‘Silence is violence’: Rensselaerville woman calls for confronting racism

— From Sarah Gordon
This screenshot shows the bevy of hateful messages Gordon has received for taking a stand against racism in the predominantly white Hilltowns. A cell is obscured to hide Gordon's home address, which a troll attempted to publicize, likely as a means of directing anyone angry with Gordon to her house. Besides these submissions, Gordon has received threats from individuals, some of whom she attended Berne-Knox-Westerlo school with in the 90s and early aughts.

HILLTOWNS — Hilltown businesses are turning out to support anti-racist ideals following an effort by Sarah Gordon, of Rensselaerville, to create a digital registry of businesses willing to affirm that “Black lives matter,” and that each business’s owners and employees will confront racist behavior on their property. 

Gordon’s call followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, which has spurred protests across the globe, coalescing into a movement against racism that has monopolized headlines as thoroughly as the coronavirus has since it was declared a pandemic in March. 

The New York Times has called it possibly the largest movement in United States history based on polls that suggest 15 to 26 million people have participated in a protest against police brutality and other aspects of systemic racism since Floyd’s death.

Each protest is both fueled and defined by the slogan “Black lives matter,” which came into being in 2013 after community watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted for the fatal shooting of Black teenager Trayvon Martin, in Florida, as Martin walked from a convenience store to his father’s fiancée’s house. Martin was unarmed and had not committed a crime.

So far, 18 businesses have listed themselves on Gordon’s registry, most of them farms, but the catalogue includes a video production company in Rensselaerville, a home remodeler and handyman in Berne, and a stable in Westerlo, among others. 

So, too, have trolls responded, attempting to put into the spreadsheet racist, sexist, and homophobic content, some of which was directed specifically at Gordon.

 “Susan Gordon Has A Drippy Cunt,” read one entry. “Liberals are the enemy — the extinction of blacks is what they want,” read another. One listed Gordon’s home address.

And a Facebook user named Matthew Davis posted comments that chastised Gordon and demanded that she leave the Hilltowns, which prompted Gordon to put the police on notice, she said. 

“Your shunted on the hill with this [bullshit],” Davis wrote, “time will [see] of that … good luck most know where you live.” At least two people “liked” his posts.

The hateful messaging highlights the risk that people like Gordon, who is white, take when speaking up against racism in predominantly white communities that fail to connect with issues that uniquely impact people of color, such as police brutality. Gordon told The Enterprise that she has received other threats as well, and that she did not want to have the name of her young daughter printed, afraid for her daughter’s safety. 

“I have also run into folks that own Hilltown businesses who’ve told me that they won’t take a stand because they worry about their business and their family and their livelihood,” Gordon told The Enterprise.

Realtor Tracy Boomhower, of Country Views Realty, on the other hand, has no qualms about alienating clients who would expect her to stay silent before or complicit in exclusionary behaviors.

“If I have to walk away from a listing,” Boomhower, who is white, said of racist clients, “I don’t care. I won’t discriminate … It’s who I am and how I run my business.” 

When asked what discrimination she’s witnessed in realty, Boomhower gave the example of clients selling a home who request that the home not be sold to a particular type of buyer, whether it be a Black person, a gay couple, or another member of a group that’s considered “other.” 

“They might say, ‘I don’t want such-and-such to move in here. I have to protect my neighbor,’” Boomhower said. “‘From what?’ I ask.” 

The direct inspiration for the registry was Gordon’s experience searching for a mechanic while trying to avoid those that exhibit offensive politics on the property of their business. 

“When I went looking for a new mechanic,” Gordon told The Enterprise, “one person did stand up on Facebook and kind of voiced his opinion that all lives matter, but was open to a constructive conversation, which I appreciated. But ultimately it wasn’t satisfying what I was looking for, which is to spend my dollars with someone who shares my point of view to show that everyone can do something and should do something.

“So the next step for me,” Gordon said, “was asking what other kinds of businesses is this an issue in, and [the registry] seemed like one way I could shed light on the issue so it can be confronted. I think it’s everyone’s responsibility in the Hilltowns to do something. If 96 percent of the Hilltowns are white, then 96 percent of the Hilltowns should be doing something about it.” 

To be listed on Gordon’s registry, business owners must agree to two statements:

— “I affirm that I believe that Black Lives Matter, and understand that saying ‘all lives matter’ ignores the reality that all lives can’t logically matter until we stand up and prove that black lives do;” and 

— “I affirm that, if I hear racist comments in the course of my business, I will constructively confront them, rather than let the moment silently go by. Silence is violence.”

The slogans “Black lives matter” and “all lives matter” have become verbal weapons since the advent of the Black Lives Matter Movement, with the movement’s opponents — along with the contextually unaware — arguing that “all lives matter” is a fairer statement than “Black lives matter.” Proponents of “Black lives matter” mirror the words of Gordon’s pledge, arguing that “Black lives matter” is not meant to exclude all other groups but to highlight one that’s often marginalized.

The second pledge conforms to a broader narrative around the most recent Black Lives Matter surge, which is the culpability and responsibility that white and other privileged groups hold in all instances of inequity. It’s not a new message, but one that has struck the country with new resonance.

White participation in the movement has been a sign of progress for some Black leaders. In Rensselaerville, a march of more than 100 people on June 14 in support of Black Lives Matter was overwhelmingly white.

The week after the march, The Enterprise spoke with Anne Pope, director of the northeast region of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who said, “[White people] can no longer just sit and think, ‘Oh, look over there at that group of people. We feel so sorry for them.’ What have you done to make things better?”

 

It takes a village

Gordon, who was born in the Hilltowns and graduated from Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School in 2002, also spoke of racism she’s witnessed outside the walls of local shops. 

“When I was growing up, there were maybe two kids who were black in high school and they were singled out repeatedly,” Gordon said. “And I’ve heard from former classmates of mine that now are raising biracial kids in the BKW school system and they’ve been singled out repeatedly. It’s still an issue.”

In a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, Gordon wrote of extended family that use “the N-word,” of being the target of ignorant jokes when she went to a bonfire with a Black friend as a teenager, and of remarks from farmers about cheap laborers.

“It’s horrific,” Gordon wrote, “and exemplifies the explicit reported reason why so many of my former BKW classmates left the Hilltowns when they were 18 and never looked back — they see their hometown as a bigoted bastion of the past.”

BKW Superintendent Timothy Mundell told The Enterprise in an email that the school’s first priority is its students but that, while bullying is on the decline in the district, it’s difficult to be aware of every incident.

“In the scope of complex human interactions each day,” Mundell said, “I won’t say bullying or verbal conflicts involving race or any other factors never happen … We have seen drops in incidences of bullying. We are not perfect. No school is. We take it day by day.” 

Mundell explained that the school responds to the incidents it’s aware of with “learning conversations” that account for the age and unique skill-sets of the students involved, which he hopes will help create both a healthy school environment and a “just society.”

“In addition,” Mundell said, “we have pretty much eliminated suspensions from school. We are far more focused on restorative practice.”

And to highlight the district’s willingness to engage with the topic of Floyd’s death and the protests around it, Mundell shared with The Enterprise an email he sent to district teachers on June 1.

“The events emanating from Minneapolis in that past week,” Mundell wrote in that email, “and exploding over the weekend in many cities across the country, challenge our understanding of the world in which we live, and potentially disrupts that understanding into complex confusion. Making sense of senseless death, riots, looting, and violence is not an easy task. For those of us who have been around for more than 30 years, we are seeing these things again, and again, and again. It is daunting.”

He concluded the email by writing, “As you interact with students in the coming days, please keep in mind they have been watching the news over the weekend. It could very well have been a point of trauma for many of them. Be open to hearing what they have to say or have seen. Be open to their questions.

“Come back to basics that will exude care and compassion, peace and calm. We have that capacity. As educators, let’s be a voice for the change we seek in the world. Let’s also care for one another with our words, kindness, absence of judgement, and effort to understand.”

To the Enterprise directly, Mundell wrote that the school encourages exposure to diversity through travel programs to Central America, Canada, and New York City, opportunities which he said have increased in the past four years. 

And last summer, Mundell said, BKW staff and board members read “Culture of Love,” by Luvelle Brown. 

“The book,” Mundell said, “focuses on skills for identifying inequity in organizations and how to take steps to transform systems into more equitable and just systems, in order to level the playing field. Again, much of the work is human skills of listening and how to talk with one another to shift values, beliefs, culture and practices … According to Dr. Brown, love is the key to success.”

 

In the classroom

James Lemire chairs BKW’s social studies department and has taught at the school for 30 years. He also is the volunteer advisor to the school’s Gender and Sexuality Acceptance Club, and to Students Serving Society.

Like all other teachers, Lemire is part of the educational front line when events like the Black Lives Matter protests demand students’ attention. And in teaching college-level Advanced Placement Psychology, Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics, and U.S. History and Government, Lemire is especially prone to the difficult but important conversations these events bring into the classroom. 

“Attaching history to current stories is central to what I do in my AP Government class,” Lemire told The Enterprise in an email, “and if I can find a psychological angle, I do so and try to discuss it in AP Psych. The most obvious places to discuss such issues as racial, gender, sexuality, religious identity and equality is in the Regents U.S. History classes. 

“So I do that,” Lemire continued, “but after 33 years, I am able to do so with a great deal of balance in my presentation, in an effort to make sure my students are aware of all sides of the issue, but also in an attempt to maintain my emotional balance so as to not become too upset in my presentation and discussion.”

Lemire said that his balance comes from experience, and that, earlier in his career, he may have leaned into social problems in the classroom too hard or too far. 

“As a younger teacher,” Lemire said, “I may have been a little self-righteous in the way I approached the problem when it presented itself. Now, after knowing myself as an instructor much better, I find it easier to know what I will need to address, and how I will want to do so, without allowing emotions to overtake my message.  

“If there were regrets,” Lemire continued, “it may only be that I was too emotional in my responses early in my teaching career, and students could tell how upset I was. If my message can be delivered without anger or vilification, then I can convince a student that, even if the words and sentiments were bad, it does not mean that the kid is, and that we can work to improve understanding of the aggressiveness or inappropriateness of the words, and move on from there.”

Like Mundell, Lemire expressed a level of sympathy for kids whose immaturity trumps their reason and is the foundation for offensive jokes or comments, as opposed to true maliciousness. He says that, now, kids tend to be more aware of the weight of issues that often become fodder for shock humor, but that incidents do occur nevertheless.

“The lesson stops and the comment is directly confronted,” Lemire said of his typical response to such an incident. “In particular, there are words referring to race, sexual preference, gender identity, religion, and intellectual capacity that students know are unacceptable. If that list needs to grow, it does.  

“BKW is home to a lot of great kids,” Lemire continued, “and these kids have really great hearts; however, it is true that there are students anywhere that maybe hear a particular word and don’t know that it is offensive or why.  Sometimes, it is my role to explain why.  

“I would also venture the guess that there are students who are using those words knowing that they are offensive everywhere, also, including at BKW,” Lemire said. “It has been rare in my experience … There has not, in my recollection, been a repeat instance of such offensive terms in my classroom in the 3 decades I have been at BKW by the same student.”

Additional to his work with the student clubs, Lemire is communicating with the Anti-Defamation League to bring its No Place For Hate program to the school in time for the next academic year and the years following. 

The program, which is taken on by schools at their discretion, aims to foster a safe and encouraging school environment by reducing incidents of bullying through a series of tasks. Once a school completes, among other things, a needs assessment, an anti-bullying training program, and bullying prevention activities, the school is designated “no place for hate” and receives a banner. 

“Diversity can mean many things beyond race,” Mundell told The Enterprise. “We have all walked a different path in life and we each have different stories. Whether male or female, rich or poor, young or old, black/white/brown, learning challenged or extremely bright, straight/gay/bi/trans we are all human. 

“When we each understand the other,” he concluded, “we can be a more whole being and help others to fulfill their potential as well. We are on a journey to support this process as a means to creating not only an equitable school system, but a just society.”

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