This week I had the privilege of joining members of our community to celebrate Roeper’s 10th year of membership in the National SEED Project. In its 30th year, SEED, Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, is a professional development program developed by Peggy McIntosh through her work at Wellesley College. Through a series of meetings, participants reflect on their personal experiences and look more deeply at the life experiences of others using a variety of diversity topics to foster discussion. As our mentor Carolyn Lett explains, the program is about looking into windows and mirrors to help us on our own personal journey of understanding.
In this anniversary year, when we are reflecting on our history and philosophy, I am grateful to Carolyn and former Head of School Randall Dunn for bringing this national program to The Roeper School. In our 10 years, 222 faculty, staff and parents have been participants in the program. We have worked with other independent schools and the broader Birmingham community to share this valuable program. The 2016 Roeper cohort will add 36 new members to this count.
We have much to celebrate and important work ahead of us. Indeed it is work like SEED that reminds me of our ongoing commitment to each other in this community. This year I have shared two significant policies with you, our Community Guidelines and our Gender Inclusion policy. These two documents speak directly to our philosophical underpinnings of respect for one another. In the language of SEED, they help us to look through the window to understand someone else’s story, while at the same time look in the mirror and examine ourselves, our actions, and our beliefs.
How we treat each other and how we nurture the relationships we build together have always been essential elements of what it means to be Roeperian. The social and emotional health of our community is as critical to the Roeper experience as the challenging academic program we seek to provide for each child. We know at our core that to be able to focus on teaching and learning, every human being needs to feel safe and valued. It is a challenge to learn to read, to do advanced math equations, or to think deeply about the meaning of justice – it is impossible to maintain the necessary focus to do this work when you are called names or excluded, or are worried about what people say on social media.
Our founders George and Annemarie Roeper were refugees, people forced to leave behind the only home they knew. They lost all they had because a group in power harassed them to a point where they feared for their lives. Sadly, this is not a unique story or even an outdated story. Fear, mistrust, and hatred get expressed through confusing and hurtful behaviors every day. It is a cycle controlled by power, and the bullying and harassment that results is dangerous.
Perhaps you saw this recent letter to the editor in the New York Times:
By MICHAEL LUO OCT. 9, 2016
Maybe I should have let it go. Turned the other cheek. We had just gotten out of church, and I was with my family and some friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We were going to lunch, trying to see if there was room in the Korean restaurant down the street. You were in a rush. It was raining. Our stroller and a gaggle of Asians were in your way.
But I was honestly stunned when you yelled at us from down the block, “Go back to China!”
I hesitated for a second and then sprinted to confront you. That must have startled you. You pulled out your iPhone in front of the Equinox and threatened to call the cops. It was comical, in retrospect. You might have been charged instead, especially after I walked away and you screamed, “Go back to your f…ing country.”
“I was born in this country!” I yelled back.
It felt silly. But how else to prove I belonged?
This was not my first encounter, of course, with racist insults. Ask any Asian-American, and they’ll readily summon memories of schoolyard taunts, or disturbing encounters on the street or at the grocery store. When I posted on Twitter about what happened, an avalanche of people replied back to me with their own experiences.
Well dressed woman on Upper East Side, annoyed by our stroller, yells: “Go back to China…go back to your f—ing country.” #thisis2016
I’ve been shouted this many times, even in supposedly “post-racial” Hawaii.
The last couple years – even in this “multi-cultural” NYC – I’ve felt less and less welcome. I was born in Korea, but I grew up in the US.
But for some reason — and, yes, it probably has to do with the political climate right now — this time felt different.
Walking home later, a pang of sadness welled up inside me.
You had on a nice rain coat. Your iPhone was a 6 Plus. You could have been a fellow parent in one of my daughters’ schools. You seemed, well, normal. But you had these feelings in you, and, the reality is, so do a lot of people in this country right now.
Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my family get to the heart of the Asian-American experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American. It’s one of the reasons that Fox News segment the other day on Chinatown by Jesse Watters, with the karate and nunchucks and broken English, generated so much outrage.
My parents fled mainland China for Taiwan ahead of the Communist takeover. They came to the United States for graduate school. They raised two children, both of whom went to Harvard. I work at The New York Times. Model minority, indeed.
Yet somehow I still often feel like an outsider.
And I wonder if that feeling will ever go away. Perhaps, more important, I wonder whether my two daughters who were with me today will always feel that way too.
Yes, the outpouring of support online was gratifying.
@michaelluo – Shouldn’t have to affirm it, but EVERYONE belongs in NYC. What doesn’t belong here are comments like you heard today.
But, afterward, my 7-year-old, who witnessed the whole thing, kept asking my wife, “Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.”
No, we’re not, my wife said, and she tried to explain why you might have said that and why people shouldn’t judge others.
We’re from America, she told my daughter. But sometimes people don’t understand that.
I hope you do now.
Michael Luo is deputy Metro editor and an editor on the Race/Related team at The New York Times. He can be reached on Twitter @MichaelLuo.
A version of this article appears in print on October 11, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told Us: Go Back to China.
SEED teaches us to listen, to seek to understand, to remember that we really don’t know someone else’s story; these techniques are logical, reflective and empathetic. And while they may help us see the world from someone else’s point of view – give us a window into someone else’s life experience – it does not change the hurt nor the harm prejudice and harassment can cause. We remain responsible for our actions; we remain accountable for the hurt we cause.
SEED is about education, it is about our personal journey to understand ourselves, and it is about growth through self-knowledge. At the same time, we have an obligation in this interdependent world to not just teach but to act. Each of us is Michael Luo – living our lives, caring for our family, vulnerable to a stinging hurtful comment from a stranger. Michael has a story, the angry woman has a story – both have depth, meaning and value. Yet all we see is a degrading encounter, a hurtful rant that Michael and his family are left to absorb.
Our children need us to hold up the mirror and know the pain we can cause each other. They need to know our values as a community and what responsibilities we have to each other, to learn about each other, and to make our community healthy and safe.
Written policies and educational programs are critical first steps; they are the foundations from which we build our community, but every day we are called upon to act on those policies and to live what we have learned.
George and Annemarie Roeper told us that our School’s philosophy was a philosophy of life, and that respect for one another is at the core of the philosophy. It is why they so strongly shared with us the concept of interdependence – what we say to each other matters; what we write to each other matters; what we send to each other matters; how we treat each other matters.
It is not enough to attend or work at Roeper – we must be Roeperian!