Rafaela Espinal, who identifies as Afro-Latina, says she was chastised for repeatedly refusing to mimic the gesture popularized in the 2018 Marvel Comic’s "Black Panther," during superintendent meetings, reported the New York Post Saturday.
According to a Manhattan Supreme Court suit against the city’s Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza and other top officials earlier this month, Espinal was "admonished and told that it was inappropriate for her not to participate" in the salute by the then-Bronx superintendent Meisha Ross Porter.
In the 2018 movie, the cross arm motion represents Black empowerment. Though the film’s Director Ryan Coggler said the idea was largely taken from paraoh sculptures in ancient Egypt, coupled with it’s meaning of "love" or "hug" in American Sign Language, he said in a 2018 interview with Inverse.
But some have questioned the directorial decision to cast a Black only cast and Espinal’s lawyers said she felt the arm gesture "introduced a racial divide where there should be none," reported the Post.
Porter, who has since been promoted to "executive superintendent," allegedly referred to the 1960’s Black Panther Party for Self Defense, when encouraging staff members to make the motion – telling them about her father’s involvement in the group.
The cross arm gesture from the movie is different than the civil rights group’s well-known raised fist – highlighted in 1968 Olympics by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists after receiving their medals.
But pressuring the long-time educator to participate in the crossed arm motion "corrupted" the meaning of it, Espinal’s attorney, Israel Goldberg, told the Post.
"The gesture was hijacked," he added.
DOE officials have countered that the motion, copied from the popular film that grossed $1.34 billion, is "a symbol used to represent the Bronx" and not intended to be interpreted as a form of "Black power."
The $40 million suit also alleges that Espinal was told she wasn’t "Black enough," and should "just learn to be quiet and look pretty."
Espinal alleges that she wasn’t ever given an adequate reason for her termination but was told the department was moving "in a new direction" and she "did not fit into that agenda," reported the New York publication.
A spokesperson for the DOE reportedly said they are "committed to fostering a safe, inclusive work environment and strongly dispute any claims of discrimination or improper treatment."