Violent Silence: A Valley Institution

A look into white suburbia’s complicity in systemic prejudice through its victims’ eyes

It’s 2008, and a resident of Old Tappan, New Jersey—an adult white male, soon to be a key member of our district’s Board of Education — paints his skin black, dons an Afro, and calls it a funny Halloween costume in the very same year America elects its first black president. There’s some debate as to who he meant to dress up as — some say Bill Cosby, others say Richard Pryor — but, in truth, it makes no difference to him. Because in a majority-white suburb purposefully built to exclude people of color, ‘Black Man’ will get him just as many laughs at the Halloween party. He later posts the pictures on Facebook with pride and calls it a night.

He wore blackface and no one spoke up.

Fast-forward twelve years, and in the midst of a global pandemic, an emergency board meeting is held on July 1st, 2020 to discuss pictures that have resurfaced from that Halloween party. A petition calling for the guilty board member’s resignation has garnered thousands of signatures, and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, student activists like myself refuse to accept his carefully-crafted apology rife with excuses and empty promises. In an official statement to NorthJersey.com, he claims that, even at age 18, after years of history classes and MLK days, he was too young to know better — but not too young to vote, drive, or legally be tried as an adult in court.

Though Board meetings are usually open to the public, they’re lucky to attract five or six people. This meeting has over three hundred spectators.

Dozens of past and current students come to the mic and bravely reopen the wounds of race-based trauma inflicted on us within the halls of our high schools. It’s easy for students to write off racism when we are told it’s just one or two ‘bad eggs,’ but when we realize that the people running our school — the people approving our curriculum, writing our school policy, deciding the outcome of our bullying cases — could be blatantly racist, we’re horrified. Feelings of hurt, frustration, and betrayal bubble into tears and occasional curse words, and though we know that it is best to maintain decorum at a Board meeting, we’re certain the Board will understand that our impropriety comes not from a place of disrespect but of profound pain.

Yet throughout the meeting, certain attendees digress from the topic at hand to discredit valid student opinions as ‘overly-emotional’ and ‘rude.’ Rather than address the concerns students have brought up about white-washed curriculum, biased teachers, and insufficient follow-through on in-school hate crimes, Board member Kathleen Fable later says to the Pascack Press that student activists were “attacking,” “vulgar,” and followers of a “disgraceful mob mentality.”

Today, the board member guilty of blackface has long since resigned, and many of the remaining Board members now work alongside student activists on various racial justice committees and taskforces. Real progress is finally being made towards reforms that should have been in place a long time ago, begging one key question: Why only now?

Though few in number, there have been students of color in our district for years, and those brave enough to muscle through our state’s flawed reporting process for bullying have established a recognizable pattern of discrimination. Even if the signs weren’t clear, our district should have taken measures to protect students of color decades ago on the grounds of one undeniable fact: the majority of our student body is white. Decades of redlining have made it impossible for Northern Valley students to be exposed to diverse identities until they leave for college, so for eighteen years, they grow up distanced from the struggles of people of color. When you combine this lack of exposure with our schools’ failure to address micro-aggressions and modern day racism, you create a toxic fog of ignorance that blurs the line between right and wrong, choking students of color into quiet resignation. And once racism is on the table, all other forms of prejudice follow suit.

Non-black boys pepper the n-word into their conversations with purpose, like semi-colons separating one racist joke from the next. Non-black girls relish in the assumed impunity of screaming the n-word as “just part of a song.”

Enthusiasts of so-called ‘dark humor’ make ‘jokes’ about Hitler and gas chambers to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

‘Gay’ is used as an insult in any context, and calling your friend a homophobic slur is so casual that it’s considered a term of endearment. Asking someone to use your correct pronouns is considered an inconvenience, a nuisance.

Rumors about girls’ sex lives are whispered in class just as often as test answers, normalizing slut-shaming to the point that survivors of sexual harassment are laughed at.

In a community that is 30% Asian, non-Asian classmates mockingly pull at their eyes, butcher traditional Asian names, consider ‘Korean’ a blanket statement for all Asians, and hold the entire race personally responsible for the current pandemic.

Emails sent in 2013 by a current board member show that they used their position of power to criticize parents that could not speak English, claiming that, in a melting-pot country built on the backs of immigrants, English is the only language you should dare speak.

My own classmates call me a terrorist to my face; laugh along to memes clowning sacred Arabic phrases; point to me and giggle while watching ISIS beheadings on Youtube; and ask me to justify my choice to wear a hijab at least monthly.

And no one speaks up.

Why? I’ve narrowed it down to five reasons.

1. Speaking out jeopardizes social capital.

In a recent viral video, English motivational speaker Paul Scanlon explains that you don’t have to tell a racist joke or laugh at one to uphold systems of oppression. Just the act of sitting quietly in the face of racism fosters a sense of solidarity between bystanders and oppressors, eliminating the social consequences that might have made someone think twice about telling a joke at the expense of another race. And in a high school environment, where teenagers still working through their insecurities cling to social capital, the threat of losing your friend because you called them out is terrifying.

But no matter how complicated your situation, your silence is a key pillar upholding systemic racism. Prioritizing a couple years of popularity over the lives of people of color is wrong in any context.

“If your voice held no power, they wouldn’t try to silence you.” Graphic by @wereleavingearly on IG.

2. Speaking out seems less respectable in comparison to ‘neutrality.’

The worst part of my high school experience was not the blatant Islamophobia I endured, the bigots I watched be left off the hook due to a ‘lack of evidence,’ or even the resulting social anxiety I battled alone for years.

The worst part was when I would confide in my closest friends about racist classmates, and rather than take a strong stance against racism, they’d ask to remain ‘neutral’ in the situation. At the time, neutrality was posed to me as a respectable position, a win-win situation where no one was inconvenienced and the only harm done was to my own ego — something I was expected to ‘get over.’ I began to prioritize my white friends’ personal comfort over my moral compass and make excuses for their apathy.

She has confrontation anxiety.

I’m being too demanding.

She’s pretty’s woke as it is.

It’s not like she’s the one who called me a terrorist.

But in the words of author Ibram X. Kendi, “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle…One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’

The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”

3. Speaking out is seen as intrusive and is left to people of color.

Another excuse made by silent white bystanders is that it’s not their place to speak on matters of race. They assume that the people of color involved will handle the situation as they see fit, and when those POC, too, remain silent, bystanders let themselves off the hook for keeping quiet — as if they had made the right decision all along. Slowly, silence becomes the default reaction for every instance of racism they encounter.

What this mindset neglects to take into account is that, in environments where POC are vastly outnumbered, previous race-based trauma and years of exclusion lead many students of color to keep quiet. And in places like our high schools, where being racist is as constant and casual as talking about the weather, speaking up against every act of racism they endure can become very exhausting for POC.

We’re forced to pick our battles — so unless we explicitly ask you to not get involved, please speak up. Racism was not created by people of color. It is not their obligation alone to fix it.

When white suburbia speaks up, change happens. One of my favorite images from Valley Speaks Out’s Juneteenth Celebration, captured by Tim Bright (@notsoh on IG).

4. Speaking out doesn’t have guaranteed positive impact in a racist system.

Recently, I had the privilege of hearing from several underclassmen about their personal experiences with discrimination at NVOT. From victims of transphobia to xenophobia, dozens of sophomores and juniors were brave enough to deliver statements in support of anti-prejudice policy reforms that several classmates and I presented at a Board meeting. But for every underclassman we convinced to speak, another refused to do in fear of retaliation by the school administration.

Though these fears seem irrational when administrators continue to make clear their “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” our schools had established a precedent for responding to student activism poorly. When students sought to stage a walk-out in solidarity with victims of gun violence, a moment of silence was instead conveniently scheduled into the school day. When students called out their racist peers on social media, the school sent out an email condemning ‘cancel culture’ rather than racism. Many students received personal phone calls from members of the administration — phone calls that stressed out parents and student alike — expressing disappointment in their “accusatory” activism and urging them to go through the official reporting process instead.

From a nervous high school student’s perspective, authority figures in the school have the capacity to make their life very difficult. And if the school had gone this long without taking definitive action to address prejudice, where’s the guarantee that taking the risk to speak up now will have any impact? There is no guarantee; however, the district is thankfully now taking clear-cut steps to address students’ racial concerns, a critical step towards rebuilding trust between the student body and administrators.

5. Speaking out forces you to confront your own biases.

The final reason my community stays silent on issues of prejudice is because, for many, it would be hypocritical for them to do so. When I first began to call out my family members for the fatphobic jokes they continually made, their first defense was, “You used to laugh at them, too.” And they weren’t wrong — I had spent my entire childhood thinking ‘fatty’ was an acceptable insult, completely ignorant to a.) the fact that all body types are beautiful and b.) the toll that very comment has taken on people’s mental health and susceptibility to eating disorders.

Calling out racism in our community means acknowledging that we, too, deserve to be called out. It means stopping ourselves from making jokes at others’ expenses in the future, and holding ourselves accountable when we let racism slide. Anti-racism is not easy work — it demands constant, merciless evaluation of one’s principles, motives, and goals — and I have endless respect for those who admit to past prejudices, sans excuses, and actively try to become a better ally.

As uncomfortable as it is to speak up, the silence of the good directly supports the violence of the bad by placing a protective taboo over the latter — a haze that reduces this is wrong to this is…complicated. If you think you can carry the burden of being complicit in systemic prejudice, then by all means, stay silent the next time you hear a racist or sexist or queerphobic joke; but please understand that doing so makes you inherently prejudiced.

My editor and I at a protest organized by Ainsworth Minott in Englewood. There’s another one this Friday at 6 pm — I’d love to see you there!

Special thanks to my close friend & incredible journalist Nia Watson for editing, my older brother Maaz & Awais for some much-needed advice, and student activists throughout New Jersey — especially my Valley Speaks Out teammates — for inspiring me every day.

Anthropology student at Washington University in St. Louis. Aspiring medical epidemiologist at the CDC.

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