How We Talk When We Talk About Race
February 22, 2018
This article was first published in the February 2018 issue of The Polygon.
Filing onto the stage, Poly’s step teams, Epiphany and Seismic Rift, opened this year’s Community and Diversity Day on February 2 with a powerful performance.
French and Spanish teacher Angela Gittens and Upper School Diversity Coordinator Ryan Rockmore stepped on stage first, dressed in white and black respectively. The step team’s two advisors stared out over the crowd while the team began their performance. The silence was palpable as the soles of their shoes echoed against the Chapel’s stage. Gittens and Rockmore then began to sing “We Shall Overcome,” a gospel song made famous by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
During their performance, the step team told the story of the fictional Ashanti, a student of color who attends a private school. As the team performed on stage, members of the group described Ashanti’s experiences.
“It started off with the little things. Comments about her hair, her money, her neighborhood,” chanted senior Kayla Williams. Williams recited examples of the frequent racist and insensitive remarks Ashanti would receive from her peers.
“The constant reminder that she was nothing more than a girl from the hood to them,” continued Williams. “This was no longer a safe space for Ashanti. And through all of this, they wanted her to remain silent.”
“She speaks and they don’t listen. She writes and they don’t process. We step hoping they’ll pay attention,” said senior Lotoya Francis. “I am Ashanti. Ashanti is me.”
As the performance concluded, each member of the step team chanted “I am Ashanti. Ashanti is me. And this is our story.”
The performance forced the audience to consider the experiences of students of color at Poly on a day filled with discussion surrounding race, identity, and privilege.
I. POLY’S HISTORY OF DIVERSITY INITIATIVES
Sitting in his office surrounded by rows of yearbooks dating back to 1977, Dean of Students Harold Bernieri pulled out a dusty, blue-and-gray covered book from 1985 and opened up to the senior class page.
“I think there were about three black kids and one Asian kid in my class,” Bernieri said, flipping through the pages. “I imagine it was a tough place for kids who were different here. I saw racist behavior in the community and there was clear prejudice among some students here.”
Bernieri, who attended Poly as a student from 1977 to 1985, returned to Poly as a middle school history teacher in September 1989, directly following his graduation from Dartmouth College. After 36 years and three heads of school, Bernieri has seen drastic changes to diversity initiatives that have since shaped how Poly handles issues of race. While these issues continue to be present at the school, Poly has made significant progress in diversity and inclusion initiatives.
When Bernieri was a student at Poly in the 1980s, discussions about race became more prevalent as Poly looked to increase the school’s diversity. He said that in the 1990s, when more Prep for Prep students started to join the Poly community, diversity awareness greatly increased under the 30-year leadership of Head of School Bill Williams.
Prep for Prep is an educational program that places high-achieving, minority students in independent schools across the Northeast. Now, almost 30 years later, 196 Prep for Prep students have graduated from Poly, according to Prep for Prep’s website. After the Trinity School, Poly has graduated the highest number of Prep for Prep students of any independent school in the country.
“The first Martin Luther King celebration happened when I was a senior in 1985, just before the day became a national holiday,” Bernieri said. Bobbie Swain, a longtime biology teacher at Poly from 1983 to 2011 and one of the first African American female faculty members, introduced the assembly. “I did a reading and a teacher spoke movingly about her experience in the South,” Bernieri added.
In the 1990s, Bernieri said that students began to openly confront issues of race. The Anti-Bias Coalition (ABC) emerged in the late 80s and began Poly’s history with affinity groups. Affinity groups are associations for students to unite under a particular identity and create a safe space. Today, Poly students are able to join clubs such as Umoja (the African-American affinity group), Asia Society, and Unidad (the Latinx affinity group) with new groups created each year. On January 23 of this year, Francis announced a new black girls’ affinity group, Lemonade, adding to Poly’s long list of identity-based clubs.
Upper School math teacher Nick Lee, who was a student at Poly from 2000 to 2004, said that although students were beginning to have conversations about race when he was in high school, they were not nearly as common as they are today.
“I remember there being diversity initiatives back then, but they are now more actively ingrained in students’ studies and lives, whether it be a focus in a classroom lesson or a discussion in a forum or advisory,” Lee said.
For example, according to Poly Prep’s website, Community & Diversity Day, a day centered around themes of identity and inclusion, has existed “in different forms” since 1999. Since then, the day has allowed students to openly confront what it means to be a student of color at Poly, with different workshops such as “Feeling Worthy as a Black Student at Poly” and the “Fetishization of Mixed Race Identities.” In recent years, these discussions have been led by affinity groups.
“This place is much more open, much more welcoming and values diversity in a way that it did not when I was here,” Bernieri noted. “We are in a position now where we can be more than proud of our diversity, but also talk about how to manage a diverse community.”
II. DIVERSITY AT POLY
According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), in 2015 about one third of New York City independent school students were racial minorities. Organizations such as Prep for Prep, Oliver Scholars, and A Better Chance help to recruit low-income and minority New York City public school students and prepare them for entrance into independent schools.
This year in the Upper School, 38 percent of students identify as students of color, according to Assistant Head of School Kyle Graham.
Poly also has significant socioeconomic diversity. Approximately 22 percent of Poly students receive some sort of financial assistance, with the average aid package covering about 79 percent of the cost of tuition. Each year, the school spends nearly $8 million on financial aid, which has led Poly to be “one of the most diverse independent schools in New York state” according to Head of School Audrius Barzdukas. According to Graham and an NAIS database, Poly spends more money on financial aid than any other independent school in Brooklyn.
“We’ve also made great strides to provide more robust financial support for students above and beyond tuition, helping provide stipends for standardized test prep, college visits and laptops for qualifying students,” Graham said.
While Poly is “diverse” according to these statistics, it is crucial to acknowledge that diversity comes in many forms—racial, socioeconomic, ethnic, etc.—and conflating these types, especially race and class, can be problematic.
“It is important that we distinguish racial and ethnic diversity when we discuss the financial and socioeconomic diversity of Poly Prep,” said Upper School Dean Sarah Bates.
“To tie both of those data sets together without qualification can be problematic and damaging, as it reinforces stereotypes. Not all students of color are on financial aid; not all white students pay full tuition,” Bates continued. “We need to lean into the uncomfortable conversations with intelligence, compassion, and open minds. We have a responsibility to all of our students and our community in order to truly ‘inspire the next diverse generation of leaders and global citizens.’”
Racially diverse institutions need to support the emotional health of minority students. When Director of Diversity Josina Reaves announced that she would be leaving Poly at the end of this year, many students expressed concern about how Poly will maintain these support systems. Reaves has been the Director of Diversity for three years and was previously a dean and an English teacher. Along with previous Director of Diversity Javaid Khan, she facilitated the planning of Community & Diversity Day.
Barzdukas reiterated his commitment to helping Poly best carry out its mission in the search for a new Director of Diversity, Equity, and Social Justice. “Over the course of the next year, I expect to restructure our curriculum and programmatic offerings to better embody and express the ideal of ‘above all character,’” Barzdukas said.
So that raises the question: what does the pathway to ‘“above all character” look like to us?
III. DISCUSSIONS OF RACE IN THE CLASSROOM
Upper School Dean Emily Gardiner said she believed that Poly’s racial diversity should not be taken for granted, and that students should use it to engage in meaningful conversation with one another.
“We’re all here to gather together and learn. One of the beautiful things about academic and intellectual life is that it allows us to move outside of our personal contextual limitations. I hope and believe that our classrooms should be the heart of the best discourse,” Gardiner said. “If we can’t do that in our classrooms, we can’t do it anywhere.”
When questioned by The Polygon, History Department Chair Michal Hershkovitz brought up a specific event in her class that inspired her.
“It was one of my seniors in the AP Government course, Kayla Williams, who brought to the class’s attention the debate between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West about the best means to promote progress for African Americans,” Hershkovitz said. “We deviated from our curriculum that day because that is the curriculum—the challenge of learning to address our divisions, unfulfilled ideals, and the costs of social justice.”
Hershkovitz also said that the Poly History Department offered an African American history elective and a trip to the American South for juniors and seniors last May after students requested to see more African American representation in Poly’s curriculum. After a discussion this year where students expressed a desire for more diversity in the AP Literature curriculum, English teacher John Rearick allowed students to choose a book to study independently for the course.
English Department Chair Marisa Gomez supported this sentiment. She said that as the English department develops the curriculum each year, “Something that we take into consideration is the composition of the student body. We all, as a department, believe that students should be able to read writers from cultures that they identify with.”
“It is a testament to the importance of Poly’s diversity that we have students who are both eager to see the curricula grow and empowered to take steps to make that happen,” Hershkovitz said.
IV. RACE AND COLLEGE ADMISSIONS
The Poly community often discusses issues concerning racial diversity in spaces such as community forums and classrooms. However, one of the most common places to find blunt conversations about race—both in and out of Poly—is in the deans’ offices during the college process.
“In the college admissions arena there are institutional priorities. Diversity at private and public colleges is certainly one of these. I talk about [race] similar to the way I would talk about the process if you were a recruited athlete,” said Upper School Dean Nat Smitobol. “The process can be a little bit different for you, and schools will utilize different techniques to entice you to apply.”
Even though race may be a factor in the college admissions process, many students said they believed that it is important to remember that it needs to be discussed sensitively and respectfully in order to avoid misunderstandings.
Smitobol also said that he and Reaves have previously discussed the awareness with which college counselors should discuss race during the college process.
Mentioning a conversation he had with former colleague Matthew Mayhew, a professor of Educational Administration at The Ohio State University, Smitobol said, “we spent a lot of time talking about how the American higher education system is hegemonic—meaning it is meant to look like it cares about diversity, but in actuality it is just a structure that keeps the people that have been in power in power.”
When asked about how this applies to his college counseling philosophy, especially when counseling students of color, Smitobol said “Even though the percentage of people of color attending college is much higher than it was 30 years ago, students of color still often report feeling marginalized at college and their retention rates and graduation rates are generally lower than their white counterparts. When you look at the reasons why kids drop out, a lot of it comes back to poor financial aid and feelings of marginalization. [When counseling students] I also think about ‘college fit’ in terms of the schools that I know support students of color really well. It is important to consider that choosing where to attend is a luxury in this process.”
Whether or not students will be able to choose which college they’ll attend has sparked anxiety about the college process. These tensions can express themselves in several ways, including in a resentment of affirmative action policies. At Poly and around the country, affirmative action is a prickly subject.
“Affirmative action didn’t come out of nowhere,” said history teacher Maggie Moslander, who teaches United States History and American Constitutional Law. “It comes out of a long legacy of discrimination and disenfranchisement for particular communities. Being aware of your privilege in the world and what that means can be a good thing.”
Smitobol discussed the application of affirmative action in the college process.
“Affirmative action policies allow colleges to take anything into account,” Smitobol said. “Oftentimes when we use the words affirmative action we are referring to diversity—using race to affirm someone—but if a school has an affirmative action reading style it allows a school to take anything into account and consider it as merit. This includes legacy and other factors that impact the class composition such as gender.”
Gardiner said that though the college process can exacerbate racial tensions, it is necessary that students think about themselves as people with feelings rather than as statistics on an application file.
“We have to find a way to help our students see themselves and one another as human beings, even when the college process doesn’t do that for them,” Gardiner said. “Our opportunity to be with you in small groups has felt more full of potential. When I’m with someone one-on-one, the kind of progress we can make in terms of hearing each other is really optimal.”
Like Gardiner, there are many members of the Poly community who are dedicated to helping students and faculty “hear each other” in order to foster a more inclusive and respectful environment.
V. INCIDENTS OF RACIAL TENSION
Independent schools throughout New York City, such as the Trinity School and Riverdale Country School, have made significant efforts to diversify their student bodies. Yet issues of race and racism still seem to be prevalent at independent schools across the nation.
While these schools have made vast improvements in their diversity efforts (a couple decades ago it would have been rare to have more than a few minority students in a class), racial and class tensions are still present.
In a 2012 New York Times article titled “Admitted, but Left Out,” the author Jenny Anderson said “schools’ efforts to attract minority students haven’t always been matched by efforts to truly make their experience one of inclusion, students and school administrators say. Pervading their experience, the students say, is the gulf between those with seemingly endless wealth and resources and those whose families are struggling, a divide often reflected by race.”
Anderson said that “Students [of color] report feeling estranged, studying among peers who often lack any awareness about their socioeconomic status and the differences it entails. They describe a racism that materializes not in insults, but more often in polite indifference, silence, and segregation.”
Before the start of the 2017-2018 school year, John Allman, the Head of School at the Trinity School on the Upper West Side, sent a letter to faculty, students, and parents in the wake of the Charlottesville riots and rising racial tensions. In it, he listed ways for the Trinity community to respond appropriately to these events.
“I am afraid that we too suffer from elements of disconnection,” Allman wrote. “How ought we to educate our students so that they leave us with a commitment not just to advance their own educational interests, but also serve the common good and to give generously to others for the rest of their lives?”
Like Poly, many of these institutions hired directors of diversity and created student forums and days of awareness that focus on discussions about race and privilege. Teachers and administrators also believe these initiatives that help acclimate students to difference should be explored in the classroom.
In recent years, the Poly community has struggled to address acts of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, classism and other forms of prejudice, both subtle and explicit. For instance, in the spring of 2017, several unidentified students covered the windows of the Student Center with racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic slurs. Additionally, in Room 108, a freshmen history classroom, some students marked desks with racial slurs and swastikas.
“It was kind of alarming. History is the place where you learn from the past to try and veer away from its mistakes,” said sophomore Emily Weinstein. “It was scary seeing them repeated.”
During past Poly administrations, offensive language was also used in the context of heated discussions about political events.
In the wake of multiple shootings of unarmed black men in 2016, a group of students wrote a document that listed racially charged statements about minorities, specifically targeting the Black Lives Matter movement. This document contained several comments regarding race, which students and faculty perceived to be insensitive and offensive.
Many students found specific lines from the document that targeted members of the community and the victims of police shootings to be particularly alarming.
“Racial profiling and stop and frisk were inevitable repercussions to the violence committed by the blacks in the neighborhoods. Racial profiling would not happen if you didn’t commit the things you do…Every death was initiated by a crime. These were not innocent black kids getting killed. They were thugs,” the document read. These statements sparked an intense but brief conversation about how race is dealt with at Poly, culminating in the community forum.
Students had conversations among themselves about the document, Reaves delivered a speech in assembly, and a community forum was held in the library. Even so, some felt that the community never truly confronted the issues directly.
Today, students still remember that time being full of tension and uncertainty about the administration’s preparedness and ability to have discussions of race.
“It seemed at the time that there was a divide in the community and that some wanted to suppress the views of students who felt attacked by the document’s sentiments in hopes that those students would eventually move on,” said senior Nick DeVito.
When asked about where the statements expressed in the document originated, Reaves said that racial tensions across the country have directly impacted the Poly community.
“These [acts] definitely link back to more than just individual sentiment,” said Reaves. “Nobody has invented a new way to be cruel here. It isn’t exclusive. It isn’t original. It’s all coming from some pretty loud public displays of bigotry and narrow thinking.”
“Do I think that the louder it gets out there the louder it gets in here?” she asked. “Absolutely.”
When controversial events occur, Poly’s Student Government, led this year by Student Body President Shakaa Chaiban and Vice President Ellen Gaffney, often hosts community forums, allowing students to debate openly and honestly with each other in a respectful setting. While these debates tend to bring forth strong emotions, they also highlight key tensions within the student body that can lead to meaningful discussion. For example, on October 4, 2017, Poly students met in the Student Center to discuss President Donald Trump’s reaction to professional football players kneeling during the national anthem in protest against racial injustice. During this meeting, students were encouraged to actively participate by stating their own points of view outright and not simply affirming the claims by others by snapping.
Some students have expressed frustration with the way the Poly administration deals with racially insensitive and racist events at a policy level. Poly Prep’s harassment policy, which is accessible on the Poly Prep Country Day School website, discusses official policies concerning harassment, bullying, and discriminatory behavior toward any protected subgroup, including those defined by sexual orientation, gender identity, skin color, religion, and ancestry. In 11 pages, the document details what kinds of language and actions will not be tolerated and what potential repercussions are.
When asked by The Polygon whether she thinks that there may be some danger in equating these different subgroups given that some have historically been targets of systematic oppression while others have not, Moslander advised thoughtful consideration of the implications of such a response.
“I agree that we sometimes struggle as a community and as a country to adequately address the realities of racism and white privilege. While I understand the impulse to want to punish some forms of bullying and harassment more aggressively than others, I think we should resist the impulse to set up a hierarchy of offenses for several reasons. First, the school has an obligation to protect every student from every kind of bullying and harassment. Second, and this is the larger point, an essential feature of the American legal system is that the law needs to be general, neutral, and equally applied. It needs to be universalizable,” Moslander said.
“This legal principle is important because it protects us both from ourselves and from the people in power. Once you argue that the law—or, in this case, the disciplinary policy—should be specific and hierarchical, you have to confront the question of who gets to decide what the hierarchy should be,” Moslander continued. “This insistence that the law be neutral protects us from the individual whims of people in power, which is a principle worth retaining. I completely agree that we have to do more work as a community to acknowledge and confront the racism and white privilege that goes unacknowledged every day. I just don’t think the disciplinary policy is the mechanism with which to do that.”
Barzdukas defended the administration’s lack of stringent protocol in terms of dealing with discrimination. Barzdukas, who was not yet Head of School when the racially insensitive document was made public, said that each case of discrimination is handled separately and carefully.
“I am not a fan of strict sentencing standards,” Barzdukas said. “I think that you try to set the standard for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior and when that standard is transgressed, you try to deal with each case on its own merits. We always try to discover what the truth is and determine what the best course of discipline is to try to teach someone to not do something again. If it is possible for them to make retribution, we guide the student in working toward that, but if [the student] has done something that merits their removal from this community, we then go down that path.”
When asked about how racially motivated acts of discrimination are managed by the administration, Reaves said, “If anyone encounters anything, hears anything, or is a victim of anything, they should immediately tell any adult in the community. Those responsible for dealing with the situation are the Upper School Deans, the Dean of Students, the Director of Diversity, and the Academic Dean.”
“Mr. Bernieri has the ultimate responsibility for investigating the situation and creating a consequence,” Reaves explained. “In the course of the investigation, he reports to the deans, to me, and to Dr. Brogdon. It’s a four part process. You report, then there’s an investigation, then the group convenes to discuss it, and a decision is made.”
While this framework for addressing discrimination is a good start, many students felt that the administration needs to make an effort to clearly communicate with the student body when these events occur.
“I feel as though the administration does not deal with issues of race as directly as they could,” said senior Alejandra Sanchez. “They often seem to walk around the issue by throwing out vague language such as ‘community’ instead of directly addressing racism and intolerance.”
While there is a set process in place to address incidents of racial discrimination, Barzdukas did admit that these acts of racism and intolerance “have not always been handled in the best way because administrations make mistakes.”
“However,” Barzdukas continued,”I feel that [these instances] have always been handled with the best of intentions.”
Some faculty members such as Rockmore were frustrated by the administration’s lack of direct action in dealing with race. In his interview for The Polygon, Rockmore emphasized that decision makers must make a conscious effort to include a variety of perspectives when deciding on disciplinary matters.
“When I hear people speak about what happened, how they reacted, and then come to that point of realizing we could have handled that better, I sometimes wonder whose voices you were listening to, whose voices you heard, which voices were included in the conversation, and which were left out,’” Rockmore said.
VI. THE FUTURE
Rockmore acknowledged the frustration students and others may have with the way the administration communicates the consequences of racially insensitive acts to the student body.
“From the point of view of the student body, especially with some of the events of the past two years, [students may think] we could have done more and said more. We could have said something more direct and not just gone up there and said we valued diversity of thought and inclusion,” Rockmore said.
“I would love to have somebody say what events happened and what was said. I would love someone to say we will not tolerate you saying ‘X’ things on the field, we will not tolerate you writing ‘Y’ things on the wall, and we will not tolerate you etching ‘Z’ things into the desks… By the administration not deliberately saying what happened and what they were planning to do about it, and [instead] saying that they don’t tolerate discrimination more broadly, it creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty,” Rockmore continued.
In some of these incidents, the perpetrator or perpetrators were never discovered, which makes addressing the event more difficult.
“I think the administration needs to do more than just say racism won’t be tolerated at Poly Prep,” said senior Sophia Lam. “It’s easy to say things, but I think that the administration could do more to show that they support the students of color.”
Chaiban offered his opinion on how Poly can begin to address race and other controversial issues.
“Oftentimes Poly [as an institution] skirts around issues and wants to dumb them down or ease them up a little bit, but we have to be uncomfortable in order to move forward,” Chaiban said, concerning discussions held during community forums, assembly, and advisory. “We need greater representation across all spectrums of opinion. You’re not just going to talk about race and ‘fix anyone’ or expand someone’s understanding. You need to engage in civil discourse, not argument. Ideally, you should leave the conversation saying ‘I never thought of it that way.’”
WHAT’S NEXT? A MESSAGE FROM THE POLYGON EXECUTIVE EDITORS
As a predominantly white institution, Poly Prep has made significant advances in becoming more accessible for historically marginalized groups. The school’s efforts to cultivate a more diverse student body and support students financially are certainly commendable. Yet, as a community, there is still a great deal of progress to be made in terms of making Poly a more tolerant and inclusive place for these groups. Only through dedication, cooperation, and open communication between students, administration, and faculty can we work to achieve this goal.
It seems as though many students have been passive members of the community. Sometimes, they are complacent with the racist and discriminatory behavior that has existed within these halls. We urge students to speak out and challenge their peers when this behavior occurs, even though that may be difficult. Doing the right thing can be uncomfortable. When inflammatory and hate-driven events happen, it is important that instead of whispering about it to our peers and teachers and forgetting about it or losing interest a few days later, students raise their voices and unite to make change. As a greater community, we have to get uncomfortable in order to force change.
In writing this article, we acknowledge our limitations as the executive editorial board is largely comprised of white female students, which limits the perspectives from which we are able to write and report. Thus, we encourage letters to the editor regarding the content of the issue. We welcome all opinions whether they be in support or dissent of this article. In the next issue, we hope to publish a full page dedicated to letters to the editor. Through this, we hope to take the first step in creating an open and respectful discourse for the community.
For 164 years, the school has prided itself on educating the minds, bodies, and characters of its students. In order to fully carry out this mission, we must invest more in character-focused education, where students participate in open and respectful dialogues to ponder “What does it mean to be inclusive? What does it mean to be tolerant? What does it mean to be a good person?” We must now engage in the crucial yet difficult work of making the school a more just, equitable, and inclusive place, a place where everyone can feel like they belong.
This summer was one lit by tiki torches. The nation watched in shock and anger from their living rooms and out their windows as white nationalists and neo-Nazis filled the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting hateful slogans as a bright example of the worst this country has to offer. From these torches, national monuments, and knees grounded in the dirt of a football field, Americans struggled to understand how they fit into a complex and diverse society.
While Poly Prep is a small school perched on the edge of Brooklyn, it is filled with loud voices, each communicating a lifetime worth of individual histories and experiences. As with most communities, Poly serves as a microcosm of the world surrounding it—this does not mean we are forced to play out the mistakes of the political and social leaders we see on the TV every day. This means we are where change begins. Change not just in hollow words, but in action. In understanding one another and finding empathy for the peers we are surrounded by through honest conversation, we can begin.