Posts Tagged ‘racism’

A spontaneous reaction

September 23, 2009

I’m still struggling to get back into a writing routine after my John Muir Trail adventure, there’s a lot going on in my life and job, and I’m still a bit consumed with the deeper, reflective topics I’d spent all those miles contemplating on my trip. 

And then, without a lot of forethought or anticipation, a topic (re)surfaced.

Towards the end of the last school year, there was an incident of racism at my daughter’s high school, which revealed the complexity and range of our community’s response.  I wrote about this at the time it happened, how in general many opportunities were missed to both care for those involved, as well as make the most of learning from it. 

And not one to lob criticism from the sidelines, I agreed to join a taskforce setup to better understand our community’s ability to foster diversity, and what we all can do differently to ensure racism or any other form of discrimination has a short life, if any, here.  We had a meeting on September 9, and while there is still more motion than progress, the trend-line is a good one, and we’re converging on a set of recommendations that are actionable and durable.

A lot of what we’ve discussed is how to show people that in the moment there are choices, and how to choose to speak out, to stand up. 

So when I came across an article in the Seattle Times last Thursday morning about a 70 year-old Armenian man, Henry Gasparian, it found my mind prepared and inqusitive.  He was arrested for his spontaneous “personal and emotional” reaction to seeing posters of Barack Obama with a Hitler mustache.  Gasparian lived through the occupation of his country by the Nazis.

He was on his way to the Edmonds Farmers Market, and when he saw these posters, he tried to grab them out of the hands of the Lyndon Larouche supporters who were handing them out.  To make this sad, long story a bit shorter, he was charged with two counts of fourth degree assault.  You can and should read the article.

The courage of this man and the raw logic of his outrage are inspiring.  The only action remotely criminal was not the offensive poster (first amendment right) nor Gasparian’s reaction (common sense), but the need to silence him, to criminalize his behavior. 

It seems cowardly on the part of the Larouche supporters to show up with this offensive poster, taking full advantage of the protection of the constitution, and then not be willing to tolerate the (expected) reactions.  To claim Gasparian reacted “without provocation” seems absurdly ironic.

While the Larouche supporters could perhaps feel justified that Gasparian’s physical actions were threatening, I think the burden is on them to anticipate the reactions they could provoke.  If you yell “Fire” in a movie theater, you shouldn’t be able to charge the crowd that tramples you on their way out the door with assault.

So last Thursday afternoon those thoughts were in the back of my mind as I was walking down the Seattle waterfront with a friend, and ten feet in front of me was a woman holding a large poster of Barak Obama, with the Hitler mustache.  I was in mid-conversation when I looked up at her, our eyes met, and she said “What do you think?,” and without breaking stride I said “I think that poster’s offensive, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”  I said it calmly, but strongly.

The woman seemed taken aback, said nothing in response, and shifted her gaze elsewhere.  And I kept walking, tried to resume the conversation, but had to explain that my reaction was completely spontaneous. 

I am not the kind of person who gets in public confrontations, but that felt so comfortable, so right, calling this out, in the moment.  In my own little way.

So I’m with Henry Gasparian, and the value of spontaneous reactions. 

The collateral damage of a missed opportunity

May 21, 2009

Sometimes life just steps right in and provides an illustration of a key principle, almost as if on cue. My apologies for the length of this, but the topic merits it.

For those of you who have read my bio, you know that I work in Seattle but commute from a small town in the Midwest. There’s a separate blog post needed to explain why, but the town I live in is small enough for us to know everyone, and be very actively involved in our community.

Last week someone at our high school wrote racist comments, a death threat, and the names of a number of the black students at the school on a stall door in one of the boy’s bathrooms. No ambiguity here. Horrible, fundamentally unacceptable, reprehensible thoughts. Scary too.

How the school responded to this presents a crystal-clear example of how ambiguity + fear of failure = colossal missed opportunity for a community and for its students. And it offers a heartbreaking follow-up to my post last week about ambiguity and alignment of your principles and ethics.

Here’s what happened:

  • A death threat naming six of the high school’s black students was discovered on a bathroom stall door at around 2:30 pm last Thursday.

Here’s what was done:

  • The six students were pulled from class that same day by the administration, informed of this, asked if they knew of anyone who might have done this.
  • The next day the police department was pulled into this, and spent the day at the school investigating the incident.
  • This same day – the day after the discovery – the administration met with the six children’s parents.
  • A letter was finally sent home to students this past Tuesday, identifying this as a student safety issue, and stating that “racist or threatening behavior will not be tolerated.” You can see it here.

Here’s the issue. With one exception, what they did wasn’t wrong, it just could have been a whole lot righter. And bolder. And more educational, for everyone.

The one thing they did wrong? Waiting until the following day to tell the parents. My heart goes out to the parents of those six children when those kids came home and told them what had happened at school that day. How alone they all must have felt. I don’t need to dwell on the tragedy here, the local Fox affiliate got there way before me.

So, the police got called in to investigate, and a letter went out to the students and parents. A safety issue. My daughter summed this up well by saying it screamed ‘this is not our fault.’ I was profoundly let down, feeling decisions were guided by a desire not to fail, not to make a mistake, and to minimize the visibility of this incident.

Retreating to this being primarily a safety issue is a red herring. This is unequivocally a racism issue. And it’s not about the high school. It’s about the entire community. Whoever wrote these threats does not live at the high school. Any one of us may be running into this kid on a ball field, in a supermarket, anywhere. The school provided the medium for the expression, but those racist thoughts leave the school ground at 3:05 and go somewhere.

The school administration got the whole visibility opportunity wrong. They claimed raising visibility would satisfy “that person’s need to do it and maybe there is more that will happen.” Huh? I can’t think of a better way to ensure this doesn’t happen again than getting the entire school and community to get out in public, now, and express their opposition to this kind of behavior.

And “out in public” is where the six students and their families need to feel supported, and safe. These six children and their families should feel comfortable knowing more than the school and the police are looking out for them. Worse, time matters here, a lot. These children and their families needed that support the moment this was discovered. Importantly, the opportunity for members of the community to show their support in a timely manner was also taken away too.

What if the actions were guided by a fear of not succeeding? Success is not about catching whoever it is who wrote the graffiti. It’s about demonstrating unambiguous intolerance to racism, in the school system and community as a whole.

How could this have been handled differently?

  • They could have held a school-wide assembly to inform the students not of the threat as much as of the intolerance of racism. Of the vigilance to eradicate it.
  • They could have called a joint City Council-School Board emergency public meeting to shine a bright light on these two institutions’ intolerance to racism and vigilance to eradicate it.
  • They could have held a community-wide rally to ensure no one missed an opportunity to show support for these children and their families.

Hiding this or minimizing its visibility means that if whoever it is who made these threats is never caught, then he or she or they will have won. Even if caught, the legal process will be conducted in rooms, in buildings, away from the community.

What a spectacular opportunity to bring the community together and shine a big, bright light on this. And what a colossally great learning opportunity, missed. My daughter is taking a “Race, Prejudice, and Intolerance” class in that very school, right now. Holy cow, why not get the entire student body in on a real-time lesson. How many people can say they’ve taken part in an anti-racism activity, as a student, in their own school?

And that list I came up with about how this could have been handled differently? It can all still be done too.

And this isn’t personal or about the people involved. It’s about the direction they chose. I know the school principal and many of the school administration and teachers. These are smart, caring, very hardworking people. People that make you proud that they do what they do to provide a great education for our kids. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to witness the straightforward, sensible path that produced this missed opportunity.

A fear of failure produced this. Nothing done wrong, but plenty of collateral damage, and six students, their families, and the community poorer for the experience.