Below is the text of the speech I gave at the Washington Ethical Society on July 16, 2017. Please check out their Facebook Page to view the talk.
Thank you for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I would like to thank all of you for this opportunity.
I’ve heard about some of the amazing work you are doing as a congregation and specifically about some of the goals you have– one of those goals being to enlarge the number of people of color in your congregation and another to foster some leadership within those ranks. Today I’m going to reflect on experiences I’ve had doing anti-racism and multicultural work as a person of color in majority white communities similar to this one.
I know I may not need to say this but I will anyway– I do not speak for all people of color, nor do I profess to know what every person of color needs in order to be successful in majority white communities. However, I hope the stories and insights I share with you today will aid in your understanding of the trials people of color face when we try to secure leadership positions in our current society. I also hope to leave you with some nuggets to reflect on as a congregation and individually because I believe all of you arrived here this morning eager to grapple with these topics.
So, to state the obvious, I’m Black. More specifically, I am a nearly 6 foot, black, female with dreadlocks down my back. This makes me very black for many people both as an administrator in an independent school in Northwest DC, on the street, at the grocery store, and even in the park with my 7-month-old daughter. There is no hiding my frame, my color or my gender in my everyday life. Nor would I want to, typically. I’ll admit, I’ve awakened on more than a few occasions hoping to be invisible. Praying that today would be the day I was seen for who I am and not simply what I look like. Just for one day, I’d walk up the street and there’d be no lingering eyes inquiring what I’m doing in this neighborhood, or in this section of the plane, or in this hotel, or at this restaurant, or at this musical. Have you fantasized about just being able to breathe without being harassed? Have you sat in a business meeting and questioned your reality because surely in 2017 people aren’t actually saying, “well, what do black people think?” as they stare at you? No. Good. You must be in the majority.
I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For those of you unfamiliar with that city, it is neglected, corrupt and impoverished. Through sheer grit, I graduated from high school and went on to attend Bates College for undergrad and then Hopkins for my masters. I started teaching in Baltimore over a decade ago. I’ve written curricula for public and private institutions and have published articles on topics ranging from the stages of social-emotional and academic development to being black in America vs. being black abroad. I married Tope Folarin, who many of you know is an accomplished author and speaker, a Rhodes Scholar and humanitarian. And I gave birth to our first child in December. I’m currently the Head of Lower School at an independent school in Northwest, DC and I purchased a home within walking distance of my school. I’m also privileged enough to work with some of the most thoughtful and intelligent people I’ve ever met. However, each day at my current place of employment and in the greater community I am constantly proving my worth, while on display.
Being a black female administrator in the independent school world is a challenging yet rewarding task. As some of you may know, independent schools were originally created to be a refuge for white people from people who look like me. Even today, independent schools struggle to add racial and ethnic diversity to their student, teacher and administrative ranks even if those schools have mission statements that speak to social justice. This congregation can relate to that struggle. I chose to move from teaching in the public school world to integrating my current administrative team because I wanted to see how effective I could be leading in this type of institution. I wanted to learn to communicate with a group of parents who were vastly different from the public school parents in Baltimore and from the people I knew growing up in Bridgeport. And I’ve definitely achieved that. Not only are the current families I work with different racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically, but I believe there are major differences in parenting styles, parental involvement and worldviews. The culture is different, the expectations are different and the opportunities to create and even innovate are different. For example, when I was teaching in Baltimore I was respected as an educator. Parents looked to me as a competent authority when I spoke about academics and social development. When I started working in independent majority schools here in DC, that trust was nonexistent. Even as I moved up from teacher to lower administrator to senior administrator I’ve noticed that trust in my expertise simply isn’t there. My degrees, years in the profession, national presentations, and publications still aren’t enough to garner trust and I know this because when I am in parent meetings, teacher meetings and community meetings I’m regularly questioned, actually interrogated is a better word, and oftentimes someone with less experience than me is consulted for the answer or is consulted as a person who can validate or invalidate my expertise on the subject.
Because my cultural background isn’t considered relevant–or more simply and probably more accurately, my cultural background isn’t considered–at times I feel undermined, disrespected and dismissed. At other times, I feel like no matter what I say I am being placed in the angry black woman category. I used to think that I was viewed negatively because I was a young administrator with a lot of energy and urgency. But now that I’m a little older and a lot wiser, I realize that my age has little to do with it. My height, hair style, and cocoa skin are the real cause for alarm.
There have been so many occasions over the last ten years when I’ve been in conversations with white liberals and they have mistaken me for another woman of color. So much so, that they have attributed characteristics to me that belong to someone else. And in a few instances, they’ve told me about a fight I had with them that they actually had with a different woman of color. It’s only after lengthy conversations with these people that I’ve realized this mistaken identity issue was occurring. I’ve had to stop entire conversations to explain that I was not the person they had an argument with last month because I don’t work in at department, or nope that wasn’t me that blew off a lunch with you because I eat lunch with the students, or nope that wasn’t me at that particular party in January because I was on maternity leave, but it sounds like it was fun, thanks for sharing…I think. Do you hear what I have to do? I can’t just say, “that wasn’t me,” I must offer a researchable rationale that exonerates me or these conversations don’t end. My word isn’t enough. And my face and others aren’t even distinguishable.
Black men, women, boys, and girls are being shot and killed each day, yet in my community no one has asked me how I feel about it. I’ve really felt this lack of kinship since becoming a mother. I was recently told by a white liberal that he was intentionally avoiding me on the days that black murders made the news because he doesn’t know what to say and he’d rather be colorblind than say the wrong thing. Ugh. I can unpack that statement for the next ten years but in short, I need to be seen and when things repeatedly happen to people in our society that look like me it would be great if the community I’m in acknowledges that I may need support. We don’t have to sing kumbaya in the hallways or on the street, but an acknowledgment would be great.
So if you’ve come to a point where you are attempting to relate and are thinking, “Stephanie, I understand what you are saying because I’ve traveled both nationally and internationally and have been the only white person,” that’s not really going to work because your white privilege traveled with you. Together, we will figure out how to make my struggle real to you so that you can affect change.
In order to be a true white liberal, you need to relinquish power. You need to decide not to be in charge. You need to sacrifice your power for equality. This is a step most white liberals are not willing to acknowledge and therefore people of color remain subjugated. Recently, I was trying to figure out where to place a new teacher (this teacher is of color) and I was working with a veteran teacher (a self-proclaimed white liberal) on some logistics. In my opinion, the veteran teacher was being so flexible with me and had some amazing ideas about placement and curriculum and so forth. I genuinely enjoyed those conversations and the entire process. Unfortunately, it turns out this veteran teacher was sharing with others in the building that I was using her as a “white placeholder” and I wasn’t interested in what worked best for the school but I just wanted to have another person of color in the school. Yes, I did and do want more people of color in my majority white school but I will never hire someone simply because of their race. But that aside, I work at a school rooted in social justice education and to hear that this white liberal woman only saw the conversations we were having and decisions we were making together in a negative light was unnerving. In a school dedicated to social justice, I never thought I would have to defend the need for more people of color in the institution or that I would ever have to explain that no one is a placeholder, however, in an attempt to advance the mission of the school everyone should be willing and ready to be uncomfortable.
Discomfort comes in many forms, on the adult level and with children. A student called another student a nigger last year in the lower school. Developmentally, the use of harsh language and even hate speech are common in lower grades. Children hear words at home, on television, on the radio, and use them because they are attracted to the emotional response those words evoke, not because they have some deep-seated hatred. Soon after the student used this word, the teachers, a parent and some administrators decided to create an education plan for parents. We decided to host a parent coffee to share with parents how we discuss hate speech in the classroom. We also wanted to reassure parents that we were protecting their children and meeting them where they were. The lessons and activities that our brilliant teachers created were right on point and our planning meeting was coming along beautifully. And then it happened. Someone said, “as the white people in the room, we need to give black people a voice.” Ouch! I was the only visible person of color in this planning meeting. I sat back and waited for someone else in the room to speak up about this problematic statement. As I sat there I thought, “No, that’s not what you need to do.” Black people and all people of color have a voice. We don’t need permission to use it. We just need the majority to step out of the way and allow us space to use it. We need to be heard and our voices need to be respected equally. Luckily, another person in the room spoke up and said exactly what I was thinking. That woman was a Latina who could pass for white. The lesson in a moment like this is: white allies need to correct other white allies– use your position to support one another. That is something I won’t be able to do as a person of color.
What keeps me going each day is knowing that I am making a positive difference in the lives of students and my faculty. I see these negative moments as areas of growth for those around me and I see the blatant acts of racism and sexism as the unfortunate side-effects of American and world history. My goals each day are to create the best learning environment for the students in my school, to support my teachers in their professional and personal lives, and not to worry too much about the safety of my 6 foot 4 black husband when he walks out of our home. Nothing I’ve shared today can’t be overcome within a community that sees, hears and respects all of its members while acknowledging that different groups of people need different things in order to feel and actually be supported.
And if you are truly serious about supporting people of color in general and in leadership positions in this congregation, it can’t be just lip-service. You have to work with that person when he or she handles something well and when he or she makes a mistake. Growing a leader isn’t just something you say, it requires dedication. I encourage you to schedule meetings to discuss aspects of the position and to discuss people in the community that may be impediments to that leader’s success. Be honest. Supporting any leader means communicating critically and respectfully. It also means supporting that person publically and helping them to analyze mistakes privately.
In the future, I hope that people who look like me won’t be told that they are too strong-willed, too pointed, too pushy for change, too forceful in conversation, not friendly enough, not soft enough… and on and on… when really the issue is that they are too black, too female, and the boss. I hope for a day when my work speaks for itself and I no longer have to defend my every action because of what I look like. I hope that in the future people stop expecting me, and people who look like me, to cower in a corner and just be an ornament in the community, but that we are taken seriously, promoted appropriately and respected equally.
Relinquishing power is the key to equity and justice. I challenge you to think about the power you have as a community and as individuals as you grow your congregation and become more culturally diverse. If you are truly interested in supporting leadership of color I believe it is imperative that you think about what that means for the power that you wield. In supporting growth and development for people of color you must relinquish power or the natural yet divisive instinct to yolk that leader and make them what you want them to be will render your actions ineffective.
You are a congregation of hope and change. You are a congregation rooted in reflection and correction. Make this a place that grows leaders of diverse backgrounds and then sends them out into the community to show others how it’s done. There is so much positive energy in this space. So many innovative and inspiring ideas waiting to be hatched. I challenge you to live your Purpose Statement and “affirm the worth of every person.” To open up pathways for growth for all who walk through those doors and to be at the left and right sides of those leaders, offering a hand when support is needed, a pat on the back as accomplishments are achieved, and thoughtful and careful conversations as those leaders develop.