The following essay by Lee Mun Wah cites school incidents remarkably similar to those that have happened over the past year in Princeton.  Thank you to NIOT board member Roberto Schiraldi for bringing it to our attention.

Recently, in a neighboring city near my home, a group of concerned families held a school rally in response to a racial incident at their mostly white, affluent high school. Several students of color had been targeted on Instagram by someone posting their photos in a highly derogatory and racially offensive manner. In response, parents and students declared the need for tolerance and a stance against discrimination. Many parents were in shock that racism was even taking place at their school, because they felt their school practiced inclusiveness and had made social justice one of its core tenets.  One parent shared with the reporters that the rally served as a way of healing for the school. However, some parents of the targeted students spoke, and demanded further support in making sure this incident didn’t happen again. One parent whose daughter’s picture had been posted said (of the photos), “…they were horrible, horrible graphic pictures of racism. Not just racially charged, but shocking.” The superintendent called the incident horrifying and the images disgusting. She said, “Some students have been disciplined based on their level of involvement.”

One of the students shared with a reporter, “…our school has been touted as a safe place, and we’ve been told there is no place for this, but we don’t feel the administration is projecting that.” Another student shared that they wanted more openness and clarity. Others also expressed concerns over an anti-Semitic incident that also had occurred. “I had no idea this kind of hateful stuff was going on here, I really didn’t,” a parent said. “It’s taken me aback. It’s also given me an opportunity to talk to my kids.”

In reality, this same scenario is happening at alarming rates all around this country. We often feel that if we immediately punish the offenders, the problem will go away. While in reality, perhaps our greatest fear is that this may only be the tip of the iceberg. I remember when the shooting happened in Littleton, Colorado, so many schools across the country rushed to have more police officers and gun detectors to curb future violence. Alternatively, at a school leadership meeting I attended, an American Indian principal took a much different stance. She said, “At our school, we are looking at how the environment at our school might be like the one in Littleton, Colorado.” In other words, exploring and examining our part in this tragedy is something necessary for any in-depth solution and healing.

Following suit, here are some pertinent questions I believe we should ask of ourselves when reading about the discriminatory incident noted above:

  • What does ‘inclusion’ mean to you? Do you think the answer might be different depending on your ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, immigrant born etc.?  If so, how?
  • In what ways is there exclusion/racism etc. at this school? If there is racism, is it safe to talk about it? In what ways is it unsafe to talk about it? What would be the price if one told the truth?
  • What did the students mean when they said, “…there needs to be more openness and clarity,”? If your halls could talk, what would they say? What would your teachers, staff and students say?
  • What did the students mean when they said, “…we don’t feel the administration is projecting that”? Is it safe to bring up discrimination? In what ways does the administration not deal with racism, etc.? Does the administration talk about honoring and celebrating diversity, but not practice it?
  • What “anti-Semitic incident” occurred? How was it dealt with or not dealt with?
  • Why didn’t the parents/teachers know “these kinds of hateful things” were going on?
  • Are the students with the Instagram account the only offenders who think this way? What if there were more?
  • As parents, what would they say if their kids were the offenders or those targeted? In other words, how would parents have that discussion with their kids; are they prepared? How were parents given that talk with their own parents or teachers when they were growing up?
  • What did teachers say to their students about this incident? Were they prepared?
  • What kinds of actions could be taken by administrators besides suspension/expulsion?
  • Are parents of color surprised at what happened at their school? Are the students of color surprised? Why or why not?
  • Is it safe to bring up racism in the classroom, at faculty and parent meetings? If not, why?
  • How has the impact of the Trump presidency/executive orders impacted your students and their families and has this been discussed in the classrooms, faculty/staff and parent meetings?
  • Have the students, faculty, staff, administrators, parents had any prior diversity training? How often and are they effective and who is held accountable for implementation?
  • How many faculty, administrators and staff of color are there at the school? Do all faculty, administrators and staff understand and feel they are adequately trained to work with and deal with issues of diversity that affect and impact teachers, staff faculty and parents who are minorities?

To truly be “inclusive”, there must be a willingness to…

  1. have meaningful relationships based on trust, safety and authenticity and not just diverse representation.
  2. share and implement a diversity of approaches other than a Eurocentric, Christian, middle class, heterosexual, male approach and perspective.
  3. have a curiosity and desire to learn from different cultures, approaches and perspectives.
  4. begin where someone is, rather than where they want them to be.
  5. notice the intent and impact of all their communications with each other.
  6. notice and take responsibility about how they might exclude others…
    a.  by the way they use certain familiar clichés.
    b.  by noticing and relating only to how other people are similar to them, but not valuing, embracing or finding their differences useful or important.
    c.  by not noticing the subtleties of exclusion because of their privilege.
  7. discuss ways each person feels excluded and/or included on the basis of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, immigrant status, religion, etc.
  8. ask of oneself, “In what ways do I contribute to others feeling excluded and/or included?”
  9. demonstrate curiosity when someone brings up that they are feeling excluded by asking, “What angers/hurt you about that? In what ways is that familiar to you as a _____?  Am I one of those people who excludes you?”
  10. share their personal reactions if someone tells them that they are racist.
  11. talk about what parts of other cultures they value and which parts they don’t and why.
  12. talk about what kinds of stereotypes/biases they carry and where they learned those from.
  13. practice how you might respond if someone said, “I only feel safe with people who look like me.” Would you be curious, defensive, adversarial? Why or why not?
  14. truly embrace and value diversity, not just tolerate it or accept it.
  15. have relationships with people who are different in an authentic and honest way, making room for anger and hurt.
  16. notice and talk about who is missing in the room and in their lives and families.

Lee Mun Wah is an internationally renowned Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, poet, Asian folkteller, educator, community therapist and master diversity trainer.  More of his work can be found at StirFry Seminars & Consulting