One man’s plea for his community to have an honest conversation about race relations

| 27 Jul 2020 | 03:16

My name is Vidar Hageman and I am a 2020 graduate of Warwick Valley High School.

I am here to address recent incidents surrounding the school district and aspects of a conversation in regards to race in education that we as a community have not truly had.

The incidents involve the resurfacing of photos with the N-word written on students’ foreheads. As a person of color in Warwick, none of these events surprised me. The N-word’s usage directed at and around Black Warwickians is not unheard of. It is often commonplace.

And if our school wants to uphold this country’s ideals of freedom, equality and our community values, we need to start asking ourselves why this keeps happening and what we can do to stop it.

If your first instinct is to say that these students are merely bad apples and that they should be expelled, here’s the problem: If the school were to expel all students who have said the N-word or performed a racist act, there wouldn’t be many folks left.

This doesn’t mean that all of our students are criminals. It’s to say that the education and cultural practices in place are failing them.

‘Treating the symptom is not enough’

This is not the time for fake outrage or to cast out racism and ignorance to pretend it doesn’t exist. This is the time to realize that it is still with us. From personal experience and through my conversations with others racially charged comments we once abhorred are excused as “kids being stupid” and that fighting back is not worth it.

In my first couple of years at Warwick, when I brought up incidents about being called the N-word to other students, they dismissed it as a stupid joke and I was told that I was overreacting.

I never brought these experiences to the administration because I didn’t want to create controversy and I hoped that these students, despite their language, would still be my friends and allies.

While I trust and feel understood by the administration, that feeling is not universal. During my senior year, when I witnessed one of my younger friends bring up a similar, incident to the administration, he was initially chided and allegedly told that he was,misinterpreting a joke that is often used around friends.

Meanwhile, high schoolers around the individual said to his face and to the administration that he was overreacting or that the incident never even happened.

If that’s the message getting passed down to a person of color, I can only imagine what message that sends to white individuals. If the continued takeaway is “oh no, he said a bad word, or made a bad joke,” then everyone is missing the big picture: These actions and that word cause real, long term psychological harm and allow ignorance to permeate and thrive.

By only treating the symptom or condemning a word, the administration is doing nothing to change attitudes or behaviors.

If current events and the Black Lives Matter protests have taught me anything, it is that treating the symptom is not enough. I’m not saying that Warwick is inherently racist or that the teachers don’t look to foster success in all their students.

What’s not taught in school

But I can confidently attest to historical ignorance and at best indifference in the classroom. This begins with a lack of education on Black history, which is a huge part of our country’s history. Sure, we study facts about the Civil War and slavery — memorizing names and dates — but we don’t take a holistic approach, learning about the repercussions of those events and how they still cause pain and suffering today.

For example, our textbooks are flawed to their core. In the 15th AP edition of the American Pageant, I learned about the “progressivism” of Woodrow Wilson. The book describes the Confederacy’s secession as a “gallant” attempt and one that inspired Wilson’s ideal of “self-determination.”

However, the textbook makes no mention of the fact that when it came to self-determination for Black and brown, non-European countries such as Haiti, Vietnam and the Philippines, they need not apply. The book neglects to mention the fact that Wilson’s “progressivism” is in immediate contradiction when examining his record on race. There is no contextualization on the fact that the first film ever shown in the White House shown under Wilson’s administration was “Birth of a Nation,” which is credited with sparking the rebirth of the KKK.

Finally, there is also no at length discussion of Wilson’s re-segregating the federal government and pushing Black employees out of their jobs.

Overall, Wilson endorsed a heightened racial climate that led to the murder of hundreds of Blacks during race riots in St. Louis, Chicago, Tulsa and elsewhere during and following his presidency.

So, why didn’t I learn about this in school?

When reading about race riots and lynchings, I saw no clear acknowledgment of their perpetual nature in the Jim Crow Era, or what might have been said to one of those Black folks in their final moments.

Students should have to reconcile the use of the n-word as they look at a picture of a Black man being hung from a tree or burned at the stake.

Fire, not mere facts

As long as we continue to treat the high schoolers’ brains as vessels waiting to be filled with facts, instead of a fire that has to be kindled as it grows, ignorance will thrive. The district should move to emphasize more of the cultural and social history of the United States.

In the age of the internet, a breadth of free resources and endless historical perspectives, the district should move to significantly curb the use of textbooks to allow teachers more discretion in the classroom and more dialogue among the students.

The Golden Rule

Here’s another thing we need to focus on: The Golden Rule.

We need to treat others the way we want to be treated, while recognizing that words, like the N-Word, carry a painful history with them.

Let me be clear: Black students don’t want to feel like everyone is walking on egg shells around them. We just want you to treat us like everyone else. For instance, one should not feel their character is being stigmatized by being accused of “acting white” or “sounding white.”

Pointing out an individual does not fit a stereotype and therefore cannot be of their prescribed race or culture is disparaging. People should use their voice without fear of social reprisal. I, myself, am struggling with publishing this story for fear of being harshly judged for my beliefs — with some believing I’m going too far or not far enough.

We must use the opportunity before us to become more aware of internalized stereotypes, our community’s culture, and our education system. What I want is for my community to come together to have a productive and honest conversation about race relations.

An individual is not born with hate. It is created, cultivated, and acculturated.

We must come to terms with the realization that ignorance exists and race still matters here— and that it’s okay to admit that.

It’s okay to acknowledge that Warwick still has work to do to be the loving community that we strive to be.

Furthermore, students, like the ones mentioned above, potentially found in violation of the Code of Conduct on race-based grounds, should be dealt with through a program of restorative justice. The numerous political and social clubs in the school should come together to conduct assemblies that address clear inequities and cultural disconnect.

“A clear policy for ... how to combat racism in the community’

Meanwhile, the student body in its entirety should come together for bottom-up change and create a platform that sets cultural and ethical standards that all students can understand.

Finally, I am also calling for the district to adopt a clear policy for future discrimination cases and how to combat racism in the community. There’s no more time to discuss platitudes and feel good committees.

Let’s start this positive change from within. Let’s start it now.

This moment calls for change on the individual and cultural level that allows us all, left, right, and center, to create a more cohesive, open, and stronger Warwick. I am dedicated to the essential rights prescribed by our Constitution and the idea that we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights that precede government. That should be the gold standard for creating a more free and fair society.

Our ultimate goal should be that we value character before color while recognizing the impact color has had and still has in our society. We must strive to have a more holistic understanding of our history and culture that allows us to take responsibility for our past, diagnose our present and commit to progress for our future.

Vidar Hageman will be attending the University of Virginia and majoring in philosophy. He also will be an ROTC cadet.