Uncomfortable Questions

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On August 17, ABAR Suffield presented recommendations for making Suffield Public Schools an anti-biased and antiracist community to the Board of Education. The recommendations were based on feedback from SPS parents and students and antiracist pedagogy. ABAR organizer Liz Warren’s extensive knowledge of ABAR issues and mitigation strategies, acquired through both her own life experience and her role as Suffield Academy’s Cultural Diversity Director, helped ensure the recommendations would be broad based and effective.

In the course of our brief presentation, we covered challenging content, discussing the nature of white supremacy and how it manifests in Suffield.

Such discussion often makes many of us feel sharp discomfort and can cause anger, resentment, and defensiveness in listeners as deeply held beliefs and our perception of our own fundamental decency and respectability (both individually and as members of the many institutions and communities we are part of) are challenged. We recognized that we would likely meet resistance.

Fortunately, our message received bipartisan support from the Board. There seemed to be a shared sense that SPS has ample room for improvement, and that we can and should work together to that end.

However, one board member voiced dissent, and I believe there’s much to learn from his response. I focus on this not to attack or provoke the board member, but because his reaction to our presentation is fairly typical for those new to antiracism, and we can collectively learn from and grow through it.

The board member began by expressing satisfaction with both the town of Suffield and Suffield Public Schools. He stated that neither is racist, and both handle matters of diversity including curriculum and discipline fairly and adequately.

The board member is entitled to his view. It is troubling, however, that his remarks show complete disregard for the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) who live, work, and/or study in our town. As an elected representative, the discomfort, heartache, and pain that our neighbors endure in their daily lives in Suffield should be of great concern to him. His response, which was no more than a few minutes long, strongly implies otherwise. Further, it is never advisable for a singular white person to unilaterally evaluate and render an assessment of the state of racism in any community or institution. But more on that in another article.

The board member closed saying, “Tonight I’ve been referred to, based on this presentation, as white people are white supremacists and white folks. I sure hope that when my son gets older, he gets judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin as Dr. King used to wish for his children. But tonight’s presentation I feel is more of an attack on the town of Suffield and the Suffield school system, and it’s a system that is, I think, doing extremely well with these issues. I know it’s not a popular thing to say, but that’s my position.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I’m a white woman married to a brown man with whom I have a spirited brown child. The woman my husband married years ago hadn’t examined her own racism or privilege. The woman writing to you now has and is and forever will be. Just like my marriage, antiracism is a lifetime commitment.

Returning to the board member’s remarks, I want him and you both to know that I understand. Early in my own antiracist journey, I felt discomfort of all sorts: confusion, victimization, defensiveness, anger, sadness, frustration, and utter disillusionment. This is normal, and it’s okay. It is, however, very important that we not get mired here.

When we’re in this place of discomfort, we’re being invited to expand our understanding of our own lives, the lives of others, and how we live (or fail to) together in community. Here, we face a decision: learn and grow OR linger in the familiar comfort of the status quo. We cannot choose both simultaneously. If we choose comfort, we must recognize that we almost always do so at a cost to someone else. This is a time for courageous curiosity.

The board member loosely quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his remarks. King was a controversial figure in his day because he relentlessly challenged the status quo. Just prior to his assassination in April of 1968, King’s disapproval rating was 75%. Yet today, we honor his memory with a federal holiday and a memorial in Washington, DC. Contemporary Americans generally regard him as a courageous freedom fighter who left an indelible mark on our country and the world. Though our collective understanding of him tends to be superficial, we know he mattered.

Who is speaking, leading, protesting today, calling for raised consciousness and real justice? Who might the world look back at decades from now and recognize a hero where today many see a traitor? Who is speaking a truth that is too painful for us to hear? Who tries to engage our curiosity and compassion, and calls us to face social justice issues courageously?

ABAR work is a marathon of moral conviction. It requires a growth mindset, fortitude, and resoluteness. Those of us who have been dedicated antiracists for a while recognize the ongoing nature of the journey. It all begins with honest sharing, focused listening, and a willingness to see something new. It begins with just one moment of courageous curiosity that enables the doors of liberty to swing open for all.

I invite the board member into a space of courageous curiosity. I hope we meet there soon.

To learn more about ABAR Suffield, please visit the Facebook group of the same name or email us at ABARSuffield@gmail.com.

Amy Hawkins 

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