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International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Why Neutral Isn’t Good Enough: WIS’ Inadequate Response to Derek Chauvin Trial

This Black Lives Matter sign hangs on the Tregaron Conservancy front gate (Mila Martin/International Dateline).

Ping. My phone lights up with an email notification, subject line “WIS: Head’s Update, The Derek Chauvin Trial.” It’s from Head of School Suzanna Jemsby. 

I open the email, scanning through the contents. A few sentences stick out and I pause, then go back to the top, reading more thoroughly this time. One thought races through my head: “That’s it?” 

WIS’ response to the Derek Chauvin trial is inadequate, and the WIS community, specifically students who’ve faced racism at school, deserve better. 

It is important to note that I am white, therefore I don’t have personal experiences of racism or oppression that factor into my commentary on WIS’ response. I do have white privilege, which impedes my ability to fully understand people of colors’ experiences, and allows me to feel untouched by issues of racism. 

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Almost a year prior to Jemsby’s email, George Floyd, a Black man accused of using a counterfeit twenty dollar bill in Minneapolis, was murdered at the hands of then-Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020. 

Jemsby sent out a school-wide email six days after Floyd’s death acknowledging the event and outlining her hopes for the future. “I hope, as I am sure you do, that these tragedies will ultimately prove instructive, rather than destructive, and that we can move forward as a society that recognises and is willing to work toward a world where no individual is made to feel ‘less than’ because of identity or beliefs,” she wrote. 

The verdict of Derek Chauvin’s trial, which began on March 29, 2021 and concluded on April 19, did just that by allowing for a step towards justice for George Floyd. Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. 

Jemsby plainly said to me in a later interview that she believes that justice was served. “I believe the guilty verdict to be the right one,” she said.

And yet, WIS, as an institution, did not acknowledge the impact of this verdict in the fight against police brutality and systemic racism. “It is often inappropriate for the school to advocate for one position or another,” Jemsby wrote in the schoolwide email, before the verdict was announced.  

While the email said that WIS would offer support to the community in response to the trial’s verdict, it specifically said that the school would not give a stance. The email provided resources for conversations within families at the bottom, and left it at that.

Jemsby explained to me that WIS’ neutral stance does not reflect its moral compass. “I think hopefully that’s implicit in a lot of this, that WIS believes in [the] decency of human beings,” Jemsby said. 

But why should it be implicit? Explicit statements become necessary when students are facing racism inside and outside of the community. 

The Instagram account Black@WIS sheds light on racist experiences at WIS. The account, which started after the rise in Black Lives Matter protests in May and June 2020, shared anonymous statements from students and alumni that discuss racism they’ve faced at WIS and problems with the school’s racial education. 

One post from a current student in 2020 highlights the treatment of their hair. “Every time I wore my natural hair, I turned into some sort of petting zoo. Friends, classmates, and even teachers would touch my hair repeatedly, often out of nowhere… this made me hate my natural hair which is why I straightened it constantly to avoid being gawked at in the classroom,” the post said. 

Another post from a WIS alumna defines what being Black at WIS means. “In my experience, being Black at WIS means knowing your white and POC classmates have a social media group where they say n****r and n****r-lover ,” the post said. 

It’s experiences like these that make implicitness a luxury that WIS cannot afford in taking steps towards building an anti-racist community.

Despite the lack of an explicit statement, Jemsby said that WIS is taking many steps to demonstrate its anti-racism and diversity goals.

After posts started emerging on the Black@WIS instagram, Jemsby required all faculty to read through the posts and reflect on each one. She explained that a faculty member said that they saw themselves in one of the posts and was working to do better. 

In addition, WIS created a new administrative position, the International-mindedness, Diversity and Inclusion (IDI) Director in February, 2021. Previous Director of Co-Curricular Programs, Lisa McNeill, assumed the position. 

The work that WIS is doing shows the school’s commitment to creating racial equality and diversity, but its school-wide communications do not reflect these steps. In light of this disconnect, WIS’ response to the Derek Chauvin trial is disappointing. The past backlash that WIS has received from students and alumni over racist experiences should lend it to make a more thought out statement that demonstrates its anti-racism. Instead, the school opted to take a neutral stance. 

The irony of this neutral stance is that WIS has a sizable Black Lives Matter (BLM) banner, put up by students, on the Tregaron Conservancy’s front gate.

Two months later:

Ping. My phone lights up with an email notification, subject line: “WIS: IDI Work and the Mara Wilson Fund.” It’s from Head of School Suzanna Jemsby. 

The email outlines a fund named after art teacher Mara Wilson, who passed away in January 2020. Wilson was committed to diversity and worked to create a more equitable Washington, D.C through teaching in D.C. Public and Charters Schools, and spear-heading minimester activities that took students to other wards of the city. 

The Mara Wilson fund aims to “support initiatives at the School that increase awareness about racial inequities,” according to Jemsby’s email. The fund currently sits at $100,000 and came from a number of 2020 parents, and a redistributed portion of the WIS budget. 

While the fund is striving to change underlying issues of racism at WIS, it was founded by the Class of 2020. Students are the ones taking action, not the administration.

Furthermore, the aforementioned BLM sign was erected by students. Students are at the root of these demonstrations of anti-racism. It’s the administration’s turn. 

By Abigail Bown

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