An open letter advocating the importance of New Trier’s Seminar Day, “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights”
To whom it may concern:
We are a group of New Trier alumnae and advocates who are deeply concerned with the response of some parents to New Trier’s 2017 Seminar Day. We wish to respond to “Parents of New Trier”’s concerns and emphasize the importance of this program, which several of us helped plan. We believe that the Seminar Day actively works toward New Trier’s values of “committing minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity.”
We would like to begin with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Since some of us were part of the creation and implementation of the day, we are inherently biased. However, this gives us insight into the construction of the program — and the exhaustion that accompanies it. Planning the day was exhausting. Parents and students are extremely resistant to learning about these topics. Acknowledging injustice and inequity are extremely difficult, especially when we acknowledge that we are complicit in the problem. But in planning this day and witnessing the resistance against it, we realized how important it was — in part because there was so much negativity towards the day.
This fueled us to be persistent in making the day as impactful as possible. We knew students were not going to show up. We knew that even the students who did attend may not listen. But we, the students who had been directly engaging with the topics, believed that it was important for our school to have this day, and we still do. There is racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and transphobic rhetoric pervading every inch of our world, and although it may be difficult to see, prejudice has direct effects on the lives of New Trier students regardless of their belief in its existence or importance. At a school that is predominantly white, these issues are seemingly not at the forefront— simply because they don’t affect every student every day. We distinctly remember students last year using this as their excuse to not engage in conversations about race.
That is a part of privilege — not having to think about it. Life at New Trier can fool us into thinking our society is “post-racial,” simply because we don’t have much racial diversity in our township. We don’t recognize or question the disproportionate amount of white faces in the hallways; we don’t regularly examine issues of inequity through the lens of race — and this is all because we don’t have to. By not talking about race and not recognizing that we aren’t talking about it, we are attempting to sweep it under the rug, which only perpetuates a cycle of covert bigotry in this community and beyond.
Understanding the complexities of race and ethnicity is necessary when examining history, literature, economics and public policy. Last year, the concerned parent who emailed Breitbart News about the Seminar Day stated that “of the 59 classes, over half seem to focus on the color of skin and not the content of character” — expressing the idea that racism is a concept with no real effects, and the incredibly problematic notion that (while we all wish this was the case) the content of one’s character is the only thing that affects their path to success — not the degrading and harmful prejudice they have to face in America because of the color of their skin.
Additionally, we mustn’t forget the roots of our township. “Indian Hill,” the Winnetka neighborhood that New Trier East is located in, was built on the land of Native people, which was concluded after stone points and arrowheads were found and confirmed by archeologists. Neighborhoods that feed into New Trier have a history of racism and anti-Semitism; Kenilworth realtors refused to sell properties to anyone who was not white up until the 1960’s. Joseph Sears, of whom the middle school was named for, founded Kenilworth with four things in mind: “Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only.” While these beliefs may not still be held by Kenilworth’s residents, it is important to recognize and actively work against the biases and discrimination so embedded in the communities in which we live so that these injustices are not perpetuated.
Something your website and its supporters have been adamantly pushing is creating a “diversity of thought” in these conversations; namely, inviting conservative speakers who seem to think of racism as a problem of the past. But wanting to talk about and understand the complexities of race in contemporary America is not some radical leftist idea, and to dismiss it as such is invalidating. While in the current political climate it has been easy to push these kinds of conversations aside, claiming they divide us, Seminar Day only hopes to bring New Trier students — as well as mentors and academics — of many different perspectives to come together and learn. To distract the conversation from a very well-planned day of community learning is a shame. We can’t help wondering: where was your desire to have “diversity of thought” in the yearly curriculum of your children? Where were the “Parents of New Trier” when syllabi were distributed for mandatory U.S. History classes for juniors, focusing almost entirely on post-Columbian white history; or for freshman World History, a class rife with Eurocentrism? These are questions your children, the students of New Trier High School, and those who would be directly impacted by a Seminar Day spend their years pondering, without the space and support to find solutions. Confronting ideas of race, racism and racial identities is not a partisan activity — it is an important aspect of society that needs to be included in everyday conversations both inside and outside of the classroom.
The problem is, whether we “see” race or not — whether we choose to personally acknowledge it — it exists. And the social constructs that have been built around it affect the way people move through the world. Race affects real people in real time, and by claiming “color-blindness,” we become complicit in the very systems we allege to object to. We need to teach these students to respect and value those differences, as well as the many similarities that all people share. And, as Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Learning about race gives students the tools to create a more just world.
Now, we would like to respond to your concerns about the day (“Parents of New Trier’s” words are italicized, our responses are in normal text).
General concerns of “Parents of New Trier” include:
- “Parents were overtly excluded from input into the Seminar Day despite attempts by many parents to be constructively included. This is our community. This is our school. These are our kids. Parent input is essential.”
This is simply not true. Parents were notified on October 28th, 2016 in the school’s newsletter about this event, it was listed on the November calendar which was emailed to all parents on October 24th, and an email specific to the event was sent on November 18th that welcomed members of the community to attend a meeting to discuss (and provide input on) the day. The straightforward title of this event: “How Do We Talk About Identity and Race” was included in each of these notifications. The exact email (that was sent to all New Trier parents) is below:
November 18, 2016
Dear Parent or Guardian,
On February 28, 2017, New Trier High School will hold an all-school seminar day with the theme “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights.” This is a day of regular attendance for students, who will hear from two keynote speakers and choose two workshops presented by staff, students, and experts on the topic. The schedule for the day will follow our early dismissal times (normal start times but dismissal at 2:05 p.m. at Northfield and 2:25 p.m. at Winnetka). In December, we will share the names of our keynote speakers and a catalog of the workshop sessions. We are also working to provide opportunities for parents to hear our keynote speakers at special evening events, and we will inform you when we have more details about those opportunities.
In preparation for the day, I would like to invite you to attend the ECGC Parent Group program “How Can We Talk about Identity and Race?” on November 30th. A flier for this event is included below. At this event, we will share updated information regarding the all-school seminar day and facilitate a discussion about how we as adults can help our students talk about the complex issue of race in our country. Please consider joining us!
“How Do We Talk About Identity and Race?”
A Parent Preview to the All School Seminar
Is it OK for us to talk about race?
What can we all do to understand our own racial identity?
How can we identify and explore bias?
- “The 2017 Seminar Day almost duplicates an “MLK Seminar Day” held in 2016, when only 58 percent of children attended the regular school day vs. the usual 95 percent (the fact it was Rev. Martin Luther King Day should not be assumed to be the reason this).”
The fact that it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day is very relevant, for two reasons: first, families may have made plans for vacation or college visits in advance, which could increase absences; and second, it is important to note that only 58% of students chose (yes, many had a choice) to attend a seminar on the legacy of Dr. King and modern civil rights on a day honoring him. This seems disrespectful and close-minded — the day was about education, yet so many students and parents were (and still are) unwilling to listen. Third of all, this level of absence cannot be attributed solely to the school. Parents/students make the decision to bring their children/go to school every single day; some of the responsibility must rest on their shoulders: why are they choosing to avoid confronting their own biases and learning about racism from people who face it (and fight it) every day?
- “The diversion of resources: Over $533,000 is being diverted from other uses — instruction, more constructive programming, etc. to present Seminar Day; (This is the estimated operating costs for the school campuses for that day, based on answers to FOIA requests. All staff are directly involved or impacted.)”
To clarify, $533,000 is the cost of a normal school day. Your site deems all instruction and programming on this day to be far less constructive than a normal school day. Replacing one day of normal instruction by introducing a wealth of new information to students seems extremely valuable, especially considering that these subjects of inequality and injustice are not a part of the daily curriculum.
- “There is no mechanism requiring that parents be informed of the panel discussions their children select, nor one to approve those choices, unlike regular course work which does require parental approval. At the very least, such a mechanism would ensure parents would have more tools to talk to their children about their experiences that day.”
While it is not required for courses to be approved, the course list and sign up are both available from home. If you want to talk to your child about the day and their selections, we believe you should do so. There is a lengthy FAQ page on the New Trier website that goes through the day. Looking at the list of courses should provide insight on what will be discussed during the day, and we would strongly encourage parents to look into these topics themselves and start a conversation with their children before and/or after the day.
- “Peer review studies (e.g., from the Harvard Business Review in 2016) increasingly show that diversity programs like this create more harm than they do good, because they reinforce racial stereotypes and resentments. In contrast, activities or work with people from different racial backgrounds can enhance relationships. (For ideas of what this might look like for your family or the school community, see ‘Alternative suggestions for Seminar Day.’)”
Having read this article, there are a few problems with your analogy. First of all, this study looks at businesses, not schools. The main difference here is that businesses are structured to make the highest possible profit, whereas schools are designed to encourage learning. “Diversity programs that get results” are not applicable in most cases: college recruitment, mentoring (sponsor and protege) and managing/task forces are not possible or appropriate in the school environment.
Harvard Business Review suggests that contact is an effective method of fostering diversity and striking down bias. By inviting people of color to lead panels and speak to students, New Trier is allowing a predominantly white student body to interact with non-white academics and activists. The study also attacks the “dos and don’ts” approach that most office diversity programs take; however, it seems like New Trier is trying to encourage discussion rather than telling students what to do. Many seminars involve the phrases “group discussion” and “interactive” — students are given a voice to share their own experiences.
The speakers that you have selected for “alternative suggestions” all seem to reinforce racial stereotypes and resentment, while the planned speakers and seminar leaders were chosen to facilitate productive discussion about deconstructing racial biases.
- “Worst of all, opportunity is squandered to consider different viewpoints and real solutions to problems facing the African American community, and to overcome black/white disparity.”
We object to the wording here: what are “real solutions” and why can’t speakers or seminar leaders offer them? New Trier has invited two award-winning authors, experts in their field, who have devoted much of their lives to finding real, constructive solutions to racism and prejudice.
- “Murder rates are skyrocketing just a few miles south of us, and almost all victims are African American. There are profound reasons for this, as well as racial divisions around the country which might be intensifying. But in a half-million-dollar-day set aside to focus on race relations, New Trier students will be talking about their feelings, including guilt, related to things like ‘microaggressions;’ ‘systemic racism’ in higher education admissions; the inherent bias of the ‘gender binary;” or Colin Kaepernick’s pursuit of “social justice for people of color in America’.”
“If you want to change the world, who do you begin with, yourself or others?” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
This seminar day does not suggest any of the issues you mention are not problematic, and it actually devotes a fair amount of time to talking about these issues. However, the day also focuses on self-reflection as a means to work toward uprooting the biases and prejudices we may subconsciously hold.
And again, to misconstrue this day as a “half-million dollar day” is intentionally misleading, as every day at New Trier is a “half-million dollar day” and surely we do not hold it to the same standards.
This is where racism starts: with everyday comments or jokes that hold a subconscious bias — hurtful words that reinforce the idea that racism is okay in our conversations, as long as it isn’t overt. From these seemingly unimportant interactions stem greater problems: violence against people of color, poverty, housing discrimination, and police brutality. These issues affect not only black people, but native people, Latinx and Hispanic people, and trans and queer people. All of these prejudices are related. Your website claims that some seminar topics are irrelevant to civil rights, but the concept of intersectionality tells us that bigotry cannot be separated out: a black woman is not discriminated against just because she is black, or just because she is a woman; her identity has multiple facets and all must be considered in fighting for her rights. This fight should not be fueled by guilt or shame, but an accountability for our actions that drives us to justice.
Regarding your point that “students will be talking about their feelings, including guilt” — this argument makes it seem as though the day exists only to incite guilt in students, even though one of the first seminars listed aims to discuss how guilt can be a barrier to tangible change in civil rights (a point that one of your suggested speakers brought up as well). Before learning about inequity and oppression, we need to first be able to have a more empathic understanding of experiences that are not our own without feeling some obligatory guilt. Understanding how our privilege and power parallels others’ injustice and oppression can activate us to make change. When a person hears about the difficulties that marginalized people in America face, they have every right to be angered, but not guilty. Understanding our privilege and why we may be lucky because of our race, gender, economic situation, sexuality, religion, etcetera is important. It’s not about guilt. It’s about understanding our place in society and how we can promote and work towards equity so that all people can have the same opportunities as you and I.
- “The Seminar claims: All disparities between races are de facto evidence of ‘systemic racism.’ Not, for instance, government policies that confine poor children to failing inner city schools, devastate black families, and encourage crime and dependence.”
“The Seminar claims: ‘Systemic racism’ should be the root of all discussions. But, that means real solutions — choice in education, federal tax, regulation, and welfare policies that encourage marriage and families, independence, and entrepreneurship — are squeezed out.”
This is what systemic racism literally refers to: systems that perpetuate racism. Policies in education, taxing, and welfare are within the governmental system in the United States. The education system, the taxation system, the police system all hold policies that, intentionally or not, disproportionately harm people of color in this country.
The “Parents of New Trier” highlighted on their website the following descriptions/titles of seminars to be divisive, and we believe the very idea that they are considered “divisive” to be deeply troubling. These are not taken out of context; for example, simply “Latinos” was highlighted by itself in the program as a divisive term. Some of these we will specify what we believe needs to be clarified, for others we ask you to just reflect on the fact that these issues of inequality, injustice, and race are somehow divisive when they are simply a reality that needs to be discussed and broken down.
- “Empowering and embracing blackness is a way to move beyond the inequities seen in our country”
It is simply confusing that the idea of embracing one’s community/ethnicity and using art to express one’s struggle is divisive.
- “the current controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline”
- “white racial consciousness and taking action for racial justice.”
- “We’ll work to recognize our own implicit biases”
- “checking personal assumptions, identifying where those assumptions originate, and responding more appropriately to racial and cultural difference.”
Parents seem to be upset with the idea of acknowledging internal biases and acknowledging the existence of racial and cultural difference. Parents claim color-blindness is the solution to inequity, when in fact people of color strongly argue (and we agree) that tolerance and justice come from being aware of color and working forward with equity upon such knowledge.
The term “microaggression” was used by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
This is not an offensive or divisive term, it is a reality for marginalized people on a day to day basis, and it deserves to be talked about and understood.
- “This seminar aims to bring the issues surrounding this marginalized community (referring to Native peoples) to consideration.”
- “Can people living in a community like ours really understand the motivations and actions of a marginalized black community?”
No, but it is still extremely valuable to hear their experiences.
- “Come discuss and share your ideas on how identity shapes the way we interpret symbols.”
This course discussing Colin Kaepernick’s protests specifically encourages respectful disagreement, and seeks to provide the space for a productive conversation about a controversial topic.
- “Civil rights are social and political freedoms that everyone in our society is supposed to have access to; however, because of socialization, bias, and discrimination, many trans people (particularly trans people of color) do not have access to these freedoms. In this session, we will explore the current cultural climate that enforces a gender binary and, therefore, forecloses civil rights for many trans people.”
Their commentary: “Civil rights are legal protections, not social freedoms. Further, to suggest that people who adopt a gender binary belief system only because of “socialization, bias, and discrimination” Is deeply offensive. The right to live out one’s beliefs about how we are created is a first amendment freedom, and expressing those beliefs does not “therefore” foreclose the civil rights of the transgendered.”
We don’t have much more to comment on this except for that if your ideology disrespects someone else’s existence, then that’s offensive. We strongly believe that everyone, including transgender people, is entitled to their civil rights; everyone is entitled to liberty and justice.
- “Asians and Pacific Islanders can sometimes feel left out of the conversation and history about civil rights in the U.S.; however, their contributions have been overlooked and are seldom discussed.”
- “how to become agents of change and advocate for civil rights.”
- “The Audacity to Heal: A Public Conversation about Surviving Sexual Assault”
This seminar is about intersectionality and is not “irrelevant,” especially considering that black women are disproportionately affected by sexual assault.
- “Transforming Colombia: Working Towards Social Justice”
- “To understand today’s struggle for racial civil rights is to understand your role within the movement, and what true progress not only looks like, but the process for which it is achieved.”
- “Western Bias in Science”
A few final thoughts on your seminar comments: racism is happening, it is real, and there is no point in hiding it. If we ignore something, it will not go away; it will only continue to fester beneath the cover of ignorance and inappropriate optimism. “Racism” is not a dirty word and should not be considered “divisive” or “biased”; confronting our racism is the first step to eradicating it. Here are a few sources that cite issues of racism and recognizing privilege in contemporary America:
Why racism is a systemic issue (Washington Post)
Racism among young people (PBS)
Race in mass incarceration (written by a Stanford Law graduate)
Racism, mass incarceration, and recognizing systemic injustice TED Talk (Bryan Stevenson)
Encyclopedia article on police brutality (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack, a widely used resource to help recognize and understand privilege (Peggy McIntosh)
Color Brave, Not Color Blind TED Talk (Mellody Hobson)
Pro-Seminar Day bibliography (a plethora of resources that show the importance of days like these)
You can also peruse the sources at the bottom of this Wikipedia article (more reliable than the actual article).
We would also like to quickly point out that the fact that the media coverage “Parents of New Trier” cited in opposition to the day boasts not one, but two articles from the notoriously alt-right news source Breitbart is troubling, to say the least. Breitbart has also published articles that include slurs against transgender people, promote women as less intellectual and “crazy,” unapologetically fat-shamed, and spewed Islamophobic and antisemitic and false rhetoric. Is that what our township wants our values to align with? We worry that the “Parents of New Trier” page has listened to this website’s commentary and allowed it to further fuel their argument against this day.
Finally, a message on representation: New Trier students listen to white people every day. The overwhelming majority of students and teachers are white. Is it not important for these students — your children — to be exposed to the perspectives of others? We must take steps to remedy this by listening to people with different experiences.
The Seminar Day is not silencing white voices; it is uplifting the underrepresented voices of people of color. The Seminar Day engages students and works diligently to commit their minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion and lives to the service of humanity.
We hope you will take our input into account and support this incredible step forward in confronting racial bias in our places of learning and in our community. Do not hesitate to contact us with any follow-up questions.
Francesca Gazzolo ’16, Gracee Wallach ’16, Cookie Belknap Fernandez ’16, Mia Neumann ‘16