Editor’s note: Jennifer De La Jara, a member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education, took time from a meeting this month to express how the community can move forward on issues of racism and sexual assault. Her remarks were edited slightly for clarity.
Obviously, there are two topics that have been top of mind as of late, centering around CMS’s anti-racism efforts and sexual misconduct allegations.
Actually, I think that they are connected in who we are as a collective people, and I’d like to take several minutes to explain. What I’d like for us all to consider as we head into this fall is this simple truth: Racism, sexism and allegations of sexual assault are real. They do happen. It’s that simple. These things are woven into our culture.
It’s a simple statement really that these things actually exist, but a statement of truth ignites, for whatever reason, instant emotion, push-back and sometimes even denial among the best of people.
What I’m asking our staff this year from the top all through administration and the various employees at individual school sites is to believe it when people tell you that they are experiencing discrimination, bigotry, sexism or even being ignored when they make claims of inappropriate advances and criminal activity.
I think if we work first from a place of acceptance, then we can lead indeed our whole community in the ways of how we respond to allegations. I’m not speaking about any particular school, but rather about all of our schools and really our community, as what shows up in our schools is really just a microcosm of what exists in our society at large.
We have seen just this past week credible allegations against the governor of New York who just resigned. And we all watched our nation five years ago collectively lift up a man to the highest office in the land who openly bragged about sexually assaulting women.
Where we start is acceptance. That is it is who we are collectively as a society and then we commit that no one will be blown off, dismissed or have their story responded to with, “Well, he probably didn’t mean it or maybe you misunderstood.”
It’s humiliating for individuals to gather the strength to share their pain, whether they be on the receiving end of racism, sexism, or verbal or physical sexual advances.
When we dismiss their courage, it demeans their very spirit. I fear this happens in our society more frequently than we’re willing to admit.
Did you know that humans are the only species that often ignore warning signs or try to explain away human behavior?
Other animals have a certain instinct that lets them know to stay away from certain animals even certain people. Animals tend to believe it when people show them who they are. Humans, on the other hand, often play mental gymnastics in their heads to justify what must have happened.
“Surely, she didn’t mean that, but he’s so nice, but he has black friends or he has a sister who is gay, so surely he didn’t really mean fill-in-the-blank.”
Yes, it’s quite possible he did mean fill-in-the-blank.
What I’m asking us all to do is when you hear someone say something that makes you uncomfortable, whether it’s a fellow student, teacher or administrator, say something. As a staff member, when a student or colleague shares with you their concern, believe them. Sure, you can get more information, but start from a place of believing that this is real. People are tired of hearing excuses that so-and-so is just such a good person otherwise.
This is not about being good or bad. In fact, I’m completely uninterested in wholly naming people on that binary. There are not good people and bad people. We all have good moments and good behavior. And we as humans have bad moments and bad behavior.
When we simply look to dismiss bad behavior against a resume of what constitutes a good person, we overlook the reality of what may have just transpired.
We can no longer dismiss allegations of racial insensitivity and incompetency or sexism and sexual allegations with, “But she’s just a good person, he goes to church, they donate to the XYZ charity” and let those individual good behaviors cloud our judgment that this person may also be capable of committing bad behaviors or using hateful rhetoric.
I find that we do this all too often in our society. We seek to name people as simply good or bad and in doing so, we systematically shut down nuance, context and sometimes reality.
I’ll give a personal example to bring this point home.
It’s related to a person in my family who many would refer to in memoriam as a good person. He certainly was good to me. I have no doubt. He was kind, loving and peaceful to me.
But I also know that in his youth, he struggled with alcohol, exhibited violent behaviors toward other family members, used the n-word regularly and used to take his roosters up into the mountains for illegal cockfighting competitions where they mutilated animals for fun. Maybe people still do that. I don’t know.
The question is do these behaviors show that he was simply a good person? What if I then told you that he went to church and was the kind of neighbor who would mow your lawn for you and a person who would stop to help stranded motorists? Is he now back on the good side? Who gets to define good?
What I’m trying to say is that all humans are complex, myself included, and that’s how I want us to grow culturally in this year. By starting to accept this truth and that we can become sophisticated enough as an organization to be able to recognize the completeness of humanity and then respond accordingly so that when someone does come to us as adults and says that someone used a derogatory term or committed an act of sexual violence, we don’t dismiss them and think, “But so-and-is such a good person. That couldn’t possibly be.”
But rather we embrace the possibility knowing that we all function on a spectrum of good behavior, good rhetoric and bad behavior, bad rhetoric.
That’s what I also love about the anti-racism work that we were doing at CMS and why I’m mentioning it here alongside sexism and sexual assault allegations.
Anti-racism doesn’t seek to name someone as a completely racist or anti-racist person. But rather it looks to see what type of policies and rhetoric individuals support if those are racist or anti-racist because those policies and rhetoric either seek to produce more equality and accord or the policies and rhetoric support more inequality and discord.
We all have an opportunity to make different decisions at different times and to move along that continuum.
Let’s learn from our mistakes and seek to be an organization that is unafraid to name them and rectify them.
Racism, sexism and allegations of sexual assault are real. Let’s accept that first so that we can respond accordingly as an organization as we begin the 2021-22 school year.
Jennifer De La Jara is serving her first term as an at-large member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.