When you label someone, that’s all you’ll ever know about them

Connected by a ribbon. It’s not as tenuous as hanging by a thread. It’s not as oppressive as being roped in.

Yard-long lengths of ribbon were handed out by Guilderland High School students who organized an anti-hate rally for May 21, nearly a year after the murder of George Floyd.

They asked the hundred or so participants at the rally — including faculty, administrators, and school board members as well as students —  to form a long line in the school’s parking lot. Each person held one end of a ribbon, which in turn was held by the person next in the line.

Students with bullhorns read from scripts, asking the people in line to take a step or two forward or backward in answer to questions.

They were to step forward if their name was always pronounced correctly, or if they never heard jokes about their race or gender, or if they had representative children’s toys growing up, or if they could find their skin tone in make-up products.

Largely white people stepped forward.

They were to step backward if they had been harassed or disrespected by police, or if they had felt unwelcome in a public place, or if security guards had followed them in a store because of their racial identity.

Largely people of color stepped backwards.

When the crowd members had returned to their seats, the student organizers asked if any had felt uncomfortable to be at the back of the line or to be at the front of the line — and to talk to their neighbors about it.

What we liked about the exercise — as we watched from a distance on the edge of the parking lot — is that it showed a shared humanity. No one let go of his or her end of the ribbon. 

Each person in that line had had different experiences. Certainly the individuals who stepped forward or backward at the same time had some shared experiences. One group had shared privilege; another had the shared experiences of being subjected to prejudice.

But the line held. That was reflected in the banner the students had made and hung over the lectern where, one by one, students spoke from the heart. The banner announcing the anti-hate rally proclaimed “Our Unity is Our Strength.”

All of us, in the larger community, can learn from the students who spoke so bravely at the Guilderland rally.

Jeanine Cao said that the kind of racism she has experienced in Guilderland schools is not the kind of racism that you can report. “No one can get in trouble for simply being insensitive,” she said. Cao went on to relate some of the painful things she had experienced.

Since March 16, Cao said, referencing the mass shootings in Georgia where eight people were killed, six of whom were Asian women, she is afraid to let her parents leave the house by themselves.

When Cao shared her fears with teachers, she said, she was told her fears were irrational and that we live in a “good community.” Their comments only invalidated her fears, she said. “Did they not realize I had had experiences in this community with bad people?” Cao asked.

White teachers will never truly understand her experiences, Cao said, calling for the school to hire people of color and saying, to applause, that 25 percent of the student population cannot be silenced.

We believe that, in recent years, the district is actively seeking more teachers of color, as it should, although they are not easy to find. This, too, is a problem of systemic racism as more white students than students of color are encouraged from a young age to become teachers and therefore envision themselves as such.

We commend the school board’s recent decision to hire a full-time administrator to focus on diversity and equity issues. But as one of the rally organizers, Athena Wu, a junior, told us, hiring the new administrator should be a starting point, not an end point.

In the meantime, the faculty in place can learn from the students they teach.

“We need to listen to our students and believe their stories,” Matthew Pinchinat told us.  He is a Guilderland history teacher and advisor to some of the students who organized the rally. He turned the usual relationship between students and teachers on its head. “We need to recognize they are the experts,” said Pinchinat.

Along those lines, we were struck with a testimonial given by Colleen Sittig in comments she made at the May 25 school board meeting. Sittig, a Farnsworth Middle School teacher who has been at Guilderland for over 23 years, said that ignoring sensitive topics is a disservice to students.

As she was teaching about the beginnings of slavery in North America and the brutal conditions the people captured in Africa endured on the passage to America, she called them slaves. A student of color bravely spoke up. “I was horrified that I was saying something that made a student feel so bad without my being aware of it,” Sitting said.

When she later talked to the student and his mother, the student saw she had cried. “He comforted me and told me it was OK. But for me it really wasn’t,” said Sitting. She said training is needed but it can’t be “one and done.”

“To deny or ignore the feelings and experience that others have is not teaching tolerance or acceptance,” said Sitting.

We agree. The past must not be ignored but it must be explored in a way that does not create harm in the present.

Several students at the rally spoke of the harm caused by stereotypes.

“I am utterly sick of the stereotype I have to conform to just because of the shape of my eyes and the color of my skin,” said Savanna Jiang. She went on, “I loathe myself for saying this but I do not want to be Asian.”

A stereotype is a printing plate; it is used to duplicate the original — again and again and again, always the same. The term was coined at the end of the 18th Century from two Greek words: “typos” meaning impression, and “stereos” meaning firm.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century, though, that Walter Lippmann gave “stereotype” its modern meaning. In his book, “Public Opinion,” Lippmann wrote of the limitations people face in understanding their cultural and sociopolitical environments.

“The real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” he wrote. People simplify by categorizing or stereotyping others; each person creates his or her own environment.

So, Lippmann wrote, people “live in the same world, but think and feel in different ones.”

Hence, seeing through stereotypes subjects us to partial truths.

The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe put it powerfully and well: “The whole idea of a stereotype is to simplify,” he said. “Instead of going through the problem of all this great diversity — that it’s this or maybe that — you have just one large statement; it is this.”

We love Achebe’s novel, “Things Fall Apart,” because of the way he described the lost Ibo culture; he made us see its complexities — its strengths and drawbacks — as the Christian missionaries were causing it to unravel.

It is only when we see the many layers that make up real people that we can know and love them. Such understanding is difficult to come by. It is far easier to stick with our own kind and to see others as stamped out, as if from a printing press.

Once we see them that way, as two-dimensional copies, rather than as flesh-and-blood originals, we’re just a step away from treating them as less than human, less than ourselves.

At the Guilderland rally, Jessica Airhienbuwa, a Black student, spoke of the many small daily insults perpetrated against marginalized people — microaggressions. She described many microaggressions, often based on stereotypes, suffered by herself, her father, her sister, her mother.

“Microaggressions are cumulative and every unintended racist comment feels like a stinging paper cut,” said Airhienbuwa. “They are small … but over time, if you get enough unhealed paper cuts, you might just find yourself bleeding all over the place.”

So how do we stop the bleeding?

First of all, we must acknowledge the cuts, the wounds. And then, when we hear it or see it, we must speak up against it.

In our culture, student Maxine Alpart said at the rally, racism is brushed off as schoolyard teasing, which invalidates the experience. Racism is everywhere in our society and, although schools are a good place to start to deal with it, we all must be part of the effort. “We all need to use our voices to lift each other up,” said Alpart.

We urge each of our readers to think of yourself as holding onto a ribbon — a ribbon that joins you to your neighbor. You, of course, are unique and so is each person in the long line of people holding a ribbon, one to another. We have to see each person as an individual yet understand, too, we are connected in our humanity.

Guilderland student Meghana Bhupati said it forcefully and well: “Unity here doesn’t mean we see eye to eye …. The goal is that one day we will be united in celebrating our differences.”

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