I no longer get upset when I see racial epithets graffitied into public space. I recognize it as a sort of coming-of-age exercise for disgruntled white teens. Its frequency no longer surprises me. But the response to it still does.
Last month, an individual of diminished character took an aerosol paint can and spray-painted the “N-word” onto the athletic field at Ridgefield High School. This was a very bad thing and I, along with many, many others, were very unhappy about it. But that is not the reason for my writing. If I chose to write every time some miscreant wrote or uttered hate speech, I would have a daily column.
No. I am profoundly disappointed by the misguided and unhelpful way that Ridgefield school officials responded to the N-word being spray-painted onto the athletic field at the high school. I think you should be, too.
Sooner or later, there is going to be a racist incident in your town or at your school. It’s as predictable as the weather. And when that happens, you’re going to want to know what to say. And what NOT to say.
I can help with that. I have been speaking and writing and fighting for diversity, equity and inclusion in Connecticut for 30 years.
The incident occurred in the evening hours after a pick-up game between Ridgefield students and students from another school. The perpetrator apparently did not realize that athletic fields have security cameras, which caught the act and identified the suspect, who was apprehended shortly thereafter. The next day, the principal of Ridgefield High School sent a letter to the school community. The first two sentences of the letter explained the facts of what happened, similar to my account above.
The third sentence of the letter reassured everyone that the perpetrator was not anyone from Ridgefield. It wasn’t one of us. And the fourth sentence reassured everyone that the racist graffiti was removed so that no one else would see it.
So, what’s the problem?
Simple, in our panicked urgency to reassure the town and ourselves that our hands (and consciences) were clean, we missed the opportunity to understand what happened and lost our power to be a positive force for change.
No one is bothering to ask the important questions. How did this happen in our house? Our house. What did we do — or fail to do — that made this racist incident possible? What should we be doing differently to prevent this from happening again?
When school or community officials declare proudly that there is no place for that kind of hate here, we are promoting a lie. There is a place for it here, just as long as it doesn’t embarrass us publicly.
Officials are all too quick to say, “Nothing to see here. Everyone go on home now. Everything’s fine.” I think we should stick around and figure out what happened, and why. If we honestly don’t want these incidents to keep happening, we need to begin right now making plans for the future, for the next time someone wants to do something stupid and hateful.
Go ahead and clean up (or cover up) the racist graffiti. We don’t need to see the words painted into the grass in order to know that racism and hatred are present here, that they are all around us. We don’t need to see the words painted in the grass to know that racism and hatred can manifest themselves visually, verbally and physically at any random moment and make some among us their target.
So, how should it have been handled?
My own bias is that I believe educators should be absolutely obsessed with creating and leveraging “teachable moments” from events and conditions in the world around us. The racist vandalism on the RHS field was one of the more important teachable moments that we simply cannot afford to let pass unexamined. And the lesson of this moment is not “It wasn’t one of us, because we are good people who don’t do that kind of.”
Has anyone thought to ask who is harmed by incidents like this? How are they harmed? How can we help them to heal? How can we heal ourselves?
The principal’s letter would have been so much better if it had said, “It doesn’t matter who spray painted the word on the field. We are all complicit unless we each commit ourselves to fighting racism and hatred — every day. We are all complicit unless we share the responsibility of being the change and forcing the change that we want to see in our schools and our community — every day.”
You and I can go about our lives not being racist and think that is enough. It’s not.
It’s not, because it’s an illusion that anyone can be passively non-racist. The only alternative to “racist” is “anti-racist.” The only alternative to the way things are is to be proactively, intentionally, consistently and earnestly anti-racist, and to commit to changing the ways that we perceive and engage with others in the world.
Let’s stop saying, “It wasn’t us,” and do something about it.
Mark Robinson is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.