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Institutionalized Racism and DA: Empathy Transcends “Isms”
Niyafa Boucher '18 Contributing Writer
November 15, 2017
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Institutionalized racism has been a hot button topic at Deerfield in the past weeks. By definition, institutionalized racism refers to “a pattern of social institutions giving negative treatment to a group of people based on their race” (Chegg Study). These social institutions can include government organizations, schools, banks and courts of law. At its root the term is most clearly applicable to slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. However, when used to define Deerfield Academy, it becomes an issue of controversy. I can agree that Deerfield doesn’t explicitly treat students of color negatively because of their race; however, bringing institutionalized racism into today’s conversation begs us to examine the patterns of other social institutions that undeniably impact the Deerfield campus.

Take our sport teams: as you descend the roster from varsity to thirds, there is more racial and ethnic diversity. Even further, there are some sports that lack diversity all together. This isn’t because Deerfield has a pattern of dividing sports teams by race, but rather because of the greater correlation between race, socioeconomic status and access.

Before coming to Deerfield I’d never heard of field hockey or played a team sport. My freshman year I played on 3rds, where I was the goalie. I borrowed all my equipment from the school, and I fell in love with the game. I have played every year since. As a senior, who went from never having played before to starting on JV, I recognize that this wouldn’t have been possible without Deerfield loaning me equipment every season. Some of my best Deerfield moments have occurred on the field, and I have met some of my best friends there as well. Although the bonding between teammates is genuine, my point is these connections are impacted by systems outside of Deerfield’s campus.

Every time I use this example to describe exclusion at Deerfield, I am met with a surprised response. Most often I hear, “I never thought about it like that before.” This response always troubles me because as an academic institution, Deerfield’s job is to help students think about their lives in the context of this campus and the world around them. As a leader of the Deerfield Black Student Alliance, and a student coordinator for our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, I am constantly asked for an answer to one question: “How do we get white students to care about issues of race, diversity and inclusion?” All too often I have been told that people don’t care about issues that don’t pertain to them. However, I’d like to challenge the idea that race does not pertain to all students at Deerfield. Deerfield prides itself on being “a vibrant, ethical community that embraces diversity.” Our mission statement further asserts, “the Academy prepares students for leadership in a rapidly changing world that requires global understanding…” The question I would pose instead is: “Why don’t white students see race as something that pertains to them?” The answer is simple: “isms” are inherently divisive.

When we start a conversation about racism or sexism, in our minds, we have already created two opposing sides. In my Facebook post, I urged students to get off their laptops and phones and engage with this community in person — community is defined as our shared identity as Deerfield students. We solve issues of race at Deerfield when we, as students, seek to interact with all members of this community and form genuine care for each other. When a student posts on Facebook that Deerfield has failed them or makes the statement that white students’ opinions don’t matter, it is our job as community members to reach out and ask them what in their life has led them to make that statement. I can admit that it is scary to walk up to people I don’t know and start a conversation; however, if that became the norm, we could connect with students on this campus on a deeper level. It is our responsibility as members of this community to care about each other enough to ask questions and build understanding. What is Deerfield if not a place where we can challenge each other respectfully and have open and honest dialogue?

In my ideal vision of the Deerfield community, we focus less on the words and more on the people who say them. I’m not writing this article to settle the debate about whether or not Deerfield is institutionally racist. I am writing this article because although racism is an important issue, I don’t believe it speaks to the depth of the problem that Deerfield really struggles with. Deerfield students struggle to have empathy for members of the community that they don’t know personally. We allow fear, uncertainty, and comfort to hinder our interactions. At the end of the day, we are all teenagers in high school working hard to get through life. Because I started at Deerfield when I was only 13, I understand that it is hard to be vulnerable in high school and put yourself out there. We owe it to ourselves, then, to take advantage of Deerfield’s diverse community. By learning someone’s story, you gain a depth of perspective that you may not have otherwise had.

For all the students who asked for examples of institutionalized racism or who have questions that you are too afraid to ask, I challenge you to go to an alliance meeting or ask these questions to someone you have never spoken to before. Show genuine interest and be curious and you may be surprised by what you find. “Isms” thrive when we allow them to influence our actions. They thrive when we don’t push ourselves to ask the hard questions, and most of all they thrive when we hurt each other. Hurt people hurt people and, as a woman of color, I will be the first to admit that I struggle everyday to remember that Deerfield is my school just as much as anyone else’s. Let’s all take that first step and help build a stronger Deerfield community.