The following message was sent to students and parents in the Sidwell Friends community on March 13, 2021.
At the beginning of the year, Ibram X. Kendi challenged us to be anti-racist, to develop behaviors and policies that put the most fundamental tenet of Quakerism into practice: “there is that of God in every one.” This radically egalitarian statement calls us to honor the inherent dignity of all individuals and to solve conflict peacefully.
In this spirit, our Upper School recently held EJC Day, a student-led conference that affirmed our obligation to eradicate racism and promote justice. In addition, many Middle Schoolers recently attended a virtual session with Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who implores us to use our voices and words to stop violence. In this context, recent hate crimes committed against Asian Americans serve as a stark reminder of the long history of violence and discrimination they have faced in the United States. Sidwell Friends has an obligation to confront and teach this history and unequivocally condemns the ongoing presence of anti-Asian racism. As a Quaker school, we must eliminate hate, deepen understanding, and promote unity in diversity.
The United States has a long history of scapegoating immigrants and people of color, a practice xenophobes have revived in calling COVID-19 the “China virus.” Further examples include the creation of anti-immigration policies that have resulted in the “Muslim ban” and the abhorrent treatment of LatinX communities. Our children are growing and learning in this world and, despite our best efforts, they hear and sometimes use hurtful language. These situations most commonly unfold during moments of disagreement or frustration, and often cause hurt and anger that resonate beyond the classroom or playground. We respond in age-appropriate ways, making certain that students and parents understand the impact of their words. To maintain privacy, we typically do not share specific details about these instances with the broader community, but instead work collaboratively to heal relationships and teach ways to identify and respond to racism and other forms of discrimination.
On Tuesday, Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98 met with the Parents of Asian Students (PAS), who expressed concerns about recent events and conversations. Several parents have since corresponded and spoken with me, sharing legitimate concerns about their children and understandably seeking assurance from the School. I appreciate these conversations, which have been humbling, instructive, and meaningful. I look forward to deepening our discussions and engaging in authentic, solutions-oriented dialogue. As always, if you have concerns or anything to share as we prepare to do so, please reach out to Natalie, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs Min Kim, or the principals.
In last Sunday’s Quaker Notes, Hellen Hom-Diamond and Natalie co-authored a moving and resourceful letter about anti-Asian racism, reminding us that we cannot be anti-racist until we eliminate discrimination against all individuals and communities. Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times editorial offers further insight into the troubling trend of anti-Asian violence. The recent attacks, he argues, “have unearthed the contradictions and questions beneath America’s impoverished understanding of race.” Given our limited imagination on this topic, the media sometimes has a propensity to approach the issue as if it were “a binary between Black and white Americans.” This moment, however, presents “an opportunity to reshape . . . language to address the contradictions inherent in the lives of millions of immigrants” and their descendants, to explore the complexity of racial categories, and to imagine a more just society. Every day, we are fortunate to learn and live with this complexity, an opportunity made possible by being in a community like Sidwell Friends, where 54% of our students identify as people of color.
As he reached for solutions, Kang reminded me of the visionary novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, who delivered the John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Lecture in Chinese Studies at Sidwell Friends in 2003. Kingston had just completed The Fifth Book of Peace, a book inspired by writing workshops she taught for Vietnam War veterans. She shared lessons learned from her students, recounting the trauma they endured and inflicted, and postulating that if war was wrong in 1968, it was always wrong. She renounced violence in all forms and encouraged us to counter it by “creat[ing] something: a poem, a parade, a community, a school, a vow, a moral principle; one peaceful moment.”
Our Equity, Justice, and Community Strategic Action Plan provides a framework for necessary growth and creativity, and we look forward to working with the community, including parent and student affinity groups, to take tangible action. In the words of Eric Liu, another former Zeidman Lecturer, if we want to make meaningful change, we “must have such a combination of bold goals and specific steps.” The EJC plan gives us exactly that.
A year ago today, we closed our campus due to the pandemic. Since then, we have experienced dramatic social and emotional dislocation. We are living in a moment in which historic differences and injustices have been exploited, in which racist acts and attitudes have inflicted immeasurable and enduring pain, in which the day-to-day contact that builds trust has eroded. As we return to campus with greater frequency, let’s not simply “get back to normal,” but instead strive, in the words of Friends, “to maintain love and unity, to avoid tale-bearing and detraction, and to settle differences promptly and in a manner free of resentment and all forms of inward violence.” I look forward to drawing upon our strength to address our failings, to “proceed[ing] in the peaceable spirit of Pure Wisdom, with forbearance and warm affection for each other.”
In friendship and with gratitude,
Bryan K. Garman
Head of School