Acknowledge need for ‘significant change’

To the editor,

I have read the reported comments by Margaret Brownlee, vice chair, Human Rights Commission, regarding racism on the South Portland School Board. I have also read the response by board chairperson Matthews, saying the board was shocked and saddened. “The allegation that the school board is racist is categorically false,” his letter states. “The South Portland School Board, and each of the members … are fully committed to the school department’s mission of maintaining a workplace and learning environment that is free from illegal discrimination and harassment.”

While Brownlee may wish she had spoken more carefully, Matthews’ reply is part of the problem. “Being fully committed … free from illegal discrimination and harassment” is irrelevant to whether racism exists. Unless and until we acknowledge that we are all racist and that racism does exist in our schools, our community and on all our boards/commissions, we will make no gains. Matthews is not inside the heads of board members and cannot speak for each person and likely unaware of his own implicit biases.

As a mother of a man with brown skin, I witnessed racism that stunned me, but the most dangerous are those of implicit bias – ones we are not aware we hold – myself included. I listen to my own voice, watch my own actions, and work to learn and understand from those who have experienced years of racism. It is not up to me to deny their experiences.

When someone says, ‘I don’t have white privilege,’ I hear the defensiveness. White privilege is not a choice, nor is it a moral shortcoming – it just is. Those of us with white skin simply have white privilege. If you have never had someone call the police because your skin is dark, been denied a job or a place to live for that reason, or felt fear when you see a police officer near you (who may mean no harm), then you have white privilege.

This is a complex issue. A friend said, in response to a crime, “Isn’t it mostly black people who live in that neighborhood?” This friend is kind and generous, but I know that was a racist comment founded in implicit bias – someone unaware that the comment speaks to an underlying belief.

Let’s not make the story be how Brownlee framed her reaction. Let’s make it be about our need to be vulnerable, to acknowledge our decades of racism and our need to make real and significant change.

Rosemarie De Angelis

South Portland