February 24, 2017

Becoming “Other Wise”

From February 21–24 Oakwood Secondary School celebrated its 11th year of Diversity Week. A student-initiated event that launched in 2006 first as “Diversity Day,” this annual celebratory event focuses our school community on the critical exploration of issues of difference, equity, justice, and inclusion.

This year’s theme was Windows and Mirrors: Becoming “Other Wise.” The intent of these metaphors is to:

—Help our students better understand themselves in relation to others.

—Guide students in identifying and respecting their own values, views and needs, as well as those of others in a variety of contexts … home, Oakwood, USA, and the world.

—Further develop students’ empathy, open-mindedness and respect for differences, seen and unseen.

This year’s opening Diversity Week assembly featured powerful personal remarks from three student speakers and a moving rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” performed by a student musical group. As an introduction to these segments of the event, two Oakwood administrators—Principal William Perkins Tift and Director of Diversity Programs Linda Rose-Winters—shared their own unique perspectives and histories as they relate to the themes at the forefront of Diversity Week.

Secondary School Principal William Perkins Tift

I am a product of privilege. I stand here as a white, cisgendered, heterosexual male. I’m tall, able-bodied and right-handed. I was raised a Christian in a well-to-do family in Georgia by cisgendered heterosexual parents committed to one another with a professional career. I went to an independent school and an Ivy League college, and have always learned in ways that our society sees as conventional. My family were signers of the Declaration of Independence—this has always been my country, except for the time when parts of my family fought for the Confederacy. An aspect of growing up in a genteel southern family was that I was taught not to talk about politics, religion, sex, money or race. (Looking back, I wonder a bit what we actually did talk about…)

It has been a process to come to terms with this personal history of privilege—to not feel pride at parts of it and deep shame about other aspects. And while we did not talk expressly about it, looking back my parents worked relentlessly to insure that my brother and sister and I had perspective. Travel, arts, literature, music, theatre, comedy were our windows and mirrors. Still within weeks of starting my freshman year at Dartmouth, I had successfully suppressed my southern accent, as I self-consciously heard it as a sign of close-minded bigotry and lack of education.

As I have grappled with my own privilege, I’ve come to several realizations. One is knowing when to shut up (and I do appreciate the irony of being the white man at the mic saying that I know when to shut up). For centuries, my voice has dominated, my people have set the agenda, my history has never been relegated to the sidebar of textbooks. Now is the time for me to bear silent witness, to pass the talking piece and hear other stories. It is a critical practice that those of us with privilege can exercise every day and in every situation. A second realization is that the work of calling out privilege, of standing up to bigotry, of stepping in when a joke crosses a line is not the work of others, of those who “should be offended,” of people of color or people who have suffered oppression or slight—no, it is my work and it is our work.Not because the world needs to be a safe space where no one is ever offended, but because the act of standing up to these things makes all of us more connected, more empathetic, better allies, and more human. And it is the beginnings of a course correction for the mechanisms of privilege.

Looking out at our community, I see a group that is increasingly diverse, in countless ways both visible and invisible. And I know firsthand from hours of admissions decisions and from hiring fairs and interviews for admin, students, faculty and staff just how meticulously we deliberate on who to bring into the Oakwood community. Each person here heard something about Oakwood that attracted you, then experienced countless conversations, interviews, sample lessons, sample classes, outside events, financial sacrifices, advice from family or elders you respect, and a host of people seen and unseen who believe in you—and now you are here. And each one of you absolutely deserves to be here, to belong here and to be listened to here. You being here is of great significance. While other schools and institutions work hard to conform people to a particular mold, Oakwood values, in fact is built upon, something fundamentally different.

Which brings me to another realization regarding my own privilege. I must understand and be aware that when I walk into a room, it is not just William. I also bring with me the shadow side of my privilege—institutional racism, Jim Crow, assault against women, a glass ceiling, Stonewall, a narrow construct of gender and sexuality, exclusion, classist elitism. I don’t bring those things with me because I believe in them. In fact I dedicate my life to undoing them. But these are the very things upon which my privilege has been built and how it has been reinforced for centuries. I don’t need to deal with this in shame, but if I ignore these facts, I’m perpetuating the injustice.

This raising of awareness, critical reflection, and time for contemplation is at the heart of our Diversity Week 2017—Windows and Mirrors. We must examine Oakwood because we are Oakwood. We must unpack the privilege inherent in an elite private school. We must redouble our efforts to foster a sense of community and consider differing perspectives respectfully and openly. In this week, we take stock of the tremendous work being done every day of the school year in every classroom, lunch table, club meeting, practice, rehearsal, and professional development to further the work of diversity, equity and inclusion. And we recommit ourselves to the work still to be done.

Thank you.

William’s remarks were then followed by his introduction of “someone whom I respect as much for her own embrace of her human fallibility as for her deep expertise and commitment to justice and learning—Oakwood’s Director of Diversity Programs and my dear friend, Linda Rose-Winters,” who then took the stage and offered these words to the crowd.

Director of Diversity Programs Linda Rose-Winters

I grew up in an upper middle class predominantly White suburb on the north shore of Long Island, New York. Five years before I was born, my parents built our house on a quarter acre plot of land that my maternal grandparents gave to them as a wedding present. Not particularly common for Negroes, as we were called back then, my grandparents owned prime properties in the area. Real estate developers were disinclined to sell certain properties in certain neighborhoods to People of Color. My grandparents were able to purchase these properties with the help of an extremely wealthy White woman who was one my grandmother’s closest friends. This woman would buy the properties and then resell them to my grandparents, at no additional cost. Although there was probably no language for it at the time, I guess you could say that this woman was a true ally long before being an ally was even a thing.

Including my grandparents, my family was one of three African American families in my immediate neighborhood of about 100 homes.Everyone else was White. My parents took great pride in being homeowners in this neighborhood. And, even though those exact words were never spoken out loud, the messages were very clear. Our house was always meticulously maintained. Like all of the other households, we had a housekeeper and a yardsman who took care of our lawn and landscaping, and plowed our driveway and walkways when it snowed. My parents were extremely social and entertained a lot. Our home was often the hub for family gatherings, neighborhood parties and barbecues. I had several close friends from the neighborhood and from school who regularly hung out at my house. There was always good food and good times. My parents welcomed everyone.

Throughout my elementary, middle and high school years, I was often “the only one”. When I graduated from high school, in our class of close to 400, there were three students of color, including me. The other two students were Chinese American. And, sadly, other than an occasional nod of acknowledgement as we passed each other in the halls, we never even spoke to one another or ever became friends. In fact, the very first time I did have a conversation with each of them was several years later at a high school reunion. All of my friends were White. I didn’t have a teacher of color until my senior year of high school.

Early on, my parents ingrained in me the responsibility of “representing” my race. My father was from Virginia and, like William, was very self-conscious of his southern accent. So he made sure I spoke a certain way…“the King’s English,” as he called it.

I realize that this heightened almost obsessive racial self-awareness that my father imposed on me, was and still is problematic at times. I didn’t even start to become acutely aware of it, or even be able to talk about the full impact of it, until I was in my late teens. And, even now, I continue to unpack it all. I also realize that without it, I would not have developed the deep interest and curiosity I have about race, race relations and racism in the United States. And, very possibly, would not be standing in front of you today, as the Director of Diversity Programs, sharing a bit of my story as we launch the 11th year of Diversity Week to engage in courageous conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion.

At times, I can see parts of my experiences as a youth, mirrored in the experiences of some of the students here at Oakwood. I recognize how vital it is for us to provide time and space for students, whose voices aren’t necessarily the loudest or the most popular, to reflect upon and talk about their experiences. And how equally vital it is for all of us to listen, with open hearts and open minds. Sharing our stories connects us to one another and reaffirms our values.

Thank you.