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'Elevating Suppressed Voices'

In the light of the destruction of the Black Lives Matter banners at Arlington High School last Thursday, comments and notes from the town’s most-recent Community Conversation about systemic racism here can shed more light on what might contribute to such hateful attacks.

The July 21 session, “Elevating Suppressed Voices,” was “meant to highlight the voices of people of color that go unheard or are drowned out by the loudest and most vocal voices.” The moderated workshop, with written comments and videos submitted by community members, included perspectives and observations of “longtime and new residents, youth including students who are a part of the METCO program and individuals who work in town.”

Jillian Harvey, town diversity coordinator, and Allentza Michel of Powerful Pathways, a town consultant, moderated the workshop. Panelists included METCO director for the Arlington Public Schools, Margaret Credle Thomas; business owners of RepHAIRations Heidi Bailey and Sipho Mangcu; and Crystal Haynes, TV reporter and member of the Arlington Human Rights Commission. They represented black and Hispanic voices; no Asian people were panelists.

Paraphrased comments relating to questions the moderators had posed follow. How a commenter identified herself racially, ethnically, and professionally is sometimes included with a comment to provide additional context.

How welcoming is Arlington?

Parent in a biracial family: Don’t divide Arlington, it’s a good place. When asked, our children are saying they are not talking about race.

Panelists: But not talking about race is the message kids are getting – it’s seen as a taboo subject. Don’t perpetuate willful ignorance: See color, and educate them about institutional racism. White people in particular must recognize that their race plus their assumed privilege and silence has led to such harmful, persistent policies.

Asian person: In many Asian cultures families train their children to think of the community, family and the other person first. As a student, it was very difficult to reconcile this core belief with the push in American culture and Arlington schools to value the individual so highly. It has been (and still is) exhausting and very demoralizing to navigate within two opposite value systems.

African-American person: Often feeling unsafe, not knowing what kind of treatment I’ll get if I walk into Town Hall, a restaurant, or a store. Having neighbors who continually harass me with threats, intimidation, and even being told “This is a white neighborhood. If you n--- don’t like that, you should leave.” The police have been called more than once but just try to smooth things over and not take the threats seriously. The stress affects our health, blood pressure: “I feel it in my stomach every day.” 

Panelists:

  • Black, African-American, business owner: Feeling safer in Boston’s “unsafe” neighborhoods than in suburbs. Being questioned about why she was on a bus from Cambridge going into Arlington. Northern racism is more undercover than in the South.
  • Black, South African, business owner: Was used to these kinds of comments in her country, so she shrugs them off. Her accent may help her escape some insults here. Being African means not always understanding the ways Americans are disrespectful to blacks here; she’s having to learn to see this for her children’s sake. It’s scary.

What’s it like to work in Arlington?

All comments from panelists

  • Black, African-American, TV reporter and committee member: She married into a well-known family in Arlington, but receives different treatment and has different experiences when people recognize her name, or her face from TV, than when they don’t. 
  • METCO Director (African American and Hispanic): Her group of educators was being totally ignored for getting a table in Not Your Average Joe’s. After a while, a white person came in and was immediately welcomed and seated. They left. She remembers walking back to AHS and her car, feeling afraid to be in this town. 
  • Being asked (on opening a black-centered business in Arlington) “Why are you even here? There are so few black people in Arlington?” Answer: Not having any spaces where black people feel they can congregate and let their guard down – affinity spaces where the owners/staff “get it” immediately when customers walk in. Many black people live here and are not seen as longtime residents of the area. It’s a good place for such a needed business.
  • Assuming a person’s English won’t be good, that they won’t speak grammatically correctly, that they are less intelligent – even though they may have a master’s degree or beyond. Parents of METCO kids are being treated that way. Many have advanced degrees – are doctors, lawyers, etc.
  • Having to be different people: Authentic “me” is left at home. Code-switch, a kind of performance, depending on social and professional situations. Making a deliberate decision not to code-switch any more is freeing.
  • Watching constantly for emotional responses to what I say or how I say it. Too much passion is interpreted as anger. Can’t let my guard down easily to just “vent”-- could be misinterpreted or used against you, the “angry black person.” 
  • Trying to be a “model minority” person from a disadvantaged family, in order to get an education, job and develop an “acceptable” TV persona, but how does that strip away “blackness”? Being half-white/black gives a certain amount of privilege. Acknowledging that I can pass as white means examining how to use my “blackground” to move things forward.
  • Needing to find white allies. Asking “How do I calculate my response this time? How do I ask my white allies to get them to use their power and influence to help me get things changed?” It’s taken several years to find and keep allies I know I can trust.

What do students think?

  • Student(s): Teachers taking me aside before a field trip and asking if I’ll need help paying the activity fee – but never asking white kids the same question. Assuming poverty, though I would have no trouble paying. Assuming I will always “need help.” Assuming I’m a METCO student, but I’ve lived here my whole life.
  • Former METCO student:  I was proud to be a Spy Ponder and really felt included, but some teachers treated me like I was just dropped off from the bus. I’d have like to have felt like I was part of the community, in some get-togethers. I really didn’t know anybody outside of sports teams. Could there be a METCO table at Town Day?
  • METCO director: I have “family meetings” for students, so they know they have at least one person here who will listen and understand them. Helping them develop, to explore “How do you want to handle this?” for troubling situations. Don’t minimize students’ concerns that they are seen as less intelligent, disruptive, violent, etc.
  • Business owner: But METCO’s existence is problematic to me: it’s destroyed the [black] community because the “best and the brightest” leave their neighborhoods and don’t come back. METCO should bus white kids into the city. Even better, create equal schools everywhere, so busing isn’t needed. There is a stigma: “You must be from the projects. Woe is you – you must be oppressed.” 
  • METCO director: Arlington benefits from the diversity METCO brings. Remember METCO’s history: it arose from white parents’ opposition to being bused out of their neighborhoods. It’s been a way to give urban kids a better education. We don’t have “METCO students.” We have Arlington Public Schools' students who participate in the METCO program. 

How can we do better? Action steps:

  • Rules of engagement must change. We need a common language for discussing individual, ideological, and institutional racism. 
  • More space for women of all races, colors, classes.
  • Black people are glad more white people want to help but are tired of being Olympic Woke Coaches to teach whites how not to be racist or to benefit from racism. 
  • Whites and blacks must do their own “homework.” Be aware of others. Ask: “How am I biased? How do I perpetuate bias?”
  • I don’t need rescuers, I need allies. White people, use your power, influence, and privilege. Don’t cut me a piece of the pie and decide on how big my piece gets to be. Ask “How can I be a better ally”?
  • White people need to speak up and push their white friends to address these problems. 
  • Be an abolitionist! 
  • Build your own awareness. Communities of color have their own work to do regarding each other, but systemic racism makes that job harder.
  • Hold institutions accountable. 

July 21, 2020: ACMi broadcast >>

Town's Community Conversations series


This news summary by freelancer Rose Udics of Arlington was published Monday, July 27, 2020.

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