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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Black@WIS Account Sheds Light On Racism And Prejudice At WIS

Black Lives Matter by køpper is marked with CC PDM 1.0
“Black Lives Matter” by køpper is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Racially insensitive and offensive comments. The frequent use of racial slurs in both public and private contexts. Repeated incidents of blackface during the celebration of a Dutch holiday. The association of WIS students with neo-nazism. 

These examples represent just a few of the incidents described in the anonymous testimonies of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) WIS students and alumni on the Black at WIS Instagram account. Stretching back at least a decade of WIS’ history, many of these testimonies describe events that are unfamiliar to the newer members of the WIS community.

For Suzanna Jemsby, Head of School, many of the events described in the account’s posts predate her arrival to the school. However, she was aware of the broader movement of anonymous Instagram accounts being created to shed light upon issues of racism and ignorance at other private schools and predominantly white institutions (PWIs) in the region. “I was waiting with bated breath to see when the WIS one would start,” Jemsby said.

At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the administration organized a faculty session oriented around the account. “We had the faculty and staff look at every single post and respond,” Jemsby said.

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Nearly a year ago, these same issues of racial bigotry and injustice at WIS embroiled the community in heavy controversy following the publication of a Washington Post column. The article criticized the school’s treatment of a primary school parent, who had alleged that racism was prevalent throughout the institution. The article was written following a controversy in the primary school around the graffitiing of a school bathroom with the phrase, “n-word”. 

The article provoked a major controversy within the WIS community, as shown by the nearly 65 comments on the online version of the article. Some of the comments spoke of deeper issues of racism and a lack of diversity at WIS while many others criticized the lack of different perspectives and the framing of the school as being unwilling to effectively respond to racism on campus. “This column is so thinly-sourced and uninformed, it reads more like the work of a distracted third grader than an education columnist,” one commenter wrote.

This controversy is mentioned in one of Black at WIS’ posts, wherein an anonymous student stated that nearly all of the faculty sought to downplay and dismiss the column’s claims. Nonetheless, the post revealed that many WIS students of color believed the column represented only a shallow description of the issues of racial intolerance and ignorance at the school. 

Senior Riley Contee, ISU co-president and co-leader of the Black Student Union (BSU) at WIS, echoed the sentiments of the post with regards to how the column’s publication was handled. “I feel like that incident, The Washington Post article, kind of got pushed to the side,” Contee said. 

Jemsby, who had only been Head of School for a year at that point, has since reflected upon WIS’ handling of the parent’s complaints, particularly in the wider context of WIS’ aims of promoting a balance between international-mindedness, diversity and inclusion (IDI). “When I think about her frustrations, we sort of failed her too,” Jemsby said. “How did her thinking become so far away from what it is we believe we said we are?”

The school has begun to implement several policies and initiatives directed towards diversity and inclusion. Among the most significant changes of policy are those made to the Community Handbook, particularly with regards to the use of racial slurs. “If a student is to use a slur [against] another student, it can lead up to expulsion from the school,” Jemsby said. 

Additionally, the school is also looking at changing its curriculum to better educate students on issues of race and bigotry. Sarah Polland, the Upper School Principal, has emphasized some of the new changes to the high school curriculum. “We had a few teachers do some summer curriculum writing around adding discussion and topics such as social justice, community engagement, things of that nature,” Polland said. 

Polland also discussed the importance of racial education, particularly in the Primary School where these topics do not receive the same level of focus and attention as they do in the Middle School and Upper School. “How are we exposing them to be non-racist? How are we exposing them to take part in civic engagement and [understand] what their responsibility is?” Polland said.

With regards to the curriculum of core classes, Jemsby explained the curriculum change in IB History, where the school adjusted its focus from the History of Europe to the History of the Americas in 2017. “I wonder if we should look at History of Africa and the Middle East,” Jemsby said. “That would be something for us to consider.”

A particular point of contention at WIS for many years has been the lack of diversity in the faculty and staff. Patrick Anders, a WIS senior and ISU co-president, highlighted the mention of this issue in one of Black at WIS’s posts. “I read a post that said someone had never had a person of color [as a] core teacher,” Anders said. “Regardless if WIS is doing that on purpose or not, that is something that should not be the case.”

In response to this criticism, the Head of School has made attempts to bring more diversity into hiring decisions. “I have heavily emphasized with those in positions to hire others that they should always have a minority candidate as a finalist,” Jemsby said. 

WIS has also recently hired a consultant to examine the school’s current policies and make changes to better foster diversity and inclusion. “He is starting out with a survey which will be distributed to all students, to faculty and staff, to parents and to board members,” Jemsby said. 

While Contee thought the administration’s hiring of the consultant was a good idea, she suggests that WIS may need a more permanent position to handle issues of racism and diversity. “They should actually hire a person dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion instead of just having someone look in from the outside,” Contee said. 

However, the ISU co-presidents pledged that they would work to help the consultant’s efforts at student outreach. “Even though this consultant is not going to be a permanent member of the WIS community, we’re going to try to have them work with the identity clubs, as well as ISU,” Anders said.

Polland stressed the importance of building trust with students of color at WIS and ensuring that incidents of racism and bigotry are handled appropriately. “What internal system could we have, along with their [Black at WIS] posts, for students to feel safe in reporting things that are going on in our community?” Polland said.

For Contee, one of the most important aspects of responding to racism at WIS is to focus on letting students share their individual perspectives on these issues. “There just need to be more conversations about diversity and racism at our school that are outside of BSU or any of the other identity clubs,” Contee said.

Anders agrees with his co-president on the importance of having school-wide discussions on racism. “In those conversations, it should not be about defending yourself,” Anders said. “It should be about listening to what the experiences of others are because that is how you will learn.” 

Despite the administration’s new initiatives, Jemsby described that WIS’ position as an international school has hampered efforts towards change. “We have people who don’t understand the domestic issues and therefore say some pretty crass things and don’t see their part in becoming better,” Jemsby said.

However, the Head of School also expressed some optimism towards WIS’ culture and its handling of racist incidents. “We have a very competent and a very diverse faculty and student body and we should be able to have a very gloves-off conversation on this topic and make headway,” Jemsby said.

For Polland, however, the lack of focus in previous years on diversity and inclusion has been made particularly evident following the release of the testimonies of the Black at WIS account. In her view, this renewed commitment to IDI on the part of the administration represents an opportunity to right some past wrongs. “I think this is something that should have been done a long time ago,” Polland said.

By Nicolas Greamo

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