Facebook post prompts race conversation

A post questioning the pervasiveness of racism has ignited heated discussion on a Wilton student’s Facebook page.

Two weeks ago, Essence Williams — a Wilton High School junior — shared a video originally posted by the Whiteness Project. In it, a white college student in Texas said she “doesn’t see racism.”

According to its website, the Whiteness Project investigates how Americans who identify as white or partially white understand and experience their race. By conducting interviews with people from “all walks of life,” the project aims to “inspire reflection” and “foster discussions.”

Essence decided to share the video in hopes of raising awareness. She believes that racism is very much alive in America, and part of the problem is people choosing not to acknowledge it because of the discomfort brought on by white privilege.

“It was not directed at a specific audience, but to all my Facebook friends. I think my message was really important, and I wanted people to be aware of my opinion while also making themselves aware of the situation,” Essence said.

Within hours, her post lit up with comments from students of all grades and backgrounds, most of them from Wilton. Some defended Essence’s perspective; others disagreed, suggesting that white privilege was a matter that “couldn’t be helped” and didn’t affect opportunities.

When she read some of the reactions that were posted, Essence felt uncomfortable. “I was shocked at the severity of some of the comments I received,” she told The Bulletin.

Despite some of the negative responses, many students and members of the community expressed their support for Essence and the message she conveyed. “The sense of community that made Wilton feel special when I first arrived hit me again,” she said. “Of course, some of the negative comments were hurtful, but I felt so supported and loved that I tried not to let those comments affect me.”

These dissenters and the reactions they shared upset many students, including senior Chandler Carter.

“When I noticed the comments, my heart sank,” Chandler told The Bulletin. “I was disappointed and disheartened by the things that were said.”

Back in April, six students — including Chandler — led an open discussion on the issue of diversity in Wilton. Since then, further conversation has taken place both inside the classroom and outside of school, Essence’s post and its commentary being just one example.  

After hearing of the post and ensuing discourse, the school administration moved quickly to involve school counselors, social workers, and faculty members.

Principal Robert O’Donnell found out about the post on May 10, when it was brought to his attention by a school counselor who had discussed the post with Essence.

“This is a priority,” O’Donnell said. “I realized right away that racial issues are certainly very sensitive, and any time you either discuss or address them, it can invoke very different reactions within different members of the school community.

“We tried to assess the extent to which something that occurs outside of the school walls in an online forum is disruptive to the educational process. My job is to find a measured response,” O’Donnell said.

A letter was sent home offering parents information about the matter, and several meetings were held with students, counselors, and administrators.

“You want to have instruction continue,” O’Donnell explained, “but you can seize these teachable moments with students. If it is an issue that students bring up or that faculty wants to address, we trust teachers’ professional judgment and training to create a good forum in which to have discussions about this particular issue.”

O’Donnell encourages students to come in and bring issues to the school’s attention, and continue participating in intelligent conversation about these matters.

“I felt that many of the student comments were what I might describe as civil, online discourse about a matter that is very important to many people,” O’Donnell said. “In terms of what we’re looking at in terms of 21st Century learning expectations, I think many of our students engaged in a process of inquiry, using their personal experiences and researched data to interpret the matter.”

In the future, the administration hopes to address issues pertaining to diversity and racism through school climate work and the advisory program.

Essence encourages her peers and the community of Wilton High School to acknowledge there is an issue at hand in order to best seek out a solution.

“The first step is to listen. When a person of color begins telling you about oppression and social injustice, please don’t take it lightly,” she said. “After listening, evaluate your own life and choices and you can help be a better ally for people of color in facing their injustices.”

Chandler echoed much of the same. “It's important to educate Wilton students,” she said. “Whether it be about oppression, or learning the facts and statistics, education is crucial.”

To read a story on the diversity panel presentation, visit http://bit.ly/20BIHTT.