The Saline School District was recently dealt a blow when racist incidents within the community made local and national headlines. The first was the discovery of a student Snapchat group that contained racial slurs and epithets like “White Power” and “The South Will Rise Again.” Students of color within that group chat reportedly felt marginalized, “unsafe” and “frustrated.” The second occurred at the community response to this development: At a district-wide meeting regarding issues of diversity and inclusion, a Mexican parent was voicing concerns about these race-based incidents when another parent coarsely asked why he didn’t just “stay in Mexico.”
The occurrence of these incidents, to some community members, wasn’t surprising. But for many, it served as a community awakening to an underlying culture of nonchalance regarding issues of race, ethnicity and other identities among both students and parents. These incidents speak to the unfortunate spreading of racist, unwelcoming language that is unbecoming of any community, especially a school district. Students shouldn’t need to worry about surface threats or racist messages. They shouldn’t feel ostracized in an educational environment by their peers or adults in the community. Educational institutions and teachers, the enactors of the educational mission, should be bound — by the nature of the institution of education — to care for students’ complaints, level of comfort and overall well-being.
I’ll admit this is strange to think about as I’ve always been a believer that individuals should take personal responsibility for their actions. (My mantra, ever since my stints with bullying in middle school, has always been: If you have a problem, figure it out.) However, this idea isn’t functional in educational settings, even if it applies to life. Educators have important roles in the lives of their students as teachers, leaders and caretakers: They should take the personal experiences of students seriously, especially those dealing with borderline malicious things like what went on in Saline. Otherwise, the mission of educating students becomes seriously jeopardized. How can some students be expected to learn in an environment in which they aren’t treated as equals?
I internalized this idea at the New England Literature Program (NELP). This was a spring semester educational program, offered by the University of Michigan, during which participants study English literature in the woods of New Hampshire, isolated from society and functioning as a transcendental commune. Before one of the trips we took outside our cabin grounds, we had a discussion about the politics of New Hampshire residents and the chance we’d see “Make America Great Again” signs and other things that are inconsistent with our transcendental bubble. At the time, I thought this was a conversation appropriate for sheltered individuals who couldn’t fathom the existence of a politically diverse population, or that someone might have matured into their politics by different and parallel means. I wrote in my journal that I was surprised that a “talk-around like this even needs to be done.”
There were some other acerbic bits of writing about this matter that were passionate and which I held true to my beliefs. But I’ve changed my mind on the matter, especially in light of these events in Saline and discussions had with fellow Daily members on the Editorial Board. Conversations like the one I had at NELP — like the one Saline held in response to the racist social media posts — are a necessary response to student experiences. They are not indicative of some sort of cultural deficiency or emotional weakness, rather, they’re an appropriate product to the cultural artifacts of this time.
Saline recently held an inclusion rally in solidarity with the students who felt marginalized from these mean-spirited messages. I commend the intention to make a communal effort to right these wrongs. To be clear, the school district doesn’t need to adopt politically correct language and get sucked into a race to the bottom, driven by identity politics. (I talk about the negative influence of identity politics on educational institutions like universities in my last column. Political correctness stymies free speech and debate because it invalidates ideas and individuals who don’t agree with the accepted dogma). This “inclusion rally” probably falls into the category of meaningless politically correct demonstrations, but it can serve as a step in the right direction. The school district needs to — rather than re-educate — re-engage students in the mission of educational community-building by incorporating the values that make a community a virtue: trust, tolerance and work. An incident like this shouldn’t muzzle the victims, but encourage them to create useful change. I’m glad it is and hope it continues to be the case in Saline.