Social Distortion

The Seriously Weird Secret Club Behind That Lamar Student's "Blackface" Photo

The people who attended the party where a girl painted her skin black say it is all a misunderstanding.

Students at Lamar High School were up in arms after a screenshot of that girl, fake praying and wearing a Tupac Shakur shirt, surfaced on Twitter. Another screenshot would surface showing the same girl posing with another teenager who had teardrops and other tats drawn in Sharpie on her face and chest. The photo caption read, “Black niggas.”

On Twitter, people defended the black-faced white girl, posting things like, "Nobody said anything when 'White Chicks' came out." One girl, who was supposed to be at the party but got grounded by mom, even explained the photo to KPRC by saying, “It's not anything with blackface, we didn't even know what blackface was…. It was supposed to be a shadow.”  A shadow.

That girl, and many of the people who've told us this whole thing has been one big misunderstanding, are part of two fraternity- and sorority-like student groups unaffiliated with Lamar called Pow Wow and Wichaka. The groups, which put on last weekend's rager, have been around for decades, dating all the way back to the 1930s, some of the Pow Wow boys said. But being apart of Pow Wow and Wichaka has not always meant the same thing. They used to be primarily a charity group that made cookies for old people and organized father-daughter dances. Over time, they morphed into a group of wild teenagers, like a scene out of Dazed and Confused where kids throw weird parties in the middle of a field, according to several students.
“They prey on kids who seek validation and acceptance and who want to be in this cool group of individuals,” said one Lamar senior named Andy Bybee, who is not in the club. “And they use that to their advantage to be able to embarrass these kids. I don't think the source of problem is the girl in blackface—the people who did that definitely need to be punished. But the real problem is these two organizations.”

Over the years, the groups have mostly escaped public scrutiny, save for a 1975 Texas Monthly article that looked at the evolving landscape of Lamar High School. While the school used to be full of privileged rich white kids from River Oaks, its demographics steadily grew more diverse in the 1970s as schools were forced to integrate. Wichaka and Pow Wow were not meant to be “exclusive,” the article notes, but as the student body began to change during this period, more students felt unwelcome. To get in, hazing was apparently involved. Here's from Texas Monthly:

Kids who join must go through a brief period of hazing that corresponds to pledging a fraternity or sorority. Pow Wow, for instance, calls its new mem­bers “peons.” The initiates must do favors at the members’ request, wear strange things, memorize obscure facts. All this comes to a climax at initiation. The girls are subject to mild abuse like having peanut butter and honey put in their hair. They are made to dress in outlandish costumes and walk around the Galleria eating potato chips from a Tampax box. Later they are taken to someone’s house where, sitting in a dark room with the members, the new girls must answer any question a member puts to them. Sometimes a girl must put a pillow in her dress, walk around look­ing pregnant, then go through a mock birth before the other girls. 

It does not appear that much has changed since then. In 2008, the Houston Chronicle wrote about Wichaka after somebody delivered a few sheets of seriously strange photographs to the office. One picture showed two rows of about 20 Wichaka initiates covered head to toe in mustard and one other girl whose face and hair was slathered in ketchup. A pickle was lodged in her mouth. Another photo showed a girl in a wet T-shirt and short-shorts bent over a boy's lap. A Popsicle was stuck between his thighs. One recent grad told the Chronicle that Wichaka was all about drinking and “trivialized sex.”

The Press talked to today's vice president of Pow Wow and the group's treasurer, who mostly wanted to say that the whole blackface thing had been blown out of proportion. They said that all of the girls were painted different colors — some red, pink, green — and that this girl just happened to be painted black, was not intending to depict a black person, and wasn't depicting Tupac. The Tupac shirt, they said, was just a coincidence.

“We're just confused, honestly,” the VP said. “There were no racist intentions when we did this." Remember, depending on who you believe, it wasn't blackface but a "shadow." Or everyone was painted different colors and the girl who got black just so happened to be wearing a Tupac shirt — and, when the photo was taken, the girl was just coincidentally mimicking Tupac's pose. 

The boys told us that the group is not exclusive, that it is simply a big group of friends getting together a few times a month at these parties. When asked for more detail on what their "rushing" process for this non-exclusive group entails, they said, "no comment."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn