In the Fall of 2019, on Halloween morning, David Carter woke up slightly earlier than usual. He went into the bathroom and used sable-colored foundation to paint his face. He also pulled a bald cap on top of his head, which he then covered with the same foundation.
The night before, he had used beard darkener to dye his goatee jet black.
When he was finished, he studied himself in the mirror. He was ready. In a short period of time, he would be on the grounds of Milpitas High School (MHS), where he taught Engineering to students with promising futures before them.
Carter was eager to show them his get-up. He had already, days before, informed his students that he would be dressing up as African-American rapper and social activist Common for Halloween; and not only would he be dressing up, but he’d be fully playing the role, painting his face dark as well.
Some of Carter’s students didn’t like the sound of it. They were scared, and told him that he shouldn’t do it.
“I told them it’s not racist to dress up as someone else you respect, or to inspire students to help make our future better,” Carter told The Beat. “Students who understood agreed.”
For months, Carter had been fascinated by the Microsoft AI guy doing a fake TED talk in the commercial. So fascinated that he wanted to be that guy.
“It was a fake TED talk and the speaker had something to share with the world,” said Carter. “And it was my dream to be that for the students. I told everybody I was going to become the Microsoft AI guy. About a week before Halloween, they [some students] asked if I knew who he was. I said I didn’t. They told me it was Common.”
Common in Microsoft AI Commercial
Carter had never heard of Common, but he looked him up and instantly learned all about him. He was instantly impressed by his social activism. And thus, the seed was planted.
So, on the day of Halloween, Carter left his home and made it out to the MHS campus, his face covered in thick, dark foundation, wearing a white turtleneck, a black jacket with zippers, and black jeans — just like in the commercial.
During the first period of his engineering class, he turned off the lights, and told students to aim their phones at him with their flashlights on, as if it were a concert. Then he rapped out some lyrics, which he had memorized from the Microsoft AI commercials. Little did he know that one student was recording him on his phone.
That 23-second recording was given to another student, who then put it up on Twitter. The video went viral, garnering millions of hits. In the days that followed, countless news outlets all over the country, including the New York Times, wrote about Carter and his “blackface” stunt. Carter informed The Beat that he believes the short video seemed doctored somehow, to almost make it look like he was wearing something over his face, when in fact, it was just make-up foundation.
A network reporting on the incident.
The Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) decided to place Carter on leave. His last day at MHS was Friday, November 1.
For the past 4 months, while at home, Carter has been spending a great deal of time reflecting on his mistake, as well as doing a lot of reading and writing. But now he feels ready to go back to his students.
However, Carter informed The Beat that MUSD’s Board of Education, during an upcoming closed session meeting on Tuesday, March 10, will be making a decision on his fate. Moreover, Carter’s Union Rep, from the California Teachers Association (CTA), informed Carter that he had spoken with the District, and that it was confirmed that they would most likely fire him at that meeting. His Union Rep then recommended that Carter resign, since it would look worse for him to be fired.
But Carter doesn’t want to resign.
“I want to take personal responsibility for what I did on Halloween in front of my students. I’m the one to blame,” said Carter. “And I think it’s important that I be allowed this opportunity to take ownership for what I did because there’s a lot of silence. There’s been a vacuum…and I haven’t been able to communicate the fact that I made a horrible mistake. But I’m a decent person, and I’m capable of learning from and reflecting on my mistake.”
Following the release of the 23-second video on Twitter, Carter says that he has been subject to threats on both Twitter and Facebook.
“It was a very scary time,” said Carter.
Carter’s MUSD career started back in 2003, when he began teaching at Thomas Russell Middle School. He worked as a teacher at Russell up until 2011; there, he was also a Site Tech Coordinator. From 2012 to 2014, he worked with MUSD Technology Services as an Educational Technology Mentor. Following that, he moved on to work at Milpitas High School. From 2014-2018, he taught World Geography, Economics, and Government Instruction at MHS. From August, 2018, up until the day he was sent on leave, he taught MHS’ E-Tech Engineering Academy, which included AutoCAD, Engineering, and Green Urban Design Instruction. He has also served as a mentor for the Milpitas Xtreme Robotics Club for the past several years.
When The Beat asked Carter what he was thinking on that Halloween day, he said: “I was trying to pay respect to Common and pretend I was him, because it totally blew my mind, that commercial. I wanted to be that. That’s who I want to be for my students. He has inspired millions of people, more than I ever could. It was an honest expression of what I wish I could be and what I’m trying to be in the classroom.”
Some teachers who’ve worked with Carter over the years feel he deserves a second chance. They spoke of Carter’s uniqueness, his musical talent (he kept a piano in his current classroom), and his ability to engage students.
Teacher Barbara Knitter worked with Carter for several years at Russell, and is still teaching there. She told The Beat that she would pay Carter visits after he started working at MHS; during these visits, she witnessed countless students that he’d taught during previous years stopping by to see him and fill him in on what was happening in their lives. To Knitter, this was a testament to just how much of an impact Carter had made on his students.
“I don’t think he had bad intentions. I think we all make mistakes. And sometimes we don’t see all the clues around us. And I could see any of us…it might not be blackface, but maybe it’s something else where we accidentally insulted someone,” said Knitter. “All of us teachers are watching to see what will happen with David. Our district says we’re a ‘Culture of We.’ Shouldn’t we be allowed to make mistakes and learn from each other?”
Mark Schoeller, who also worked with Carter at Russell, spoke a bit about Carter’s character. “Genius, interesting, innovative, popular, connected, multi-talented, selfless. Those are the terms I use to describe the man,” said Schoeller. “I do think a generation of students will lose out.” Scholler also mentioned that he feels Carter deserves some mercy in this situation.
Meanwhile, leaders in the black community are divided about how to approach what happened…
“I would hope he would resign for the best of the community and not put the community through any more strain,” said Reverend Jethroe Moore, President of the NAACP chapter in San Jose/Silicon Valley. “What he did was deplorable. Even though students told him it was not a good idea, he still did it in the end.”
Moore believes that it’s essential to teach the community about the effects that blackface has had on the African-American community.
“There have been so many blackface incidents in the nation over the last 2 years, and it’s just so unreasonable by any standard to think that he could find some way to say it was okay for him to do that,” said Moore. “If you put on a nazi uniform and came in with a Hitler mustache, what do you think the response from the community would be? The same…”
Another strong voice in the African-American community feels differently.
Demetress Morris, Founder of Flame Keepers, a nonprofit that works to close the achievement gap for minority students, sees what happened with Carter as a teachable moment, and an opportunity to grow.
“I think this was a teachable moment to show people which lines not to cross. We could have used this to set some boundaries and to show why those boundaries need to be set. I thought that [David Carter] could’ve been an active part of that,” said Morris. “He was definitely wrong, but I don’t think he should be fired.”
Morris went on to say that color lines have been crossed so much, and the world has seen a great deal of black appropriation through hip-hop culture and the wearing of braids, hoops, etc.
“We could’ve held workshops. So that we could hear him [David Carter] speak about it…why he made the decision, why he understands now that it was wrong…” said Morris. “We could’ve done a lot of things to help Milpitas grow as a community, and even to help us grow as a nation.”
At an MUSD school board meeting, on January 14, 2020, Carter went up during Public Comment to apologize and ask that the Board allow him to continue working for the district. One of Carter’s students from the Engineering program also came up to speak. He told the Board that Carter always went above and beyond, and mentioned that the students hadn’t learned much of anything during Carter’s leave of absence. “The notion to fire Mr. Carter for his mistake is completely unreasonable,” said the student.
Sources say that Carter’s decision to press on, despite the warning from students, is what will most likely cost him his job in the end.
Carter told The Beat that earlier on Halloween day, a few administrators saw him and didn’t mention anything about his face make-up/costume. But after second period, MHS Principal Francis Rojas asked Carter to take off the make-up, and Carter did so immediately. The next day, he saw fellow administrators yet again during an in-service day, and except for some cold stares from certain administrators, nobody mentioned anything. It was only after the 23-second video was put up late in the day on Twitter on November 1 — and the media (and world) caught wind of it — that Carter was asked to go on administrative leave.
The Beat reached out to MUSD for comment, but since it’s a personnel issue, they couldn’t answer any of our questions.
However, when asked if they had hired a new engineering teacher to fill Carter’s position, a District Representative responded with: “We have hired an engineering teacher to fill a vacancy.”
Carter is aware of the new hire, and fears it might be too late. He spoke of his ambitious plans for the year, and how distraught he feels over not being there for his students.
“The seniors were going to build a magnetic levitation train,” said Carter sadly. “It’s magnetics that repel on a track so that it floats. It’s the future of transportation. But all the parts have to be made in-house. And we were gonna do that. I had started it. But there’s no way to do it now… ”
If, in fact, on March 10, the Board determines it best to fire Carter, he has no idea what he will move on to.
“This is where I belong. I’m a teacher. I will lose my retirement. I will lose my health care for my family. I will lose my identity,” said Carter. “I want to come in and shoulder this. This is mine. I screwed this up.”