The First Cherry Blossoms
March 25–29, Hunenberg, CH
Seasonal Memoir #65
There is a scene from The Good Lord Bird Showtime series where John Brown (played brilliantly by Ethan Hawke) holds a sword against a white man’s neck, and forces him to denounce slavery (or lose his head). Now that’s a moment of truth, isn’t it?
Two of author Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpieces, The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste, were recommended by work colleagues, and each book has impacted me profoundly. (Your friends know best!) There is just so much to unpack from Caste, so I’ll highlight just a couple things that got me thinking. First, I offer this quote from Albert Einstein (unlike most of the quotes attributed to him, this one is legit), made after noticing the immediate parallels between Nazi Germany (which he fled in 1932) and the caste system in America:
“I can escape the feelings of complicity in it only by speaking out.”
Einstein’s quote resonated because I often feel helpless against the overwhelming nature of systemic racism, yet I do have my voice, and I’ve used it. Perhaps because I tick mostly all the boxes of privilege — white, male, tall, hetero, able, status, SES — my voice might be listened to more than others, especially when I surprise people with strong opinions on equality and critical race theory.
Growing up in the dominant caste, exposed to the constant indoctrination (though I was completely unaware of it) through media (brutal), schooling (predictable), family (opinions were mostly “not-racist”, but it was hardly the woke era we seem to be in now), and a redlined suburban neighborhood, I can’t for a minute think that I don’t carry unconscious bias with me each and every day. No matter how many times I take Harvard’s Implicit Attitude Test, it shows up.
So life as a fifty-one year old, with my background, means navigating a personal war between this unconscious bias and conscious egalitarianism. I make plenty of mistakes, most often with gender bias (for some reason), and being mindful while this tug of war plays out in public settings can be draining, especially with the prospect of offending, losing credibility, or getting cancelled.
In July, I’ll move to a new international school, one which I hope to lead for the foreseeable future. The school has already started down the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) road, but it wants to accelerate the work, having made it a priority for its accreditation efforts. Sweet! The task we have (with me providing leadership) is to make a meaningful impact. There will be important questions to land answers to:
- Where do we start?
- How do we make this work core?
- How do we raise difficult conversations in a safe and inclusive manner?
- How can we do this work without the political backlash undoing the gains (like it did at the American School of London)?
- How do we honor those who want immediate changes, and those who want a slower approach?
- How do we take into account who we are (an American school with an American curriculum), but also where we are (in India, with its own caste issues)?
There is one question that I have been pondering above all others: Where can we, a school, actually make an impact? It’s not a straightforward question at all. We can’t change the world we exist in, but we can impact individuals. We can overhaul the curriculum. We can set up safe communities within our broader community. We can diversify our staff. We can break glass ceilings brought about by bias. We can educate, persuade, empathize, and win the hearts and minds of others. And, we can take a stand.
It’s that last action that I’ll end this post with. I’ll simply start with myself, and the commitments I will bring to the work as a person. Wilkerson writes, “The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly.” Thus, I will:
- Take responsibility when I’ve offended someone with my words or actions (and not use the lame “if I offended..” excuse)
- Not cash in on my privileges at the expense of others
- Share the “coding” of the dominant caste to those who don’t know it
- Work relentlessly to overcome my own ignorance
- Undo my unconscious bias through education and immersion in other contexts
And most importantly, I will stand up and use my voice, even if it makes people uncomfortable or it impacts my social status. Here are two opinions, offered in parting:
1. Affirmative action is still needed, though its application needs to be modernized (based on where the needs still are (e.g. where there are positions of power and influence, rather than in undergraduate admissions).
2. I support reparations (not just African-Americans, but to all those aggrieved by the dominant caste), and I would support a tax that would be distributed where it was needed.