Conversations on Race

A message from Barbara Riley, former Head of School

Last January, at another all-school Assembly, one that followed in the wake of racial violence that “began” in Ferguson, Missouri just a year ago, I reminded our community that in 1903, the African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois, writing in his introduction to The Souls of Black Folk, famously announced that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” The events of the last year have confirmed that it is also the problem of the twenty-first century. At that Assembly, now nine months ago, I told our students, faculty and staff that it was time for us to undertake a community-wide conversation on race. As a result, we spent the following months preparing and will take the conversation up in the weeks ahead, continuing it throughout the school year.
Over the past several months, Amanda Friedman, Hopkins’ Director of Diversity, along with administrative and teaching colleagues, mapped out a year of events for our faculty and students. Our broad purpose is to: 1) engage our community in a conversation about race and racial identity; 2) enable us to consider the role and, often, primacy race holds in history, culture and politics; 3) allow us to better understand our own racial identities and those of others; and, 4) individually and as a community confront the unease, the habits, the unconscious biases that at best inhibit, but more often preclude, the conversations that can take us to greater self-awareness and understanding of others.
Our approach is simple, although that does not make the task easy. Over the course of the school year, a series of events, carefully chosen and facilitated, will provide students, faculty and staff with the opportunity to react, trust, reflect, and share their experiences. The first of these is a school-wide showing of the documentary film I’m Not Racist, Am I?. Students, faculty and staff will view the film together on Wednesday, September 16th and participate in discussions with the film’s producers; parents are invited to a screening of the film and a discussion that same night at 6:30pm in Upper Heath. I hope, very much, that you will be there to join us for the start of this important conversation.
Later this fall, students and teachers will see Defamation, “a play that explores the highly charged issues of race, religion, gender, class and the law. . . in a complex courtroom drama where an African-American woman sues a Jewish. . . real estate developer for defamation.” With Defamation, the audience is also the jury. In January, students, faculty and staff will view Incognito, a one-actor play about the discovery of racial identity. Author and actor Michael Fosberg will conduct workshops for Junior Schoolers and also for high school students. In terms of planned events, the year ends with a keynote presentation and workshops led by Liza Talusan, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Park School in Brookline, MA. If you are able to attend the September 16th showing of I’m Not Racist, Am I?, you will see Ms. Talusan in action with students in the documentary.
Years ago, as a new teacher in Hopkins’ history department, I took on the department’s Holocaust elective, an assignment that was profoundly humbling and left me (and my students) personally and inevitably vulnerable and changed. I used the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, an approach that involved asking students – and their teachers – to look, particularly, at the roles of bystanders.  This year, in our own way, all of us at Hopkins will face history and ourselves. Although I do not know where we will be at the end of this school year – a preset outcome would have signaled too cautious and limited an approach – I do know that I am already enormously proud that we are a community that can – and wants to – take on difficult and important topics, put our heads together and emerge larger and better for the experience. (excerpt from Letter to Hopkins Parents , September 17, 2015)

From Amanda Friedman, Director of Diversity:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” —James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1962.

This year, Hopkins will face the complex and necessary conversation of race as a whole community. Though I look eagerly to a future world that includes all people as their true authentic selves, such a world can only be realized through a greater sense of equity and justice. We must consider how our perceptions and bias manifest in our daily lives and how we are all shaped by racial identity. My greatest hope is for us, as a collective, to develop a deeper knowledge of self and others in this context. I am grateful that we, as a school, acknowledge the profound importance of racial dialogue in our society and will make meaning of it in our community. The way forward is to understand life through another’s eyes and hold that life as closely and fiercely as we do our own.
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