Offices & Resources

2020 Convocation Talk: Becoming a Truly Antiracist School
2020 Convocation Talk: Becoming a Truly Antiracist School

Welcome to the 2020-21 academic year. Convocation is, typically, a time for us to gather physically as an entire School community and mark the beginning of an academic year. On this occasion, we welcome new members of our community, celebrate faculty milestones, and present student character prizes. A responsibility I treasure on this occasion is to offer some observations to help set the tone for the year.

This year, of course, is starting very differently since we are not together in the Class of 1945 Hall; indeed we are not together at St. Mark's. I am keenly aware that for some 100 of you new students and thirteen new faculty, you are starting your St. Mark's time in a unique manner, not what any of us would have chosen. For the rest of us, returning St. Mark's students, faculty, and staff, it has been a long time—seven months—since we were together physically, in a world that is very different than it was when we last gathered.

Whatever the choice you students are making: remote all year, joining us as day students on September 28 or joining us as boarders, much thoughtful, caring skilled work has taken place to ensure that our 2020-21 academic year is very positive in every dimension that we experience it. Faculty have worked very hard throughout the summer to ensure that this education, whether all remote or hybrid, a combination of remote and in-person, will be excellent.

The impact of COVID-19 is beyond the control of any of us. What is in our control, both individually, and collectively, is how we respond to the circumstances that confront us. I am confident, again, that we will respond well.

In addition to COVID-19 changing our world as we know it, the response to the Black men and women killed and injured by the police in 2020, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and most recently, Jacob Blake, has also changed our world as we know it. These events have called upon each of us individually, our School, our communities, the United States, and countries throughout the world, to confront and address racial inequities with more urgency.

This spring and summer, I have engaged in conversations with many students, parents, faculty, staff, and graduates about how St. Mark's is going to address the evidence of inequitable racial treatment at our School presented on the Black at St. Mark's Instagram feed. While some of Black at St. Mark's testimonials come from a number of years ago, some come from the very recent past, indicating that the pain and experiences of inequity exist currently at our School and indicating that the School needs to engage with full hearts and open minds in making changes. I am committed to leading that work, and I ask that every member of this School community take an active part in that work.

What saddens me the most about the testimonials is the theme, sometimes stated explicitly and sometimes communicated through anecdotes, that a number of students of color did not feel fully welcomed at our School, were made to feel less than full and equal members of the St. Mark's community.

Here are some examples:

These two are undated:

"The overriding feeling that I left SM with is that the school admitted me, but never let me in. Big distinction. I felt like I was there out of some sense of Episcopalian or aristocratic alms or something. When I was a student, they never had any interest in anything I had to contribute to the classroom or the community. It was deeply painful and created scars that, if I'm honest, exist (however faintly) to this day."

And:

"Students and faculty always assumed that because I was black—I was from NY and was on a scholarship."

These next two are from the Class of 2015:

"They (white students) basically told me to my face that because there are so few black people and POC (people of color) at school, our opinions shouldn't matter. This was just further validation that the 'majority' didn't give a damn about people who look like me at that school."

And:

"When I was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania early decision people were very quick to write it off as affirmative action—not because I was co-editor in chief of the newspaper, a prefect, a member of Pathways, had excellent grades, took several advanced classes and had two languages, and had a damn good personal statement. So funny that no one questioned the legitimacy of the white male who got accepted early as well."

While we cannot change what has happened, we can learn from what has happened and act upon what we know. I have apologized on behalf of St. Mark's for the painful and traumatic experiences described. St. Mark's can and must make the necessary changes to become a school where every student feels thoroughly welcomed and accepted and where every student experiences St. Mark's as equitable in every way. That St. Mark's will be an antiracist St. Mark's.

I am confident that I am describing the school that everyone associated with St. Mark's wants it to be. To that end, building on the excellent observations presented in the Pathways petition, we will incorporate antiracism content more fully into the St. Mark's curriculum; we will incorporate antiracism practice more fully into all elements of our educational program outside the classroom; we will develop sophisticated required annual professional development for faculty and staff; and we will increase the health and counseling support for members of underrepresented populations.

While I know that the amount of work required for St. Mark's to become a model antiracist school is substantial, I am heartened by the fact that the work builds on strong existing foundations. I am thinking, in particular, of the actions and philosophical orientation of our Community and Equity Program and our Global Citizenship Program, and of the way we seek to live out our Episcopal principles.

Two books I read recently have sharpened my own thinking about what St. Mark's must do to become a truly antiracist school: How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi 1., and Holy Envy by Barbara Brown Taylor. 2. I believe they offer insights relevant to all of us and so I would like to share some of them and link these insights back to existing foundations at our School that our work will build upon.

The way Kendi describes antiracism is just the right framework for our School, in my view. To be an antiracist, according to Kendi, you must first develop a mindset, you must then commit yourself to action, and you must constantly check your own thoughts and actions, ask yourself if you are living up to these standards.

Here are quotes from Kendi's book that articulate the points that I will reflect upon in order:

"To be antiracist is to view national and transnational ethnic groups as equal in all their differences." 3.

"To be antiracist is to view the inequities between all racialized ethnic groups as a problem of policy." 4.

"Being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination." 5.

To be antiracist is to view national and transnational ethnic groups as equal in all their differences.

Viewing all people as equal: on its face this statement might seem so self-evident as to be banal and not useful. However, ample psychological evidence indicates that our brains are hard-wired to see difference and to make hierarchical judgments based on the difference we perceive. So, to view people different from us as equal actually requires becoming sufficiently self-aware to recognize a natural, often unconscious tendency to bias about difference and then actively work to get beyond that mindset and view everyone as, again in Kendi's words, equal in all their differences. Kendi, in his book (which I commend to you) describes his own journey toward meeting this standard himself as he views others from different cultures. He also describes how easy it is to fall short of this standard and how we need to be understanding of ourselves when we fall short of this standard, as long as we see—in ourselves and in another—a genuine effort to view everyone as equal.

How do you build a mindset of viewing national and transnational ethnic groups as equal in all their differences? How do you ensure that you view people from different cultures and backgrounds here at St. Mark's and outside St. Mark's as equal, so that, to offer another Kendi quote, "when we see cultural difference, we are seeing cultural difference—nothing more, nothing less?" 6.

The answer to those questions that makes the most sense to me is: be curious, seek to understand how the world looks from the perspective of someone different from yourself, employ empathy. We create many ways at St. Mark's for you to engage in dialogue with people different from yourself to help all of us develop that mindset of viewing others as equal, a mindset that is less natural than it appears. I am thinking of structured conversations in the houses, in Pathways meetings between affinity groups, and I am thinking of courses like Global Seminar and Social Justice, of Community and Equity programs and of Global Citizenship programs. The testimonials from Black at St. Mark's indicates that these existing structures need to do their work better, and I know St. Mark's is committed to that improvement.

To be antiracist is to view the inequities between all racialized ethnic groups as a problem of policy.

Inequity is unequal treatment. If one racial or ethnic group is favored over another racial or ethnic group, then you have inequity. Kendi's premise here, which I think is very helpful, is that inequity results from policies and that for equity to exist policies need to exist to dismantle inequity and to build and maintain equity. He states, "racial inequity is a problem of bad policy, not bad people." 7.

The first place you need to look for bad policies is close to home, in this case, here at St. Mark's. As one alum wrote on the Black at St. Mark's Instagram feed,

"St. Mark's is a microcosm of America, so I brushed off lots of events in the moment. But, in retrospect, problems within the Black experience at SM run the gamut from small, interpersonal issues to macro, school-wide policies and protocols."

We need to have the courage to examine our own school for racist policies, which typically develop without recognition of their impact. When any of us see racist policies, we need to undo them, and we need to replace them with antiracist policies.

In addition, as part of your St. Mark's education, as you learn about the larger world beyond our campus, you need to learn about bad policies, their origin and their impact. One focus of the St. Mark's curriculum, now and, more fully in the future, is to provide you with this evidence and to help you develop the habit of mind to constantly seek to understand the origins of this evidence and what needs to take place to address racist policies.

An antiracist, again building on Kendi's argument, recognizes that policies have existed in the United States for hundreds of years that have created inequity. These policies include laws and include practices in organizations which laws do not prevent. These policies have resulted, as stated in a recent New Yorker article, for generations of blacks in "unequal treatment, unequal opportunity and structural barriers like job discrimination and poor schools." 8. The commonly used phrase to describe this reality is systemic racism.

The New Yorker article I just quoted, published on July 30 of this year, also reports that, "Blacks have been infected with COVID-19 at three times the rate of whites, and their death rate is twice that of whites. (The same is true for Hispanics.)" So, those are facts, and they are indisputable evidence of inequity, and they result from policies. How this reality came to be is incredibly complicated to understand. How this reality can be changed is also incredibly complicated to understand.

During your time at St. Mark's, among the topics you will study will be course material that helps you develop an understanding of how this reality came to be. You will also be inspired, I am confident, to be a lifelong learner and seek, during your years after St. Mark's, to understand how inequitable realities came to be and what needs to take place for equity, whether where you live, where you work, or in the larger world. In addition to course material and a habit of mind, during your time at St. Mark's, you will develop the analytic skills to become ever better at understanding the sources of inequitable policies and the steps needed to replace them with equitable policies.

Seeking to understand inequity and its sources and seeking to undo inequitable policies and build equitable policies is to be an antiracist. That is what Kendi says eloquently throughout his book. To link Kendi's antiracism definition to a St. Mark's phrase, working against inequity, whenever and wherever you see it, will be leading a life of consequence.

Being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.

One of the many reasons I like Kendi's book is because he describes his own struggles to overcome his racism, a lifelong challenge because of the natural tendency to make value judgments about people different from ourselves. Kendi notes that slipping into a racist mindset or being inattentive to inequity and being unwilling to combat it, are very easy to do. Indeed, maintaining an antiracist commitment requires constantly checking yourself.

Developing the self-awareness skills essential to being an antiracist comes in part from being willing to listen with an open-mind and an open-heart to those who think differently from you, politically, culturally, and in many other ways. Developing a self-critical mindset is a lot easier if your thinking is challenged by others, as you listen and then reflect upon and respond to what you hear. That listening, reflection, and conversation is prioritized at St. Mark's because of our affiliation with the Episcopal Church. As an Episcopal School, our Head Chaplain Barbara Talcott frequently notes, we place a high value on honest and respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference.

We create many opportunities at St. Mark's for this sort of dialogue, both inside and outside the classroom. To play your part in helping St. Mark's to become a truly antiracist school, I hope you will engage in these opportunities.
A quote from Barbara Brown Taylor, a longtime comparative religion teacher at a college in Georgia, affirms the benefit of listening and engaging in respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference:

"There was no longer one right way to say a true thing. There were many ways to say it."

God created the conditions for multiple interpretations of everything that required speech to describe. There was no longer one right way to say a true thing. There were many ways to say it. Torah. Veda. Dharma. Gospel. Qur'an. Even when those words pointed to different things, you could see how much they meant to the people who said them. 9.
As a Christian, Taylor tells us in Holy Envy, she began her teaching career assuming, based on her upbringing, that Christianity was superior to other religions. As she exposed herself and her students to different religions, she grew to develop a perception of equality of religion, with cultural differences just that: differences, nothing more and nothing less. Taylor describes in vivid detail how she listened and came to understand, from members of different faiths, that different religions say a true thing in compelling ways, ways that are just different from how she was raised to say a true thing, like the Golden Rule: treat others as you wish you would be treated.

Taylor also came to appreciate the unique joys others experience in the rituals and insights of their faith traditions, hence the title of her book, Holy Envy. While Taylor writes from the perspective of a person of faith, I hope that her insight resonates with equal power to many of you who are not members of a religion or faith tradition, are agnostic or atheist.

If there is no one right way to say a true thing, no one right way to explain a religious worldview or a worldview not connected to religion, then it is incumbent on all of us to seek to understand how a person different from ourselves makes sense of the world, and to appreciate that difference as just that—difference, a way of seeing the world that is just as valid as our own. To approach others with that mindset is the beginning of being an antiracist. To seek to understand the sources of inequity that arise from the opposite mindset, and then work against that inequity is the next step in being an antiracist. And to constantly check one's own tendency to fall into the mindset of viewing others as less equal, is the third step in being an antiracist.

If St. Mark's is to be the antiracist school which I am confident we all want it to be, and which the Black at St. Mark's testimonials demonstrate that it is not yet, we all need to commit—and work within—these three principles. I was very heartened during a faculty staff meeting last summer and during faculty sessions last week, and student sessions this week, to hear members of our community commit to taking the steps necessary for St. Mark's to become an antiracist school.

We are leaning into the work of everyone within our community feeling at ease with the persistent self-awareness and self-criticism required to become antiracist critical thinkers. We are committing to seek—for all students--transformative learning experiences through self-examination habits of mind. Antiracist habits of mind are necessary to lead lives of consequence. Becoming an antiracist school will enhance our faculty and staff's ability to meet every student where they are and continue to inspire them to learn how to learn to lead purposefully, to lead in ways that will make all of us proud during these uncertain and challenging times.

I ask that every St. Mark's student, whether you are beginning your time at St. Mark's or are in your last year, or are in between, commit to taking the steps to ensure that every St. Mark's student—you and every one of your peers—experiences St. Mark's as a school where you have been both admitted and also fully accepted.
  1. Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, New York: One World, 2019
  2. Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, New York: Harper One, 2019
  3. P. 64
  4. P. 64
  5. P. 23
  6. P. 91
  7. 231
  8. Steven Greenhouse, "The Coronavirus Pandemic Has Intensified Systemic Economic Racism Against Black Americans," The New Yorker, July 30, 2020
  9. P. 182

To view a recording of the 2020 Convocation ceremony, select this link.