Most parents have been deeply distressed by the rising violence and streams of hate as a keynote in our national discourse. For a constructive response, I encourage parents to write to their school administrators and partner with the adults in their children’s community to stem the tide of vitriol that has engulfed our views on race, religion, and the study of history in our everyday lives. Here is an edited version of the letter that I sent:
I’m sure that you have been horrified by the events in Charlottesville, VA which became the confluence of smaller eddies of dissension, dissatisfaction, ennui and frustration with a large, unwieldy and sometimes seemingly unfair political system.
For many who feel displaced, anonymous and irrelevant, it’s worthwhile to align with a cause that will draw attention. Such tumult catalyzes young people to decide whether to engage in political conversations or just tune out.
Ignoring students’ questions about the often hate-filled rhetoric around them and forging ahead with schoolwork is burying our head in the sand. Eli Wiesel wrote, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Sending this letter to you is my way of taking action instead of wringing my hands. It’s my way of taking a stand against the whispers of “white oppression” bandied about in our local school community. It’s my way of showing my children that their parents will speak up. We will not remain insulated and denounce intolerance from a distance.
Our community represents a diverse range of political opinions. There is no place for advocating a particular point of view. However, if we don’t respond to the current chaos, we will foment an insecure environment. The controversy regarding the Confederate statues and other cultural icons has shown that our nation’s history — its past challenges and the shadows they cast- are relevant to our modern times. History isn’t a dull page of dates and places. What critical lens will students use when they learn about slavery, the civil rights movement and the current rancor that has been stirred up?
These questions have become very relevant.
Students need more data in order to draw well-founded conclusions, and the school should provide a useful context.
First, improve the diversity in the faculty. Our community has slowly become more ethnically and economically diverse. However, here are a couple of stories that illustrate residual deficits. A few students innocently asked my son whether he was black since they had “never met a black kid before.” (We are of East Indian descent). In the second incident, I asked some wandering boys to come back to the group during a field trip to Arlington Cemetery. They began to taunt me using fake Indian accents and referred to me as “Apu,” the Indian grocer character on the Simpsons. Acting upon the boys’ egregious behavior in such a solemn site would have been pointless.
Over the 20 years that my three children have attended this Long Island public school, the paucity of ethnically diverse teachers has been disquieting. I commented to the middle school principal that my kids have never had a teacher who wasn’t white, and he said that he had never noticed. This limitation is quite astonishing for a district less than 40 minutes from New York City.
Second, international exchange programs would be a great asset to this largely homogeneous district which clumsily displays “diversity week” posters every spring.
Third, teach more than Eurocentric foreign languages. With the globalization of our markets, students who have a grasp on the most widely spoken languages will have a competitive advantage. It’s time to end the European-based hegemony by teaching only Western perspectives of history You risk perpetuating a pernicious message about which groups of people really matter and which are just “afterthoughts” or “others.” In this day and age, we persist in the normalization of “white is the most significant” culture. More faculty development to underscore a global perspective is needed.
Without diversification of the faculty, our community will become even more of a homogeneous “bubble.” The incidents above show that some students have poor exposure to Americans who come from “other” cultures — despite the fact that we live in an interconnected, digital world. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a scary “hate map” graphic with an alarming number of groups in our area. A homogeneous school risks this potential influence, particularly if students have no other examples of diversity to refute what they may hear about “others.”
If we don’t try to prevent this type of prejudice, the consequences are more damaging than we can predict. Here is an anonymous quote from social media that captured my attention:
… It’s not that a group of racist idiots lit some tiki torches and … held a rally … On Monday, they’ll go back to their job in human resources and decide who gets hired and who gets fired. They’ll put their uniform back on and “serve and protect.” They’ll sit on a jury and decide the fate of a young person of color. They’ll teach in a kindergarten class … I don’t stay up lamenting the fact that racists feel emboldened to parade in the street … It isn’t the theatrical that worries me. It’s the practical.
This is the chilling result of leaving the dusty cobwebs of bigotry in the dark corners of impressionable young minds. The failings of the older generation will be passed on to repeat the same vicious cycles ad infinitum.
Sudha Prasad is a pediatrician.
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