By Rachel Hess Wachman —Talon Print Editor-in-Chief
Slavery has technically been illegal in this country since 1865, yet the oppression of black people still persists — even in the year 2020.
With the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, Dominique Clayton, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others by the brutal hands of the police, the systemic racism embedded into the American way of life has been brought to the forefront of the national conscious, eliciting outrage around the world.
These senseless killings are unfortunately nothing new in this country. In 2014, police put Eric Garner, a black man in New York, into a chokehold while he repeated the words, “I can’t breathe” eleven times before he died. That same year, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot to death by police in Cleveland because he was holding a toy gun. In Cincinnati, a police officer killed unarmed black man Sam Dubose by shooting him at a traffic stop.
The list goes on.
With these latest murders and growing media coverage, people are taking to the streets in cities around the country calling for justice and the fight for equality in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Sharon community is no exception. On Thursday June 18th, Sharon students, teachers, parents, and community members flocked to the Ames field to show their support for the black students in Sharon and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole.
“We ALL need to confront the FACT that racism is still very present and begin to discuss how POC [People of Color] should be treated in this community, state, and country,” said Lizzie Lee, a recently graduated senior and Co-President of the Black Student Union at Sharon High School.
The idea to hold a rally originated in a monthly meeting of the group Educators for Racial Equality, to which several SHS teachers, including biology teacher Mr. Zachary Snow, belong. “It was very important to us that this rally not be a single event, inspired by George Floyd, that faded out shortly thereafter,” said Snow. “This is why we made it part of a multi-pronged (rally, commitment statements, video) affair all pointing in the direction of continuity in the year to come. For instance, we spoke to fellow SHS teachers about our anti-racism work, directed them to educational resources, and then invited them (if serious and willing) to write out a specific commitment to anti-racist work in the coming months (to which students and staff could hold them/us accountable).”
“I call on our teachers to create respectful classroom environments and to address racism head on,” said Lee in her speech at the rally. “When racist comments are simply brushed under the rug and never addressed, POC [People of Color] do not and will not feel supported, especially in a PWI [Predominately White Institution].”
Of the handful of Black students who spoke at the rally, several told of numerous instances where they have been treated differently at Sharon High School due to the color of their skin. Destiny Prioleau, who will be a junior at SHS in the fall, mentioned an exercise in colonization that one of her classes did. “We were in teams, and one of my classmates from another team came up to me and tried to put their flag they made on me, giving me a sly smile following with the words ‘I CLAIM YOU,’” said Prioleau. She added that her heart sped up in that moment. “In my head, I was thinking why me? Why did I have to experience this? Why did they think this was funny?”
Prioleau also recounted a time when she overheard her classmates discussing an upcoming Black Student Union assembly. She heard them say, “Why do THEY need a whole assembly? What about us? Why don’t we have a White Student Union?” The students proceeded to laugh, said Prioleau.
Black students at SHS are also frequently subjected to microaggressions and offensive comments. Lee mentioned that she’s heard all of the following statements in her American Studies class:
- “Racism doesn’t exist.”
- “If a white person gets shot, we don’t go out and protest about it.”
- “White people are statistically smarter than black people.”
- “This is stupid.” [Said in reference to the documentary 13th]
- “I only say it ‘cause it’s in the song. I’m not racist.”
- “If a black person gets killed by the police, they’re obviously doing something wrong.” [In reference to Treyvon Martin]
Needless to say, none of these comments are remotely appropriate — nor are they kind — and all of them take a toll on the Black students who hear them. School is supposed to be a safe space where everyone is accepted for who they are, but these comments only go to show that Sharon High School has a long way to go before achieving this goal.
“I wake up at 5:00 A.M., walk 18 minutes to my bus stop, and take a 45 minute drive to school only to sit in a classroom I don’t feel comfortable in,” Prioleau told the audience at the rally. “I come to school to learn just like everybody, and I expect the same treatment as my other classmates.”
“We hope that by having these brave students and community members share their experiences, people see that the town of Sharon is not immune to issues of racism and racial inequity,” said Snow. “We also hope that this awareness inspires people to take action to enact real change for our students and their families. Additionally, we hope to show the entire community that we are committed to speak out against racism, even in its subtler, more common, pernicious forms.”
“We cannot begin to unite without facing our history and educating ourselves and one another on the brutal racism that is such a large part of it” said Grace Miller-Trabold, an incoming junior at SHS who also spoke at the rally.
The anti-racist work begun at Sharon High School is slated to continue into the coming school year and beyond “in collaboration with the BSU, the Sharon Racial Equity Alliance, and any other group that wants to join the movement,” according to Snow.
“White privilege is real, it is relevant, and it is absolutely necessary that every white person in this crowd, in this community, and in this country acknowledge that as a fact,” said Miller-Trabold. “We cannot even begin to unite as a community and as a nation without the initial recognition of the fact that white privilege is both the legacy and the cause of racism, and that every white person in this country benefits from it.”
“We must acknowledge that white supremacy is real and is a danger to our communities and that the source of racial desparities in this country is deeper and more systemic than explicit discrimination,” added Miller-Trabold. She listed for the crowd a number of ways community members can actively work to combat racism. “Have uncomfortable conversations. Call out people with privilege when they use it as an oppressive power tool against another person,” said Miller-Trabold. “Ask people of color in your community what their struggle with racism has been like, and how you can best support them. Educate yourself! Read more, listen more, talk more, do whatever you can to become more aware of the experience of others. Sign petitions, support local black owned businesses, donate to bail funds, go to protests. But especially: think of a skill you have – are you really into art? Sports? Reading? Traveling? Animals? How can you use something you are passionate about or talented in to help benefit others?”
In spite of the daunting task of building an anti-racist society from the ground up, the number of SHS staff and students attended the rally proves that there are scores of people in the Sharon community who are dedicated to making this goal a reality.
“I know I’ll face way more experiences solely based off my race,” said Prioleau. “But today I stand amongst all of you to use my voice to make a change that many thought would be light years away. A change my people died for, a change my people marched for, a change my people spoke on but sadly when they spoke it wasn’t heard. Today I demand change. I don’t want excuses, and I don’t want action. I demand action, and I’m hopeful it will come.”
“It has become very clear to me that everyone is a product of their environment, and school is a major factor that shapes who we are,” said Lee. “Hard conversations are essential, now more than ever, and where better than the classroom to be educated?”
It is up to every individual, every student, teacher, parent, administrator, town official, and Sharon resident, to decide how they best can take part in that action towards creating an anti-racist society. The Black Students Matter rally was one step in the right direction, but it is merely the beginning of all that is to come. If one thing is clear from the current momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the anti-racist efforts happening across the country and in the Sharon community, the time for change is now.
Mapping Police Violence: https://mappingpoliceviolence.org Watch the Rally: https://sharontv.com/programs/community-events/?fbclid=IwAR31klmtckKF8BthGP4KF1bfc7cBJb6Dzz-3Eo0AkGt-iec35M1yr97JX70