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Confronting Racism Head-On
Orlee Marini-Rapoport '19 Associate Editor
October 25, 2017

On September 15, Cornell student and Deerfield alum John Greenwood was arrested after a racially charged verbal and physical assault outside of Cornell’s Psi Upsilon fraternity house.

Head of School Margarita Curtis addressed the Deerfield community the following Wednesday at School Meeting: “Racism and violence have been disturbing themes of recent news cycles, but this particular incident stands out because the alleged assailant is a Deerfield alumnus … if racial hatred is in open display by a Deerfield alumnus at college, then it could dwell silently, here in this room, right now.”

History Department Chair Ms. Julia Rivellino-Lyons also reflected on the weight of the incident, commenting, “The fact that a [Deerfield] graduate used violence and racial epithets in attacking a student at Cornell in mid-September is extremely disturbing, revealing the overt hatred that exists in American society — and closer to our Deerfield bubble than we may like to admit.”

In an email to the Scroll, Dr. Curtis said, “To be clear, the Academy renounces any notion of racial hierarchy: racially motivated hate speech or violence is repugnant, and we reject it — and anyone who forwards such ideology — completely and without reservation.”

The Deerfield community is responding to and thinking about this incident in a variety of ways. Ms. Rivellino-Lyons believes that to fully understand this incident, it is crucial to put it into a historical perspective: “The past and the present are littered with such hatred and ignorance — forces that can destroy some lives while benefiting others — undermining the ideals of equality and liberty on which this country was founded. It is critical that we know our history so we can understand the roots of racism and bigotry and the power they have wielded in the past – as well as how those forces manifest themselves now.”

Furthermore, Assistant Head of School Life Ms. Amie Creagh gave an emotional announcement at sit-down lunch on October 13 addressing how racism can lie hidden on the Deerfield campus. Many classes took time that afternoon to discuss her words and reflect on how Deerfield can do better as a community to address racism.

Latin American Student Alliance Head Xochitl Paez ’20 appreciated Ms. Creagh’s announcement, saying, “I’m extremely grateful that she put the issue out there without tiptoeing or sugar-coating it … I feel safer after the announcement because it reminded me of all the support we have on campus from both the students and faculty.”

English Teacher Mr. Christian Austin also addressed Ms. Creagh’s announcement: “More of us need to step up and say something when we see or hear something that we know is wrong … Sadly, good intentions and good hearts aren’t enough.”

Language Department Chair Mr. Sam Savage echoed Mr. Austin’s statement, saying, “Racism, in any form, has no place on this campus … Speak up. Support each other. Social justice needs to be a pillar of this community, but a few of us seem to have shown that they’re more interested in tearing us down than building us up. We need to do better.”

Deerfield has initated inclusion efforts around campus, including a multi-year Strategic Plan for Inclusion. Ms. Marjorie Young, Director of Inclusion and Community Life, is excited about a new inclusion effort at Deerfield this year: Around 25 students will serve as cultural competency ambassadors on campus. These students attend inclusion training and went to the 9th Grade Village to discuss the “negative impact of words.” However, Ms. Young recognizes that “if people don’t embrace it [the training and workshops], employ it, make it a part of how they live their lives, it really doesn’t make a difference … At the end of the day, people have to choose to do the work of inclusion, which includes practicing cultural competencies, reading articles, and speaking to people who are different than you.”

Deerfield Black Student Alliance Head Uwa Ede-Osifo ’18 agreed:  “We can move forward as a school by learning to hold our students or peers responsible for their actions. Cultural competency is not a rigid set of rules or poster mottos; it is a practiced behavior … Students have the power to impact the culture of the school, even through subtler actions of engaging in civic dialogue.”

In regards to the Cornell incident specifically, Ms. Young said, “There’s a tendency for people to say that this is not who we are … I don’t think that’s the appropriate way to approach it … [we must] focus on the fact that this may be here and [we need to know] how to address it … We need to have our skills and courage ready to address issues when no one is watching.”

DBSA Head Niyafa Boucher ’18 echoed Ms. Young’s statement, saying, “Deerfield can say that they don’t stand behind the actions of Jack Greenwood; however, it is wrong to say that it isn’t representative of the Deerfield community … it is important to acknowledge that he spent four years in this place and still felt comfortable behaving in that manner.”

At School Meeting, Dr. Curtis encouraged the Deerfield community to actively pursue inclusion on campus, stating: “I need your help. Practice the cultural competency skills we introduce on campus … Embrace Deerfield’s emphasis on face-to-face interactions, shared experiences, connectedness and citizenship … It really is true that love conquers all. Our community is richly diverse, and all students should seize the opportunity to interact with people whose backgrounds and perspectives differ from their own — and in doing so, transcend the fear that breeds racism and exclusion.”