Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Bigger Picture

Have you seen this? It has recently resurfaced on social media after being released originally in October of 2020. I think you would call it a digital zine, (webzine?) completely student-written and produced. Its title: Hush: Quiet Racism at Glenelg High School.

Lately there’s been a good deal of talk centered on Glenelg High School and some examples of blatantly racist behavior, and with good reason. But I’m beginning to be concerned that it’s too easy to point the finger at just one school and ignore what is happening everywhere else. How neat and tidy to suggest that we have this one school where racism is a problem but we’re just fine other than that.

It is easier to say but it isn’t true.

We have 77 public schools in Howard County and, every day, in more than one of them, something racist is said or done. Every single day. Not because our young people are innately “bad” or their parents “monsters” but because our entire culture is steeped in racism. The easy way, the path of least resistance, the ‘way we’ve always done it’ often boils down to something racist. Look more closely and you will see things you didn’t expect to see.

Yes, some actions are loud and obvious, performed with malice and intent. Those are the ones that we are more likely to hear about. Even then, we might never hear about them at all if it weren’t for outraged students calling them out. Students want the pushback to be as loud as the offense. Adults often shy away from that approach.

There’s also the quieter, hidden, more insidious racism, the every day, ordinary incidents of racism that we may never hear about at all. When students name those experiences they are often met with dismissal or disbelief from the adults they should be able to trust. Hence the title of Allyson Kim’s publication: Hush.

Recently the Wilde Lake  High School Band has been on the receiving end of some appallingly racist treatment. But this story isn’t solely about them. If you think it is, students at Oakland Mills schools would like to have a word with you. And students in more places than than you might expect.

I understand that our schools want to be thought of as safe and effective environments. And the school system overall wants to be known for being able to ‘steer the ship’ competently. They know that parents are relying on them. School systems need that trust to operate successfully. 

Is it tempting to project an image that everything is “mostly” okay, even when it is not? 

Everything isn’t okay, and the problems aren’t confined to that one school that’s on the tip of your tongue. The HCPSS Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion doesn’t exist because of just one school. The Howard County Library System didn’t undertake the Brave Voices, Brave Choices initiative because of one school. Howard County Government doesn’t have an Office of Human Rights and Equity because of one school.

The truth is that, even in the schools we think of as the ‘good’ schools, the ‘nice’ schools, Black and Brown students are being hurt by racist words and actions all while we don’t want to believe it’s there. And we don’t want to do the uncomfortable work required to change it.

We’re used to rallying around school causes where we raise money. For cancer patients, for example, or to raise money for research to cure a disease. We have food collections for the hungry and bake sales to benefit the homeless shelter. 

But taking the time to stop and address racism is nowhere near as easy. It requires that we stop, listen, learn, realize our shortcomings and our mistakes, commit to do better - - that’s uncomfortable work. We may say we are in favor but our approval may only be that: words. If approval means merely that we are not actively opposed? That’s not enough.

It’s so much easier to have a bake sale or collect donations. But this is a problem that those solutions won’t fix. Addressing systemic racism in our schools (and elsewhere) is one of those things in life that we just have to work at: face-to-face work, putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, sitting with our discomfort instead of running away. 

It’s hard because it requires us to acknowledge our misconceptions and to right our own wrongs while working in relationship with others. Relationships are complicated and messy because people are. You wouldn’t think that having a bake sale or collecting canned goods would save a failing marriage, for instance. Things that involve human interaction, introspection, listening, and learning aren’t easy. They involve learning how to change your mind - - quite literally changing it - - changing how you think.

Bake sales won’t do it, or car washes, or food drives. It’s not that simple. And we can’t say it’s all at one school and the rest of us get off easy, either.

I am not denying that there are serious issues at Glenelg. I’m suggesting it’s too easy to have that one school that people love to blame. More than that, it’s harmful if it distracts us from the bigger picture.  

The bigger picture is that we all have a share in the work to make things better, especially if the truth takes us to places we’d rather not go.

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