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Do Better: A Call for Accountability to The Country School Alumni Community

by Marina Sachs '07

Imagine, for a few minutes, that you traveled back a year in time to June 2019. It's not 2020 yet, and perhaps you have just attended a graduation, accepted a position at a new job, or are gearing up for another summer with the family. In this theoretical 2019 situation, this email shows up in your inbox:

In March 2020, a massive global pandemic caused by a respiratory virus is going to emerge, shutting down the entire globe for months. Schools across the nation will be brought online, and people will begin working remotely for an indefinite period of time. Everyone will have to wear masks outside, and life as you currently know it will shift in a matter of weeks. There will be a slough of shortages, some foreseen (hand sanitizer), and others more perplexing (toilet paper, ammunition, rollerblades). Then, in late May, just when this virus appears to be slowing down, a Black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, a Black woman in Louisville, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, a Black trans man in Jacksonville, FL, will all be shot and killed by the police. What follows is an international outpouring of protests, and calls for the anti-racist transformations of police departments, governments, academic institutions, and companies. Millions of people, especially young people, from Appalachia to Anchorage, Alaska, will demand justice for the Black folks who were killed, and that racism be addressed in this country. You'll be there, so I thought I'd give you a heads up, and ample time to prepare. How will you respond? 

While most would dismiss this auguring email as absurd and send it directly to the Spam folder, some might consider the situation. How would we manage virtual education? 76 million students will need to shift to online learning platforms.[1] And what about unemployment? What happens to the police officers who killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade? (Say their names!) Unfortunately, some folks would be all too familiar with the situations described in the latter half of this email. While the email remains theoretical, the message's last line rings true in the present. How will you respond?

I write this letter from Gainesville, Florida, only two hours away from where Tony McDade was shot and killed. There have been protests demanding justice across the country the past month, and even in the midst of the current pandemic, I have witnessed people joining together on various in-person and virtual fronts to, stated plainly, demand that we[2] "do better." In many ways, this mindset of "do better" was nurtured for me from an early age during my time at The Country School. With much of my young academic life at The Country School hinging around positive reinforcement and inclusion, the mindset of "do better" skirted the line of challenging without being punitive. Mistakes were encouraged, inter-disciplinary curiosity supported. The myriad of outdoor trips, which remain a highlight for alumni across the years, certainly encouraged that we "do better."

This isn't to say that I, or my peers in the class of 2007, weren't doing well. If you look at where TCS alumni are five, ten, fifty years out of their eight grade graduation, you will find a fantastic community of thinkers and makers. However, while I was at TCS, my teachers constantly pushed students to think more critically. To commit more meaningfully to revising a paper in Mrs. Barber's history class, to boldly make the shot as the shortest girl on the basketball team, to getting all my stage cues after hours of rehearsal for the 'Annie" production. The mindset of "do better" that I built while at The Country School wasn't about jockeying for a superlative position, but striving for depth. "Do better" also meant helping my classmates during the tent set-up test run before Moab, it meant being the best role model and Reading Buddy I could be, questioning knowledge that didn't make sense, and admitting when I had made a mistake. For me, "do better" meant recognizing that my actions of the present moment didn't just impact the future but, in fact, were the future.

As a student at The Country School, I came to understand "doing better" as fierce commitment, fearless self-expression, and asking for justice. My education on Opening Hill Road was truly about working towards, dreaming of, and reflecting on what I could do when I graduated. However, it was also entirely—as it remains to this day— about what I will do. Aside from the normative and imperative differences between the two statements, this "What I Can Do/What I Will Do" paradigm remains a guiding principle for my life.

And it is here, admittedly a bit too late in this piece, where I need to address Whiteness. I've written a theoretical email and several paragraphs, but haven't yet addressed my own position of privilege within the present moment. One of the reasons I need to address Whiteness is because the alumni communication in which this letter appears comes from within a PWI— a Predominantly White Institution.

The education I received at The Country School left me with significant blank spots when it came to non-white histories, change-makers, experiences, and ways of thinking and being. My graduating class at The Country School was overwhelmingly white, and the histories and stories we were educated by too often reflected that. Why was I taught songs in lower-school chorus that were created by black, enslaved chain gang members from the South? Only recently, when that song (like many songs from my youth) popped into my head did I look it up, and discover the song's racist origin. Why did I only learn about Native American communities through the lens of what harm was done to them by historical government policies? Only when I moved to the Cheyenne River Reservation in 2015 did I have the opportunity to hear the truth about what happened, and is happening, to Indigenous people in the United States. Why did I mostly learn about Black, Indigenous, and communities of color through the lens of historical trauma, not celebration of artists, thinkers, writers? Why is learning about Black history assigned to one month out of the year?  Academic institutions across the United States are finally starting to address racist tendencies and long-standing issues of inequity and white-oriented learning. This kind of anti-racist engagement with administrative restructuring, curricular content, and student recruitment isn't easy, but it's an engagement that's long overdue. I know Country School teachers have been introducing new programs to address these issues, and I'm excited to see that happen. I believe that truth should be at the heart of every educational endeavor.

Another reason I need to address Whiteness is because it is the privileged, albeit unearned and "invisible"[3] lens through which I am viewed by the world, and through which I have navigated life. When I write this letter, I am conscious that it is an immense privilege to have learned about racism, but not to have experienced it. I have never been the target of racially-motivated prejudice (or violence, or murder), nor was I ever asked to consider my skin color as a child. I grew up with dolls, doctors, teachers, celebrities, and astronauts who looked like me. I grew up with boundless hope for what I could become, because I saw people who looked like me becoming anything they wanted.This is one small part of how privilege has shaped the development of my life's purview. Being conscious of my privilege, however, is not enough.[4] With this knowledge comes deep responsibility. Part of this responsibility is committing to listening to BIPOC, educating yourself, and admitting when and how prejudice gets in the way of justice.[5]

If you are White, like me, part of this responsibility necessitates an intentional engagement with White friends, family, and community-members about Whiteness, and the unearned privilege it scaffolds. The following conditional statements aim at meeting you (White folks) where you might find yourself in your commitments to being an anti-racist ally.[6] 

If you are White, and don't understand what is going on or why #BlackLivesMatter, consider whether you have ever thought about Whiteness. In your eyes, what is Whiteness? This identity mapping exercise created by Teaching Tolerance offers a useful starting point. Researching the term "White Fragility" will also yield impactful, and relevant content.

If you are White and aren't sure how to help, consider that now is a time to listen, reflect, acknowledge your biases,[7] and commit to a radical empathy that necessarily involves you doing a deep dive into knowing what your privilege is — and how to best harness it to fight for justice. Please, don't default to asking a Black person, "What should I do?" If you don't know where to start, I have designed and am offering a series of virtual discussion-based workshops, WHITE*, which you can register for via my website. Additionally, the living document, Anti-Racism Resources for White People, compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein shares hundreds of  books, podcasts, films, TV shows, articles, and organizations for you to engage in a self-guided, anti-racist education.

If you are White and can't protest physically but would like to support Black lives and livelihoods financially, make an inventory of who you support and how you might transform that. This goes beyond "Love your Local," and asks you to really examine who is behind the brands you are supporting, the restaurants you are dining at, the museums you are patrons of. How can you redirect your dollars to support organizations owned by BIPOC? Additionally, typing "How can white people help" into an online search engine currently yields about 14,040,000,000 results.

If you are a White parent navigating this with your children in mind, The Country School libraries have compiled an awesome archive of books by Black authors and sharing BIPOC stories. I'm not a parent, but having worked as an educator for 7+ years, I understand that young people are highly perceptive and oftentimes more willing to engage in these conversations before adults are. To facilitate conversations about race, which, at times may prove uncomfortable and difficult, demystifies the concept of "race," and can further help your child develop a positive white identity.[8]

If you are White, and have read this letter as someone in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and other organizations fighting for transformative justice, keep fighting. Remain conscious of your privilege, and reach out if you'd like to connect about anti-racist organizing.

If you are White, then you are arguably the most critical actor when it comes to conversations about addressing racism, and moving towards anti-racist futures.

Last week, I was asked by my employer (a major public university), to take the day to "continue educating myself about racism." It will take far longer than a day to "educate myself about racism," but a critical component of the aforementioned "education" involves a process of unlearning: not a process of forgetting what I learned, but one of finding alternative models, paradigms, questions, and solutions. It is, inevitably, a process of forging new realities.

Unlearning racist tendencies, addressing White complicity, and reframing the mythic role of "Justice" in American History does not happen overnight. Nor does it mean that the steps moving forward will be comfortable or easy. Moving forward demands that you, my White friends, reassess how you have viewed and acted in the world. And yet, here again is a moment to check ourselves: to learn about injustice, rather than experience it daily, is a privilege. A bit of uncomfortable learning is, in my opinion, the least that White people can do as allies in solidarity with our BIPOC friends, family, and community-members. 

There are millions of choices that all of us make, some of them are more difficult than others. However, to abstain from choosing, is, in my opinion, never the right move. It's been thirteen years since I was an 8th Grader at The Country School, five years since being an employee, and my work has brought me to an MFA program at a major public university where I primarily research how representations, specifically of womxn, operate and break down in this current iteration of American capitalism. In my research, I examine how intentional choices made in marketing and advertising— primarily through images and semiotics— impact femxle consumer identity construction. Simply put, I research how seeing pictures of "people like me" impacts how I develop my sense of self.

The first time I asked myself that question was around this time in 2010 I was a 7th Grader in Mrs. Barber's History class. I wrote my final paper for her class about American advertising between the 1940s and 1960s, subsequently sparking my interest in researching how images shape our perception of ourselves, and those around us. Had I not been encouraged to dig deeper, revise (again, and again), and get to the root of the questions I was really asking, I may never have discovered this research interest. Mrs. Barber, thank you.

I share this short anecdote about my current research and Mrs. Barber's history class as a means of highlighting two successes. The first is that there are educators who have been teaching justice-oriented, truth seeking curriculums long before these past few months demanded it. Transformative justice cannot occur without educators and schools on board. The second success is a highlight of The Country School's mission; to provide students with an education that lasts a lifetime. Some of the foundational values I learned at The Country School—inquisitiveness, commitment, empathy, and bravery— remain with me at the forefront of my studio practice, teaching, and organizing efforts. You helped create me, Country School, and I'm writing this letter to let you know that you, like many of us, can do better. 

And so, again, I return to the question posed by our theoretical emailer at the beginning of this letter and I ask you to consider what your answer might have been, and what it will be.

"How will you respond?"

Will it be with bravery, empathy, and commitment? If you are White, how willing are you to acknowledge your privilege, and harness it to amplify the voices of people you have never met? If we, as allies, commit to a present underscored by humility, honesty and justice, our future holds an anti-racist education that lasts not just for this lifetime, but for lifetimes far beyond ours.

 

Editor's Note: We always welcome submissions from Country School alumni about topics of concern to them and the broader community. To share a submission, contact alumni@thecountryschool.org


[1] From the US Census Bureau, 12/11/2018.  
[2] The "we" I address in this context includes but is not limited to: Law Enforcement Agencies, U.S. Federal and local government branches, White people, leaders of major brands + for-profit orgs., Institutions of Higher Education, Public + Private K-8 Schools, Museums (and their patrons and boards), Amazon.com, Educational Text Publishers, and more.
[3] See Peggy Mcintosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack"
[4] After learning about privilege, action must follow. For (one of MANY online resources) see Resources for White People to Learn and Talk About Race and Racism.
[5] To that end, this letter is poised as a conversation-starter. I welcome all feedback, corrections, and knowledge I am missing.
[6] For a comprehensive anti-racist resource specifically created with White people in mind visit bit.ly/ANTIRACISMRESOURCES
[7] Why not let this Harvard study point out your biases? Visit https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html for more.
[8] See Developing a Positive White Identity at UUA.org.