The word race has “always been a charged word throughout the history of our country, but today there’s a different edge to it,” LeVar Ammons, District 200’s equity director said at the start of what would turn out to be a rather uncomfortable topic of conversation at a Dec. 17 school board meeting.
“Why do you think race has become even more polarized in today’s society?” Ammons said, posing the question to board members.
There was silence for about 10 seconds before board President Sara Dixon Spivy chimed in.
“At times, we realize how little we’ve evolved … The reality is that not much has changed at all,” she said. “I think we’ve seen that on the national level and I think we’ve seen that locally.”
The conversation was the first of a two-part discussion on the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. The board read the book as part of its “ongoing professional development on issues of race and equity,” Spivy explained in a board memo.
The discussion of the book, which board member Gina Harris selected, happened roughly a month after a controversy that erupted last month over board member Matt Baron’s letter to the editor that was published in Wednesday Journal.
Baron had responded to a Facebook comment written by a well-known Oak Park activist on an article about Oak Park Trustee Dan Moroney, who is now running for village president.
The activist, Dima Ali, wrote that Moroney is a “white supremacist”. In response, Baron requested that the comment be deleted before submitting a letter to the editor in which Baron equated Ali’s Facebook comment to an act of terrorism. Ali is Muslim-American — a fact of which Baron said he was not aware before writing his letter.
The controversy prompted Baron to issue an apology, which did not satisfy Ali and her supporters who have called on Baron to resign.
The controversy was only really alluded to on Dec. 17, but its resonance was felt by board members, with some members admitting that they just weren’t up for the discussion, considering the circumstances.
“Tonight, I’m feeling like there’s so much not being said,” Harris said about five minutes into the conversation. “Based on what we’re dealing with in our community right now, [I don’t feel that] this conversation can be highly productive, as I would love for it to be. So, I’m just a little bit challenged by our conversation tonight, in light of everything that is going on.”
Board member Jackie Moore echoed Harris, saying that she wasn’t “in the space to do anything other than reflect on this, given our current local climate and the hurt, harm and divisiveness that is happening.”
Despite being at the center of the tension, Baron responded after Spivy broke the long pause with her thoughts on the current racial climate.
“I know as a white man, I’ve had the privilege of not having to look at [race] much in my life — not much for me personally and certainly not much within my family,” Baron said. “And so, it’s been a gradual process and an uneven process for me of really having this increased awareness.”
Baron said he grew up in “a lily white community in the suburbs of Boston, which is a notoriously racist city,” before touching on the periphery of last month’s controversy that perhaps fed into the long pause at the beginning.
“It felt like we had an hour of silence when [Ammons] opened this up,” Baron said, partly because of the “feeling of being misunderstood.” Baron added that he stands “with all of our communities,” including the Muslim community.
“With regard to conversations on race, what terms have you heard throughout your life that have been re-contextualized?” Spivy asked her board colleagues.
“Yes, we’ve re-contextualized lots of terms, but to me and other people too, we can re-contextualize terms all we want,” said board member Craig Iseli. “When somebody talks about white supremacy, to me, I understand the context people are using it or whatever, but I grew up with it in a different context and it hurts me when somebody does that — regardless of what their intent is.”
“It’s interesting that you hearing that word hurts … when I and most of the people I know, specifically Black people, have lived with a number of words that hurt on a regular basis,” Harris said. “I feel like there’s an ability for us to begin to have an understanding of … what that harm feels like … I’m appreciative that you said that, so thank you for sharing that.”
“I think using the word the way we’re trying to use it is great and I am sure, I know, because of my own biases that I’ve said things unintentionally that hurt other people,” Iseli said. “I’m not asking for any treatment over it. I’m just throwing it out there as a fact, because I realize I’ve done it and I want to just talk about it.”
The second part of the board’s discussion on “Stamped” will take place at the Jan. 14, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting.
You can view the discussion at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qzRyj9SaPk. The conversation happens at the 4:29:00 mark.