Last updated on February 16, 2023
“There’s no way they’re making us write slurs for everyone to see!” said a student of Color during affinity spaces on Day of Learning. On October 26th the Northwest School had its first Day of Learning (DOL) of the 2022-23 school year. DOL is a day full of workshops that teach students and faculty the awareness of positionality in society. Each student went to a morning workshop and a workshop in the afternoon. The day also included lunch and a Grade Level Meeting in between. Ari C. ’24 wrote a wonderful article recapping the day and the different activities which you can read on our website.
Toward the end of the school day everyone went to the affinity space they identified with most, and each affinity space was given a task. This task included a plain white face mask and markers, and the instructions given to the affinity space faculty leaders were to “ask students to divide the mask in half. Using markers, members should first decorate one half with stereotypes and negative remarks they have heard associated with their identity. The other half should have affirmations and positive remarks associated with their identity.” The students were then informed that the school “will find a place to display them in the building; please ask students to include their name on the front of the mask.”
There were many conflicting feelings regarding this particular activity because of its controversial content. So, let’s unpack the issues regarding this assignment and how it was problematic.
Starting off with the first part of the instruction: “decorate” one half of the mask with denigrating “stereotypes and negative remarks” students receive about their identity. The first thing I want to address is the significance of the word “decorate.” This word makes this whole activity seem so light-hearted as if we were putting sprinkles on a cupcake. Instead of using the word “decorate,” the instructions for this activity should’ve said something like “draw and write.” This isn’t a simple easy art project. They were asking us to display traumatic, harmful words and experiences on a mask, all to be viewed by the whole school, so “decorate” isn’t the most considerate word choice.
Moving on to the most problematic part of these instructions, the guidelines for designing one of these masks: “decorate one half with stereotypes and negative remarks.” Students, parents, teachers, and visitors of NWS who have faced racial/religious traumas are asked to relive, read, and write/draw their experiences with racism and derogatory language said of their identity(s).
Having seen this project, many BIPOC, religious peoples, and allies are wondering, who thought it was okay. Instead of pointing fingers, let me propose an idea that may give some reason as to why this project was made. At Northwest, the population of white or white mixed-race students is well over 50% of the school, meaning there are bound to be multiple accounts of ignorant stereotypes. Having students acknowledge their personal encounters with stereotypes and racism can teach white people from non-marginalized groups about the different harmful language used against marginalized communities. There have been many works of art that are similar to this project like Korean-Swedish artist, Lisa Woo-Rim Sjöblom’s “I am not a virus” single-panel comics. Many of her comics contained an East Asian woman surrounded by anti-Asian words and phrases. There is power in her works, and it’s clear that these harmful words and phrases intentionally showed the rise of racism toward East Asian communities at the beginning of Covid-19. There was structure and reason behind why she decided to use harm-intended language to get across her points. This artist had what Northwest was lacking during this project: intention and structure.
The making of this project was rushed. There wasn’t much clarity on the reason for this project and no discussion to prepare students for this intense task. This is a learning moment for everyone who has feelings or thoughts on this controversial art project. This experience teaches us what is and is not an effective and acceptable way to talk about stereotypes and microaggressions. In future DOLs, affinity space assignments must be handled with care. It must be a conscious and culturally sensitive project that has intention and structure. There needs to be enough time made for students and teachers to have conversations and clarity on the intentions of the activity. There should be an engaging assignment that allows everyone to feel comfortable and safe. Northwest should acknowledge this harm and show that the school will actively change the way they handle and create heavy and sensitive projects by carefully constructing activities for affinity groups with input from each affinity space. As a school, accountability should be taken and used to help learn and grow from this experience.