Seattle schools, public and private, have been roiled by racial issues from time to time, ranging from attacks on "white privilege" to controversies over racial sensitivity. Among them is Lakeside, the Seattle premier private prep school and famed as Bill Gates' alma mater (and major recipient of Gates' largesse: the Gates Foundation gave another $30 million to the school this September). The exclusive private school has worked hard to be more inclusive with its curriculum and student body. Lakeside now has aggressively recruited a sizable minority student population (43 percent).
Even so it has also struggled with accusations that its academic culture is too "white" and institutionally hostile to people of color. On the flipside, it has been criticized for being too politically correct, as when it cancelled a lecture by controversial conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza in 2006 after faculty objections.
The following letter was forwarded to me by a member of the Lakeside community. It is from Than Healy, Upper School Director and Assistant Head of School, and sent to Lakeside parents. The letter addresses an incident on Dec. 10 and offers a window on how the school is attempting to deal with racially charges subjects like language. In this case, it was the use of the "n" word in a poem read by African-American guest speaker, poet, and folklorist Mona Lisa Saloy that stirred things up.
Dear Upper School Parents and Guardians,
I want to keep you up to date on an emerging event that no doubt had an impact on many upper school students yesterday. We had invited a speaker, Professor Mona Lisa Saloy, to join us in some classes and to do an assembly presentation. An associate professor at the historically black Dillard University in Louisiana, Professor Saloy is a poet and folklorist whose work has been dramatically affected by Hurricane Katrina. She was recommended by an interested student, and her visit was sponsored by the Affinity groups, Dr. Lindsay Aegerter’s Postcolonial and Diaspora Literature and African American Literature classes, and the Assembly committee. Several members of the English department were already familiar with her award-winning poetry, and, as is our practice, we researched much of Professor Saloy’s work, discussed the topic of her visit (how her poetry and scholarship as a folklorist capture Pre- and Post-Katrina New Orleans) and informed her of who we are and what we were hoping she might add. Further, Dr. Aegerter had regular correspondence with Professor Saloy to discuss how she would use the class time in both of her senior electives, and indeed those classes went according to plan.
After a significant discussion of aspects of New Orleans life in her assembly presentation, Professor Saloy chose to finish her talk by reading some of her poetry. The very last poem she chose to read employed the “n-word” many times in a litany of expressions. We were not in any way aware that Professor Saloy would choose to read this particular poem in this particular context, and we remain perplexed as to why she might have chosen the poem for a high school setting. We suspect that she did so because she intended to be provocative, but her decision to do so, especially without first providing any educational context for the poem or leaving sufficient time after the reading for a discussion with the entire student body, was disappointing. She did spend considerable time after assembly discussing the poem in a salon held in the library, but only a small group of students was able to attend this discussion. It is indeed unfortunate that we must now react as a school rather than being able to work proactively with students on a topic and a word that is divisive and hurtful for many, a word that is antithetical to Lakeside’s spirit of safety and inclusion to all members of the school community. Although there may be a rich artistic and academic history around the deconstruction and recuperation of this racist term, Professor Saloy did not provide that context, leaving the school and students with many unanswered questions.
As you might expect, students had a wide variety of reactions to the poem. Some were amused, others appalled, many were hurt, some were stimulated and appreciative and others report being unaffected. We will be working in advisory groups to discuss this assembly and this poem, and we will also be offering a voluntary discussion opportunity for students and adults wishing to explore this topic further. We can also offer helpful articles for any interested students and parents.
We wanted to keep you apprised and informed of yesterday’s events in case your student comes home with questions or wants to discuss it further as a family. If you have further questions or if there are things that we can help with, please feel free to contact me at your convenience.
Disclosure note: Mossback is himself a Lakeside alum.
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