Open Letter to Greenwich Schools Superintendent Dr.Toni Jones and Deputy Superintendent Anne Carabillo from Nina Hirai, Greenwich High School Class of ‘19, Wesleyan University Class of 2023
Dear Greenwich Public Schools Administrators and Staff,
The recent instances of police brutality against the Black community have propelled the nation to reflect on its history of oppression and racism. With such reflection, Greenwich students felt encouraged to also reflect on our own experiences with race and diversity within the Greenwich Public School (GPS) system K-12.
We thank the school community for their support in the fight for a better future. However, the change the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement wishes to usher in extends beyond gestures and we believe more should be done to better serve the next generations.
Education plays a direct role in shaping the future of the United States and we ask that the Greenwich Public Schools system rethink how race is (and is not) discussed in the classroom. Furthermore, we implore that educators and administrators take steps to address their own prejudices and reflect on how they can cultivate a more diverse workplace. We also implore administrators to take actionable steps towards changes in curriculums, recruiting diverse educators, holding those who perpetrate racism in the Greenwich community accountable, and striving to be actively anti-racist, not neutral. Neutrality and passivity no longer have a place in society, and it certainly does not have a place in the discussion of race, it never should have.
Today, it is not enough to be neutral; being passive at the atrocities perpetrated by our system is to be willingly blind to the struggles of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, especially Black communities.
In historically white towns such as Greenwich, students often lack exposure to racial inequalities and are subject to a race-blind narrative. The homogeneity of Greenwich- albeit unintentionally- systematically discourages students from exploring both their own and other racial and ethnic identities by depriving them of fundamental information and discourse. While some may do their own research, a vast majority of students are left out of this conversation.
The lack of nuanced classroom discourse surrounding race, gender, and sexuality produces ignorance and a dissociation of America’s history with one’s identity.
Furthermore, a continued emphasis on white-by-default culture favors white students while alienating BIPOC individuals from their racial realities. It impedes students from acknowledging the experiences of minorities and BIPOC at large.
Moreover, the lack of diversity of faculty at Greenwich Public Schools is detrimental towards promoting an anti-racist culture and harms efforts to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive environment.
In fact, 89.5% of teachers in the Greenwich school system are white.
Therefore, now more than ever Greenwich Public Schools cannot take a passive stance on their employment process; the Greenwich Public Schools must not only broaden its advertisement of available positions in order to attract more BIPOC faculty, but should also actively reach out to and recruit capable BIPOC candidates in order to diversify its faculty.
We recognize that Greenwich and GPS’ subsequently homogeneous racial make-up is owed to centuries of imperialism and systemic racism and that the problems and tensions expressed above echo all throughout America. Schools are routinely underfunded with teachers being pushed by the government and administrators to cover too much content in too little time.
Our goal is not to undermine all that GPS has done to cultivate a sense of diversity (such as Greenwich High School’ annual diversity week). Our goal is not to unduly stress the system; it is however, paramount that we start addressing these long standing issues within our own community.
Both subtle and overt acts of racism thrive in Greenwich and have gone unnoticed for too long. As you may be aware, up until the mid 1970s, “Slave Day” was a GHS fundraising tradition in which ‘slaves’ were auctioned off to ‘masters’. More recently in 1995, five boys cooperated with each other to code “Kill all N******” through their senior quotes.
Even today, just by observing the GHS student center at lunch times, it is obvious that we as a community feed into racial prejudice. One student, when being explained where people sat in the student center was told that “Hispanics sit over there, in Little Mexico” pointing to the cluster of tables near Bella House, and that “the Black people all sit together” (whispering Black in a hushed tone as if it were a swear) and that “the nerds are in that corner” referring to a group of Asian students.
Establishing this toxic status-quo however, is far from the only instance of racism in Greenwich. In fact, racism permeates through our community so deeply that many students are being discriminatory on a daily basis by actions such as saying the n-word despite not being Black. The amount of times the n-word would be shouted across the hall in a ~63% white school is absurd and quite frankly should have been a mathematical impossibility. Again, we would like to stress that these are far from the only instances of discrimination in Greenwich.
Not only do faculty and administrators fail to actively root out racist behaviors in the student body on and off Greenwich school grounds, but the punishments for those who perform racist acts are ultimately useless. Students are rarely held accountable for perpetrating acts of discrimination whether it be racial, sexual, ablist, etc. In fact, there have been instances in which those who tried to report such incidents were the ones reprimanded for “being troublesome and unforgiving”. Furthermore, those who are held accountable are often reprimanded with an in-school or an at-home suspension. These punishments however, do nothing to motivate reflection and growth. Students should not simply be punished but taught why their behaviors are harmful and how they can change in the future; rehabilitation, not condemnation.
Current punishments and solutions to discriminatory behavior are not only a waste of time but let off students with minimal repercussions, further encouraging said behavior. Not to mention, an at-home suspension is secretly every student’s dream.
What is perhaps more atrocious than Greenwich Public Schools’ handling of discriminatory incidents among students is the way in which faculty who have been reported for such behavior are held accountable, or rather how they are not held accountable.
The faculty at Greenwich High School especially have time and time again perpetrated acts of racism, whether it be subtle or overt. “You have it easier than the rest of us because you’re Asian so you were born smarter” is an example of a joke made by GHS faculty that is seemingly harmless yet epitomizes the racial biases in faculty that ostracize BIPOC students.
Furthermore, one of the more problematic departments within Greenwich High School that further cements stereotypes (whether racial, sexual, etc.) is our acclaimed theater department.
The theater department is notorious for its type-casting, casting the same group of students as the main roles for the majority of its productions. For instance, when the theater department announced that they would be doing Hairspray for their 2018 spring musical, many students voiced their concerns on type-casting and how they would carry out the racially sensitive topics. Such concerns were immediately shut down and not taken seriously, brushed off as “it’s a statement about our battle against racism”. However, unsurprisingly, the department was unable to fill it’s cast for the African American roles, leading them to cast every BIPOC student who auditioned as African Americans.
Furthermore, these type-casts were so prominent that those who were involved with the theater department made accurate predictions of who would be cast for which role. Even more telling of the biased casting process is the fact that students jokingly pointed out that this was the only time Black students would be cast as the lead roles of a GHS production. The glaring reality however, is that this was one of the only instances where Black students were cast as the leading roles in more recent GHS history.
The discussion of race is not a simple one and yes, it is challenging to convey both the pride and suffering of minority communities. The BIPOC experience (especially in America) is extremely complex and should be more centrally discussed in the system of education. The experiences of BIPOC in America is as hopeful as it is tragic and whilst no child should nor desires to be “victimized” and told that they are a “minority” and therefore are seen as fundamentally other in White America, to exclude such discussion from the K-12 education system is a grave mistake that has and will continue to lead to generations of ignorance and color-blind narrative.
Thus, Greenwich needs to re-address their education system and make fundamental changes to the system in order to more accurately depict race, gender, and sexuality in America and to catalyze productive discourse in classrooms. Additionally, the way in which those who perpetrate acts of racism are held accountable needs dramatic revision.
Furthermore cultivating an environment of diversity within Greenwich Public Schools is crucial to the normalization of diversity and complex discourse in Greenwich which can be achieved through the recruitment of a more diverse faculty and staff. Greenwich must take actionable steps towards the creation of a holistically diverse and inclusive K-12 curriculum.
Annotating Frederick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech is not enough.
LGBTQ+, Native American, Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American history should not be reserved for college lecture halls.
Teaching the true discriminatory nature of the history of America K-12 is critical to producing more accountable and educated people. By ignoring nuanced discussions of America’s racial history and its role in the perpetuation of racism (Mexican repatriation, Japanese internment, Stonewall Riots, L.A. riots, etc.), Greenwich produces sheltered and woefully under-informed white and POC students.
Simple alterations to the curriculum can greatly enhance the BIPOC experience at GPS as well as the development of diversity in Greenwich. For instance, freshman learning centers can be dedicated to teaching diversity, providing information and conducting discourse about historic injustices and white privilege rather than being an unstructured block of time.
The high school should also create a comprehensive list of resources that students can access to learn more about diversity (racial, sexual, ability, etc.) on their own time. Music and art classes throughout K-12 (especially during the younger years) should incorporate units on BIPOC artists.
Furthermore, Black History Month is an excellent opportunity to expose students to the contributions of Black Americans who are excluded from the typical curriculum. This can be achieved through hosting assemblies, having units surrounding important contributions by African Americans (outside of the standard trio of Rosa Parks, MLK Jr., and Malcom X), hosting fundraisers, and more. The same can be done for Asian-American Pacific Islander Month, Jewish Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage day, and Pride month.
Specific departments play fundamental roles in the cultivation of diversity in Greenwich Public Schools. The history and English departments are among the most crucial to developing accountability and tolerance within the Greenwich community.
Exposing students to diversity (racial and other) at an early age is crucial to the development of tolerance and acceptance. English/Literature is one of the most fundamental aspects of education and should therefore be subject to intense revision. The English curriculum should actively seek to express the voices of all people, not just notable White authors and should actively strive to disrupt the inherited literary canon by incorporating works by female authors and other minority authors whenever possible. More literature tackling race and diversity written by those who actually experience such discrimination (not white authors writing about oppression) should be incorporated through the K-12 curriculum. Furthermore, summer reading books should be about marginalized communities rather than assigning more classic novels written by White authors. The “classics” tend to be dominated by white male writers – an obvious result of the centuries-long oppression of BIPOC and women across the world. If in each grade level, the curriculum replaces even a single “classic” reading in favor of a lesser-known work by a minority author, students will develop a more nuanced understanding of literature and humanity.
History courses, especially American history courses, should also be heavily revised with BIPOC narratives in mind. For younger students especially, history should be taught accurately through an unbiased lens. Students should not grow up learning that America is innocent and great, a powerhouse of freedom and equality, as it creates a sense of false patriotism that when later exposed to the true discriminatory nature of America, is hard to undermine and discourages students from perceiving the reality of our world. Contemporary history courses should address modern racism, working towards dismantling the narrative that racism disappeared after the Civil Rights movement by teaching about modern forms of racism such as: redlining; school to prison pipeline statistics; legislations such as ‘stop and frisk’, and more. The fact that many students were unaware of Juneteenth or the Tulsa Massacres of 1921 until the recent uproar of the BLM movement is a testament to how our education system has failed us yet again. Diversifying curriculum allows students to academically and personally grapple with important questions of identity.
The concerns raised by the signatories of this letter are legitimate and substantiated by our own experiences within Greenwich Public Schools. We are current and former students that recognize we are inheritors and beneficiaries of privilege and race-blind narratives. We as a community must hold ourselves accountable for the development of a more just world. Greenwich has been a notoriously performative ally in the fight for diversity; it is time for us to take real steps towards progress. Including LGBTQ+, Native American, Black, Hispanic, Asian-American, and other minority history and literature is an actionable step. Properly admonishing and punishing students that make publicly racist remarks is an actionable step. Believing students when they recount their experiences is an actionable step.
We would like to stress that this letter is in no way intended to demonize the administration or staff of GPS. In fact, we celebrate the steps towards progress that the Greenwich community has taken but there is much more to be done, we are far from the end goal. We want to make Greenwich a more informed and more historically conversant place, we want the history taught right, resources made available, and students held accountable for racist actions. Please take those steps and encourage students to be empathetic. Let’s endeavor to make Greenwich graduates more erudite and socially aware.
Nina Hirai, Greenwich High School Class of ‘19