Dealing with racism in the Berkshires
Students, coaches, and community members at a game at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.
Photo by John Stanmeyer
Monument Mountain Regional High School recently faced a racism issue involving a reported threat made by a white student at the school about a black student who “took a knee” during the national anthem as part of a protest against the killings of black men by police officers. The school is addressing the fallout with the involvement of community partners like Multicultural BRIDGE, of which the author is founding director.
When it comes to racial inequity, it has been a period of challenges and opportunities in the southern Berkshires. We have seen a rally of individuals supporting a student of color facing a racial incident in our schools; letters to the editor, community and media responses; individuals standing up for people of color; families and groups having tough conversations about race; and collaboration across the county. Meanwhile, administrators continue to navigate the subtle waters of everyday racism and prejudice in their communities.
Racism is the combination of power and privilege with personal bias and prejudice. These are manifested because of our lack of information and knowledge of our American history as it was experienced by all groups, in turn affecting our financial, educational, and political systems of today. When we see the action of “taking a knee,” many question what is the statement and some take offense as critique of our patria. Yet this is meant for everyone to realize that African-Americans, native peoples, and immigrants have been excluded to a right to justice and freedom.
In response to national stories of African-American men losing their lives to racism and hatred, we have called forums and for action and “allyship.” I make this plea for deep reflection and discourse. We need to talk among and across cultural groups for healing and trust.
We have prayed together, we have cried together; list-ened to each other’s stories and will continue to move in these ways—but what are we missing? Gnawing at me is the real ownership of not simply the obvious, overt racism that occurred in our local schools along with the overt bullying responses over social circles, media and social media from professionals, parents, and students alike in a knee-jerk reaction to deny it all. Rather, it is the everyday racism in the subtleties of day-to-day interactions. In effect, the system of racism is upheld by all who aren’t actively dismantling it.
The permission to continue this routine life looms ahead unless we keep pushing for change—but who has that type of energy? We all have to. Just these questions alone are exhausting, and I have a dozen more each day. We need, as my friend says, “everyday abolition.” Our worst enemy is our own biases, ignorance, and perceptions.
Go to your next meeting and see how a person of color is treated and talked to—if there even are any people of color there. Who is invited to your home? Who naturally feels welcome and shows up without any doubt? Has your dog ever seen a person of color, or is it so infrequent, it barks at one? What language do you use to refer to students of color? What language do kids use in our school playgrounds, buses, and hallways referring to children different from them?
If it had been your child’s life that had been threatened directly or indirectly, would you want it broadcast in the news? Shouldn’t a child’s identity and safety be protected—no matter whose child it is? Why do the parents have to return multiple times for proper documentation from the systems that are meant to protect us and educate our children? Instead, they are told everything is going to be ok. What relationships among the privileged prevented swift care and education for the communities involved in a racial incident like the one at Monument Mountain high school? What relationships interfere with having conversations about race and safety in our communities? What relationship can you cultivate across differences?
In our Berkshire schools, we have brown children grouped together in a single class. Real anti-racism and humanitarian work would never commodify and devalue their existence as students and not integrate them with all of the others. Instead, we have taught the other students and parents not to notice or question this return to segregation again.
On the systemic level, our curriculum has to teach colonialism for what it was; we need to change the holidays to honor the strengths of this nation; we need to teach about the historical appropriation of black scientists, indigenous science, and women’s innovations. We need to make spaces for healing, and also save spaces cherished by our African-American community for healing, innovation, and thought like the W.E.B. DuBois church.
We are small here in the Berkshires, which can sometimes lead to exclusionary, insular thinking. Look at your own identity, values, and politics and choose the ones that best serve our collective humanity and spread them in your work, family, and home.
Berkshire Magazine, Multicultural BRIDGE, and Bard College at Simon’s Rock will hold a talk at 7 p.m. January 26 in the Daniel Arts Center’s McConnell Theater on “Social Justice: Ethics, Writing and Reporting for Social Change.” Join the conversation.