Moving Beyond Controversy: What we can learn from each other

Rohan Palacios

Two months ago, the entire Georgetown Day community underwent a process of painful self-examination. What started as a discussion of the use of social media at the school quickly turned into a wider airing of grievances. For a few tense days, students shared experiences of racism, sexism, bullying, and other forms of marginalization that captivated and shocked both peers and faculty alike. Affinity group, grade, and all-school meetings allowed students to voice concerns held by many but never before put into words. These conversations were undoubtedly a significant moment for the community, prompting a new level of awareness, of sensitivity, and, most importantly, of understanding between students throughout the high school. However, the issues at hand are too complex to be sufficiently dealt with in a week. With all the positives it brought, GDS’s reflections left many questions as to how change will come about, especially for the many students who still feel unheard.

The sudden expression of dissatisfactions by the student body was originally a part of a wider discussion about the proper use of social media and about bullying at GDS. “When we began to talk about about Whisper [anonymous social media app] and previous transgressions that have occurred within the school I knew the discussion was going to go towards race. Racism and racial tensions need to be discussed at GDS,” said junior Clyde Freeman. Unlike in past more centralized discussions, large numbers of students now rose to express their frustration with their high school experience. For the first time, students of color from every grade heard the emotion that they had previously suppressed being voiced as legitimate. This realization continues to be a powerful unifier and was a driving factor for the increasing assertiveness many noted during the assemblies. Sophomore Simone Liu, who spoke up during one of the all-school meetings, shares a common sentiment among students of color who have felt that their voices have been invalidated: “Yeah, I’m definitely glad I don’t live in the 1960s where white people were literally committing hate crimes against people of color, but that doesn’t mean that students of color don’t have a hard time with some things that happen now at GDS,” she said. Among students of color, there was a broad feeling of excitement at the chance to articulate our feelings to the administration for the first time.

Despite the original focus on race, school wide discussions rapidly expanded in scope, encompassing similarly charged topics like sexual assault and misogyny. Class discussions took on an emotional and personal character and issues that many students had considered abstract became very real. The expansion of discussion allowed more voices to be heard and brought to light important stories that absolutely deserved attention and discussion. However this same expansion also unintentionally had the effect of excluding some points of view. Said Freeman, “I am in no way saying that it was bad to talk about sexual assault since it is very pressing. But I do believe that race really should have been very, very stressed because as one of my friends pointed out, there were no women of color at the FMG (Feminisms for those Marginalized by Gender) meetings, they were all at Black Student Union which just shows that the most vulnerable within our community saw racism as more pressing,” he continued. Senior Laurent Guichard expressed similar sentiment: “For me personally, I thought it sort of clouded the original message, but I think it helped open different discussions that we needed to have. I also think this helped students see through different lenses,” he said.

Both Freeman and Guichard demonstrate the unique, delicate conundrum that a number of minority students felt as the conversations continued. Confronted with the painful realities faced by our classmates, we were compelled to adjust the topic of discussion to better empathize with them. People for whom we care deeply were hurting and it seemed callous to ignore that pain in pursuit of a personal or even a small group resolution. As indicated by Guichard and Freeman, this development had the positive effect of introducing new points of view, while indirectly preventing previously marginalized voices from fully expressing themselves.

In no way does that reality mean that we should shy away from discussions of misogyny and gender relations. These are critical issues which require thoughtful consideration and subsequent action. What we need to take away from this is that the voices of students must be consistently expressed. This puts a burden on the student body, particularly on students of color because that burden is a reality of our racialized environment. Dialogue breeds understanding, which is the only way to create meaningful change. After what we have all experienced together, we must not be complacent.

I firmly believe that consequential change at GDS will come from the student body. One avenue for change is participating in affinity groups. As the head of the Asian-American Affinity Group, Liu has first-hand experience with the benefits of such groups: “People with different understandings of shared experiences teach each other a lot, and affinity groups allow us to prod at our identities together,” she said. Furthermore, these groups give students a definitive place to share experiences and gain a sense of belonging that some students lack. “Belonging feels good, you make friends, you don’t have to explain things to people,” said Liu. In addition, affinity groups are essential outlets for students of color to assert themselves as leaders in the community. Guichard added: “After some discussions with the administration and other students of color, it has been shown that we aren’t as represented as other students. Students of color feel the need to communicate this to people they trust.” All students must commit to being more aware and more open to learn. These changes are small, and they will likely not have any overt or even measurable effect. However, if we as a student body make minor adjustments such as these, we will be able to claim honestly that we strive to be better everyday.