By Jarret Liotta
Westport parents today heard overt and shocking examples of racism among some elementary school students as well as subtle cases of unintended “microaggressions” among Staples High School students.
TEAM members Zoe Tarrant (l) and Catherine Lewis listen at today’s meeting. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Jarret Liotta for WestportNow.com
The occasion was a meeting with members of TEAM Westport, the town’s diversity committee, at the Saugatuck Congregational church. It was entitled “Tackling Microaggressions & Promoting Diversity & Inclusivity in Westport’s Schools.”
Attendees agreed that a public recognition of the problem is an important first step in addressing it.
“The goal is really to make this a more inclusive town,” said Zoe Tarrant, TEAM member.
Only a half a dozen parents showed up for the discussion — which included two school administrators who serve as adjunct TEAM members — but several of the stories shared were like large elephants that filled the room.
One Westport mother shared about the word “nigger” being used by some students in her son’s elementary school.
“They use it for the bus drivers,” she said. “They use it for the black boys in class.”
“We’re not as far along as we think we are here in Westport,” said Tarrant.
She and co-facilitator Catherine Lewis, who have already spoken to some PTA groups in town, stressed an important need to shine light on these issues.
And while discussing how they impact students across the spectrum, they emphasized their efforts to find ways to educate and support both students and teachers in making change.
“As a collective group, what do we do next?” Tarrant said.
“There are quite a few initiatives that TEAM Westport is working on,” she said. They include “diversity, inclusivity and equity as it pertains to our schools.”
But overall she said not enough is being done, especially for students of color who cannot only feel marginalized, but have no support in place to deal with it.
Lewis shared how Greens Farms Academy is holding a five-day training workshop on equity and diversity in June.
“Our school district should be doing that,” she said.
“This is such a complicated topic for white people,” said one father in attendance, who has experienced instances of anti-Semitism in town as well. “White people don’t want to deal with it … A lot of people will find this a controversial topic.”
“It feels like sex education,” said TEAM member Alison Patton, Saugatuck Congregational minister, noting it was hard for people to even use the necessary words to talk about the subject.
“We can’t have the conversation if we don’t have the vocabulary, and if we’re mortified to use the vocabulary,” she said.
In particular, she said, when faced with issues in their classrooms, many teachers are unsure of how to respond without saying the wrong thing and making matters worse.
Likewise, TEAM members noted that some white people instead choose to deny the issue exists at all because it is hard to deal with.
“So many white people think, ‘Race isn’t an issue for me, so I don’t need to talk about it,’” Lewis said.
TEAM members said that denial of difference — the “colorblind phenomenon” — actually adds to the problem, for it ignores issues that are sometimes deep rooted and systemic.
“That’s the piece that is most dangerous,” Lewis said.
One mother, who identified as having children of mixed race, said they have had very different experiences in Westport based on their appearances.
She said among comments that made her daughter uncomfortable were suggestions from friends and acquaintances that she straighten her hair, which they say would make her look prettier.
Lewis identified “microaggressions” as being “daily sort of assaults that a lot time for people that make them, don’t even think about them,” but which can make the recipients uncomfortable, especially over time and with frequency.
“These are behaviors that are unacceptable, whether they’re malicious or not,” said TEAM member Ramin Ganeshram, director of the Westport Historical Society.
“It becomes about intent,” she said, but it needs to be about impact.
Yet TEAM members agreed there was not anything specific in Board of Education policy addressing the issue.
“Educators and administrators can’t be empowered to enforce rules if they’re not codified in the first place,” Ganeshram said.
TEAM members hope to continue the discussion with more people, and also hope to find ways to give support and potentially coaching to teachers and students who are making inroads in addressing the issues in schools but can use help.