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Op Ed: The Root of Racism

The views stated here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of this newspaper. 

Submitted by Megan Dennis.

(June 19, 2020) — In light of the protests spreading across the country in response to the deaths of African-American individuals like George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, many white Americans have found themselves forced to face painful truths. Systemic racism and police brutality, while exposed more in the age of the camera-phone, has been present in our country since the signing of the Declaration of Independence; when the Founding Fathers declared All Men are Created Equal,” while simultaneously declaring African-Americans as subhuman under the law. While many in our community can agree that racism shouldn’t be tolerated, many also aren’t aware of how prevalent it is in the school district. According to the United States Census Bureau in 2019, the towns of Haddam and Killingworth combined had a population of roughly 14,557 citizens; of that number, over 96% was reported Caucasian. A higher population of white families doesn’t automatically make a town racist; but it should require the school curriculum to acknowledge other cultural groups and their contributions to the country from an early age.

In a 2009 newsletter from the Haddam Historical Society, author Elizabeth Malloy exposes our town’s more overt experiences with racism, quoting a 1924 Middletown Press article “The Ku Klux Klan closed its outdoor season Saturday night with a frosty gathering in Higganum. Three miles off the main road at Higganum in a lonely field the Kluxers gathered in their nightgowns, burned three fiery crosses, listened to denunciations of alleged enemies of the United States and a concert by a fife and drum corps.” In the year 2020, racism in Haddam-Killingworth isn’t signified by white robes and flaming crosses; it’s experienced much more subtly, as various community members can attest.

Many students at HK experience limited interaction with non-white peers until they leave home for college, and for those who stay in town after graduation, exposure may be even more minimal. In reaction to the June 20th protest planned at the Higganum Green in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, various discussions have arisen in the community as to whether or not the school district has a need for change in policies towards racism and hate-speech; but for non-white residents, the need has always been obvious. One POC student recalls being told to “Pack her bags” her sophomore year at HKHS, in response to a comment she made about President Trump. Another HKHS student recalls being called a “Gook” his freshman year by a white upperclassman. A commonly-shared experience of POC students and their allies at HK appears to be the fear of speaking up against offensive language and behavior in anticipation of being the victim of further harassment.

Racial discrimination in HK is not limited to the classroom, either. One recent graduate remembers being the subject of “jokes” about her race and supposed country of origin since her days at HKMS, but states the worst of the treatment she received in the community came from other adults once she began working at a store in Haddam. She was asked multiple times whether she “spoke Chinese,” to the point where some customers would simply assume she was born in China and compliment her on her “Good English.” Like other young female POC in mostly-white communities, she has been both the victim of fetishism and hatred due to her appearance; praised by a significantly older man as a “Good Asian girl” after months of harassment, and told that Asians deserved to die for “eating everything” and spreading COVID. She has been the recipient of comments like “I thought Asians eyes were more slanted,” “What side of the war were you on,” and Where are you really from?” For any young person who has lived in a community like HK their entire lives, being told to “Go home” is both painful and confusing; and, eventually, a feeling of alienation grows, and the child learns to look out for racism wherever they are.

It can’t be debated that racism remains a very real issue in the HK community; so the big question is, what can white community members do to help combat it? One HK alumni states “Parents should learn to speak out against bigotry wherever it crops up. If they do that, their kids will learn, because if we stay silent everyone eventually hurts.” A black graduate offers, “In a district with such a small percentage of diversity, racism tends to go too far before it’s stopped.” Undoubtedly, RSD17’s Board of Education has taken a largely reactionary stance to incidents concerning hate speech and racial remarks. Schools are quick to hold an assembly in response to a controversial event, or send a letter to parents when a student’s actions become the talk of the town; but the district has yet to enact comprehensive reform to school curriculum. One parent claims that her daughter’s 8th grade history class at HKMS was allowed to choose between individually studying the Civil Rights Movement or the Cold War, due to there not being time to cover both topics. “Suggested reading” lists and letters from the school board about tolerance cannot replace actually educating our students on African-American history and cultural tolerance from an early age.

The Amistad Bill (A1301), signed into New Jersey Law in 2002, ensured mandatory curriculum based on African-American, Native American, and immigrant studies would be taught alongside European and classic “American” history throughout public schools in the state. The Amistad Commission, the board charged with ensuring that African-American and minority figures and contributions are accurately represented to New Jersey students K-12, has published updated “Curriculum Maps” outlining responsible education on white and non-white history from an early age. Under this bill, NJ teachers aren’t required to explain colonization and slavery in Kindergarten, but they are required to begin introducing students to different cultures, customs and social groups at an early age.

CT Bill 7082, passed unanimously by the Senate in 2019, proposes adding new requirements to social studies programs in public schools across the state. The bill addresses numerous new additions to the curriculum, including “the arts; career education; consumer education; health and safety,” and goes on to discuss incorporating black and latino studies “For the school year commencing July 1, 2021, and each school year thereafter, each local and regional board of education shall include African-American and black studies and Puerto Rican and Latino studies as part of the curriculum for the school district.” While, unlike NJ Bill A1301, 7082 does not explicitly state whether the suggested additions to CT social studies programs would be mandatory or optional for public school students, it does require CT high schools to develop a comprehensive course on minority studies offered to students grade 9-12 by the year 2022; “The State Education Resource Center shall develop a black and Latino studies course. Such course shall be one credit and offered at the high school level.” The bill is certainly a step in the right direction; but Connecticut should think bigger than offering an optional Black and Latino Studies course to high school students if the goal is to ensure future generations are educated and aware of our nation’s shameful history.

By going beyond teaching young students about Sacajawea, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr, public schools introduce them to the concept of acceptance and equality from an early age. Many of the lesson plans outlined in the Amistad curriculum are largely focused on having open and honest conversations with students, and encouraging them to ask honest questions in turn. Racism in the HK community, like in any community, stems from ignorance. And while it won’t be solved overnight, the need for comprehensive education reform and curriculum integrating black history and concepts of white privilege from an early age has never been more evident.

 

Megan Dennis is a senior at the University of Hartford Art School, studying illustration and art history. She currently lives in Higganum, Connecticut, and graduated from HKHS in 2017.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful and thank you. It is past time that accurate history of america so it will be raised for discussion and debate.

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