrase or an epithet.

The drama unfolded last week in a basketball tournament in a Highland Park gym when the Neal Middle School girl’s team was losing to their opponents from Deer Path Middle School.

As a Deer Path player prepared to shoot a free throw, according to witnesses, her teammate from the Deer Path bench shouted: “You’ve got Aunt Jemima.”

Abelina Salinas of North Chicago said the remark was offensive and directed at her daughter, Neal seventh-grader Chantel Cherry, who plays forward on the team and was poised for a rebound.

The name ‘Aunt Jemima’ is a racial slur,’” said Jennifer Witherspoon, local NAACP president. “It stems from slavery, from the days of Jim Crow. It’s difficult to believe that it’s still being used by anyone, let alone a seventh-grade girl.”

However, Aunt Jemima is also a century-old corporate brand for products including syrup, pancake and corn muffin mix (see The modern depiction of Aunt Jemima is more akin to an African-American Betty Crocker, whereas previous stereotypical incarnations have been deemed offensive by civil rights groups.

The Jan. 17 incident has gained the attention of the NAACP Lake County Branch, whose officers discussed the incident at their regular meeting Tuesday on how to weigh in on the matter.

Neal Coach Troy Franklin said that after the remark, time seemed to freeze. “My girls were looking at me like, ‘What are you going to do?’” Franklin said. “They know what ‘Aunt Jemima’ means.”

Deer Path Principal Renee DeVore said that after conducting a thorough investigation and interviewing the team, it was learned that the “Aunt Jemima” comment was directed at a fellow Deer Path team member, not at Chantel or any other Neal player.

DeVore said the Deer Path coach explained the connotation to the name, which the girls said they adopted as a good luck wish during a week-long overnight basketball academy where they were served ­pancakes every morning. If the girls miss a shot, they use another phrase — “bacon and eggs” — DeVore said.

Witherspoon said she is working with interim North Chicago schools Superintendent Ben Martindale in seeking redress from Deer Path School or its umbrella district. The NAACP is asking for an in-person apology, a written apology and sensitivity training for the Deer Path team.

“We’d also like that coach removed,” Witherspoon said.

Martindale did not return calls seeking comment.

Franklin, who said that several Deer Path parents and players approached him to apologize, briefly discussed the matter with the Deer Path coach as his girls boarded the bus to go home.

“He said it was just a way of saying good luck,” said Franklin. “That insulted my intelligence.”

Salinas, who said she was sitting close to the players in the small gym, said she was “flabbergasted” by the explanation.

“Good luck. Really? That’s the best they could come up with?”

Witherspoon said that Deer Path had recently forfeited several games scheduled to be held at Neal suggesting, she said, a pattern of racial intolerance. Deer Path is a mostly white school. Neal students are black and Latino.

“There have been situations regarding the forfeitures that are not intentional,” DeVore said, adding that she had discussed the situation with the principal at Neal.

DeVore acknowledged that the Deer Path team’s good luck phrase was “culturally offensive on many levels and not excusable.”

“The girls felt really bad about it,” she said.

Chantel said she’ll accept an apology. “What was said, was said,” she said.

The two teams will have a chance to patch things over when members of the Deer Path team visit Neal on Monday to apologize in person. DeVore said the Deer Path team, which won the game, plans to treat the Neal team to pizza and cupcakes.

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