Don’t place responsibility for N-word incident on teacher and students of color speaking out
Editor’s note: This is an open letter to the author of a previously posted letter.
Dear Larry Childs,
We’ve met at a mutual friend and neighbor’s home; we had a great conversation about education policy, being that I was on the Cambridge Youth Council at the time and am an activist. I am writing to you, feeling so disappointed after reading your essay (“Better responses to N-word incident possible from its speaker, teacher and elected officials,” Feb. 13, 2019).
I am truly appalled that you are putting responsibility for setting norms around the N-word on Kevin Dua, the teacher who organized the Jan. 10 classroom conversation where an incident occurred. Those norms for society – that white people cannot say the N-word – are and have been already set, and are widely known and understood, at least for my generation. It seems wildly and morally wrong to put the responsibility on a black man (someone of the oppressed group in terms of race in this situation) for the actions of a white woman (the oppressor in terms of race in this situation) who used a term that black people and African Americans have worked so hard to reclaim from their oppressors.
I also find it disappointing to hear that some people in my community, such as yourself, believe that enduring trauma in the classroom – for example, having a white teacher or elected official use the N-word in any context – will make them grow as a student or somehow make them more capable and equipped for the world. Students of color experience trauma every single day in and out of school; I know this firsthand. To hear that you believe students (or people in general, for that matter) holding those who traumatized us accountable for their actions is “the greatest disservice” and a “coddling of the students” makes me feel hurt and disrespected. As someone who has never had the experience as a person of color, you also have never had the experience as a student of color, so you cannot understand how much we endure day to day, especially living in a city like Cambridge where the loudest voices are most often those of wealthy white liberals and where strong student voices such as mine and those of the Black Student Union tend to be ignored or pooh-poohed with a “we hear you” while elected officials and others “support a conversation around” an issue but never take action, even when students present valid and well researched options.
Additionally, I am heartbroken and furious that you believe that victims of trauma or wrongdoing speaking up and being brave is “outrage culture.” Speaking up about something that happens to you is terrifying and hard and, unfortunately, often has no concrete results, such as the perpetrator being forced to give a sincere and genuine apology or undergo training or even be extracted completely from the environment until they learn the skills to reenter without causing harm to others. It is not the victims’ responsibility to teach the perpetrator and undergo more trauma doing so; it is the community’s responsibility to rehabilitate the person who is lacking skills and causing trauma – and to support the victim(s).
There is no way victims of anything are going to go back to being quiet after speaking out; look how much good has come of what you call “outrage culture”: the #metoo movement; millennial voters changing the demographic of Congress; the March for Our Lives; and the Black Student Union coming back to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, giving students of color a place to feel safe, heard and guided by none other than Dua, a teacher who shares our experiences as a person of color, empowers us and works for and with us hours on end. People who were silenced before speaking out (including young people) is the change and is the future.
Finally, any apology for someone feeling offended will not be accepted. These students don’t feel offended; they, and frankly many others including myself, are offended because of what happened. Whether it was a lapse in judgement or of thought in the moment on School Committee member Emily Dexter’s part or not, it is offensive.
I am dying for change and hope elected officials’ actions can make my community a better place for my peers, mentees and friends. I hope you can hear how learning of this event and reading your essay on it affected me, and that we can continue this dialogue.