Unafraid

“When I hear that word it feels terrible. It’s like someone just wiped away my family’s whole history.”

Earlier this month, the Student Diversity Leadership Council (SDLC) led an unusual Upper School faculty meeting. The students asked faculty to share thoughts about use of the “N-word” in our culture and at St. Luke’s. They asked us to think about its origins and whether different people should be able to use the word.

Some parents will be stunned to hear that language is used on the Hilltop, but your children will likely confirm it happens…a lot. Daily for many Upper School kids, and at least weekly for most. They might be quick to reassure you that “it doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when you were young.” It’s used in a “friendly” way, often by students of color, but not exclusively by them. It does not carry the same awful weight it once did.

The quotation at top is from a St. Luke’s student of color. It tells a different story. This young woman feels every ugly ounce of the word.

On Thursday, the SDLC will lead the N-word conversations with Upper School students during an extended “fishbowl” Meditation period. On January 30th, students and faculty will have deep, important, sometimes difficult conversations at our 3rd annual Social Justice Leadership Summit. Previous participants have found that this experience gives them both understanding and confidence to engage in discussions of differences and injustices (real and perceived) that most of us find so scary or sensitive that we avoid having them.

These are courageous events. Not just for the students and teachers who participate, but for St. Luke’s. We don’t have to have these hard conversations. We could just outlaw the N-word and move on. Talking is awkward. It also stirs up resentment. Several parents tell me they are offended by these conversations. Their children feel guilty even though they are not racist. “Don’t we have better things to spend time on?”

My answer is: No. There is nothing more valuable than teaching our children to think, debate, and learn from one another. Racial, religious, economic and gender biases and prejudices exist. While each of us wishes that were not so, we do our children a disservice by pretending otherwise. Our intent, our mission, calls us to teach our children to tune into issues beyond their own bubbles. Connect, contemplate, discuss, disagree, debate. Respect and learn from views different from your own, even as you perhaps deepen your own convictions and try to persuade others to your point of view. If we can’t talk about challenges, we certainly can’t solve problems.

The Atlantic published a thought-provoking piece highlighting what happens when students are unwilling—or unable—to engage in civil debate about matters close to the heart:

…I see some of these well-intentioned young people undermining the First Amendment; spitting on people with whom they disagree; using stigma and “call out” culture rather than persuasion against non-bigoted speech; physically intimidating members of the press; bullying students who disagree with them; shredding newspapers because they disagree with an article; and calling for dissent to be punished. They don’t understand why this is both counterproductive and wrongheaded.

We want more for our students. They will draw upon the courage of their convictions. They will embrace civil debate and tough conversations as a privilege and an obligation. They will be served well by their St. Luke’s experiences and the fact that we don’t shy away from uncomfortable topics.

They will be unafraid to go forth and make a difference in the world.

P.S. If you’ve not yet done so, please watch Jim Foley’s brilliant Meditation on hip hop and the power of language.  Jim educates, entertains, and ultimately persuades listeners that the history behind words matters.

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