In the wake of a series of racist social media postings by Howard County high school students, County Executive Allan Kittleman launched the #OneHoward initiative, which will provide residents and local county officials with an opportunity to promote positive dialogue and respect. The first forum was held on Saturday, December 3rd. More than 300 community members attended with dozens of us, including myself, speaking and expressing our feelings and concerns. This forum invited a panel of guest speakers including representatives from diverse communities, 3 African Americans (NAACP president, a high school principal, and a pastor), a Muslim high school student, a Rabbi, and the leader from the Islamic Society. Five HCPSS BOE members and a few school officials, including Superintendent, Dr. Renee Foose, attended the forum.
Part I The Loud Ones
The meeting started very well by inviting all the guest speakers calling for conversation and unity. The last speaker was an African American pastor, David Anderson. He played a video in which he interviewed the student who sent an image on Snapchat of herself in blackface with a caption that read, "I'm finally a n——r." In the video, that student stated that this picture was taken and sent on Snapchat in October before the election. Her friend took a screen shot and re-posted it after the election. She didn't realize it could hurt other people and she asked for forgiveness. She said in tears that she simply wanted to go back to school. In the video, Anderson asked for open dialogue and forgiveness of this student who didn't know what she was doing. This is the link of the video: https://vimeo.com/193278360
I was very moved when watching this video. I imagined that this student would go back to school and have an honest conversation with her peers who were hurt by her posting. Then there will be hugs, tears, and cheers. As all the movies go, we will live happily together ever after. I'm not quite sure how many people in the room shared the same sentiment as me but I was filled with this hopeful emotion until an African American woman came forward and demanded to stop playing the video. Along with her was a Muslim mom who was very upset and crying. Mr. Anderson told the woman politely that the video would be done shortly and he would like to make a brief statement. He told her that there will be designated Q&A session after that and she could speak by then. But the woman grew angrier and shouted loudly to stop the video and demanded for the microphone. She said the authority was trying to silence people although both Mr. Anderson and Mr. Kittleman repeatedly told her she would have a chance to speak soon. She also demanded the audience to take action with her. There were a few people from the audience took side with her but the majority stayed mute.
I don't know how other people feel but I found myself angry, shocked and scared at the same time. In my head I was telling this woman: "They are not silencing you. It is YOU who are silencing Mr. Anderson. He made effort to put together this video and he made a good point. Don't you think he deserves some respect, or at least a chance to finish what he wants to say?" One part of me felt so angry that I wanted to stand up and say something, while the other part felt scared to confront with such a forceful woman. I heard somebody sitting behind me disapproved this behavior. I also caught a small voice saying: "He has the floor. Let him finish." But nobody stood up. The video got stopped. Mr. Anderson stepped down to his seat. The Muslim mom went to speak. What she said was very heart broken that her son feared to go to school. I genuinely believe that deeply hurt her. I have a lot of sympathy for her and her family. But at the same time, I feel I have been silenced. I feel many people in that room have been silenced.
The whole weekend went by very fast with filled activities. But when I sat down on Monday morning and reflected what happened at the forum, I felt ashamed that I didn't speak up to that woman. I cried in sadness and fear. I cried for the fact that a whole room of people acted as bystanders when a bullying behavior happening right in front of our eyes. Yes, it was bullying. If you were in that room, you would have agreed with me. It should not happen in Howard County which prides itself with "Choose Civility" , the community-wide initiative, best known for its forest green bumper stickers, aims to build a more respectful, empathetic and tolerant county. The incident itself and the fact that the community leaders, people in that room, and even the media kept silent in the face of this disrespectful behavior undermines the value and purpose of the forum. Everybody in that room allowed this to happen. This very fact troubles me deeply.
Part II The Invisible Ones
Back to the forum, I was tremendously shocked by that incident but that didn't cause enough damage to prevent me from standing up, waiting in the line and speaking up in front of the 300 people. Visibly I was the only Asian in that room. I strongly felt I had the obligation to have a voice representing 15.5% Asian Americans living in Howard County and almost 20% Asian families in our school system. So here was part of what I said:
People in this room are the ones who are vocal, loud and willing to speak up. How about the people who are usually invisible in the community? The county and school system have the obligation to make extra effort to reach out to the community members who are missing in this forum and other civic engagements. Otherwise, we only hear from the same group of people with the same ideas again and again. We cannot claim ourselves diverse and inclusive without including more members from diverse backgrounds, specifically Asian Americans. We make up 15.5% of the county population and 20% of the student population in HCPSS. But if you look around this room, how many Asian Americans do you see? If you look at the panel, Asian Americans have no representation. I would like to challenge all the county and school leaders to reach out to the Asian community and engage an open dialog with us.
After the meeting quite a few people came to me including Mr. Kittleman and a few BOE members. County Council Mr. Calvin Ball left the forum earlier but before he left he directed his assistant to talk to me after the forum. A resident who adopted two Korean daughters that went through the school system 10 years ago and a half Korean mom with her daughter thanked me for speaking up for all the Asian Americans in the community.
But this REALLY is not enough. I urge the community leaders to reach out to us but shall we meet them in the middle? After all, it is WE who are impacted on daily basis by the policies made by the OTHER people. If we don't participate we are letting other people represent us and speak for us. Our voice won't get heard. We are silenced by ourselves. To that point, I admire that loud African American woman, the crying Muslim mom, and others who shared their emotion that day. They expressed their feelings in such a strong way that nobody can simply ignore them.
Part III The Young Ones
There were 7-8 student leaders who spoke on this issue, one Indian-American, the others were all whites. I was very impressed by the kids. In contrast to the emotional adults, they were very calm and spoke in a professional manner. They urged more students to come out and have a dialogue and the community to take actions beyond the talk. I think they made some very good points. For that, I stay hopeful because they represent the future.
But what about the future of Asian-Americans? It seems our young ones, including my own, are totally out of the loop. On one hand I feel blessed that they are not involved in the intensive racial issues at a young age. On the other hand, I am concerned that they live in an artificial bubble and completely miss the big picture. I don't think they understand how this issue will shape their future in a profound way. When they spend so much time to work diligently by the rules in their comfortable bubble, the outside world and the rules have changed without consulting their opinions. The rules and policies do not magically appear. They are created by people just like you and me. Community members have a chance to shape the policies or the community as a whole but only when they have the willingness to participate and the capability to take action. I truly hope our young people can get early exposure to the community issues. Even if they don't truly comprehend the meaning now, that very exposure will make them more alert, aware, and observant. And hopefully, some day in the future, they will become more involved and develop an internal drive to be part of the process.
I'm genuinely optimistic about our community coming into this awakening, but I'm realistic enough to realize this won't happen automatically. It takes a lot of sweat and tears. It takes our heart and soul. It takes strong will and determination. It takes persistent and sometimes even stubborn effort. But whatever it takes, to me it's all worth it. Because... I tell myself... it's for my children and our common future.
* All the articles posted here do not represent CAPA's opinions.
The Loud Ones, the Invisible Ones and the Young Ones
Reflection on the First Forum of #OneHoward
By Jean Xu