Race Matters: Being A Person of Color At OES

by Abe Asher

In late April, OES’ well-liked Director of Marketing and Communication Marty Jones announced that he was leaving the school, effective immediately, to become the CEO of MetroEast Community Media.

Just a month before, over Winterim in mid-March, Middle School English teacher and dorm parent Shayla Lawson departed before the completion of her first year at the school.

Last spring, around the same time, it was then-Head of the Dorms MO Owens who left the school before the end of his first year. The common thread? Jones, Lawson, and Owens are all African-American.

And now, The Dig has learned that multiple other faculty members of color are considering leaving or actively trying to leave the school in the near future — in part because of treatment they’ve received, they feel, because of their race.

Even considering the fact that these recent departures have been due to a myriad of different reasons, some having nothing to do with race, this is a pattern that is becoming difficult to ignore.

Said outgoing Head of the Upper School Jordan Elliott in an interview last Friday, “Is it notable that people of color seem to be leaving at a higher rate than others? Yeah, of course. And it’s not new. I’ve been having these conversations for years.”

But it hasn’t just been the ultimate departure of a series of faculty members that have brought racial issues to the fore at OES. Just in the last year, the school has struggled with a number of incidents that point to a mostly unrecognized and undiscussed current of tension around racial issues.

At the EVARGLOW dance in April, on the day of Culture Shock, no less, a group of OES students shouted the n-word during a song from which the word had been scrubbed.

In the past several years, the slur has been on both boys and girls varsity sports teams. In both cases, “the word was used casually and without an understanding of how it hits people,” said Dean of Students Kara Tambellini.

Said Jordan, “Certainly, EVARGLOW doesn’t represent that we’re being an inclusive community. And the fact that people are leaving suggests the same thing.”

Regina Logan, a senior and co-leader of the Black Student Union, said that, “I was referred to as the n-word — hard r — multiple times by a white student. To my knowledge, that student wasn’t suspended or even sent to the Discipline Committee. He wasn’t brought in to apologize — and I had to go out of my way to request a meeting.”

At the beginning of this school year, the decision was finally taken to remove the character “Black Pete” from the annual St. Nick’s Chapel holiday celebration. The Pete character, which used to appear at St. Nick’s in blackface, comes from a background of slavery in the Netherlands.

It was such an integral part of the fabric of the school that the Spring 2002 edition of the OES magazine — then called The OES Belltower — included the line, “And what would the holidays be at OES without Black Piet[?]”

The Pete character — and the consternation that for many years paralyzed the process of removing it — speaks to a broader history which OES exists in that is far from pretty.
Oregon was founded two years before the Civil War to be, as the Huffington Post termed it, a “racist utopia.”

Black people were banned in the original state constitution, and until 1926, it was illegal for African-Americans to move to Oregon at all. Redlining was prevalent throughout the last century.

Out of that background, it’s not entirely surprising that the state’s most elite prep school — a title OES holds for good reason — is struggling with issues around race and general inclusivity. A private school, especially one of this caliber, is, by its very nature, exclusive.

Said religion teacher VJ Sathyaraj, “This a deep-seated problem in the United States, and therefore, we find its expression in institutions including our school.”

But considering the attention — both through marketing and through, increasingly and to its credit, curriculum — paid to diversity, it’s all the more imperative that this school take these issues head-on.

One of the complaints that students and teachers at the school have is one of perceived hypocrisy: The school sells itself as “Always Open,” and yet is still very much guarded by the same conservatism that forbade chaplains from calling the Black Pete sketch “racist” — which it unquestionably was — at a Chapel earlier this year.

Said Regina, “I have a hard time taking the school seriously when it boasts about its Mission and Values and statement when it can’t even bring itself to use the word racism or racist to describe the fact that we used to dress a white teacher up in blackface and act like an idiot villain in front of the entire school.”

It’s not just been faculty members of color that have left or are looking to leave the school. Over the last few years, a number of students of color have left as well.

And for those students, navigating OES’ culture can be a hugely difficult task. “Students are not adults. They often don’t have the resources and experience they would need to deal with this,” VJ said.

That’s not to say faculty of color don’t struggle with similar issues. For them, OES can be a lonely world. Said English teacher Alana Kaholokula, “If racially diversifying the faculty is something we want to do, then there has to be support systems in place where in people feel heard and can succeed.”

Donovan Smith, an African-American student who graduated from OES in 2010, told me, “I knew what community felt like in my youngest years growing up in Northeast Portland, and while I was at OES, I felt like I had no cultural community to go to.

“I definitely had friendships, but I didn’t have the same sense of community there that I knew was possible and knew some people did feel being at the school.”

Part of the challenge for people of color to find community here may have to do with the specific nature of OES. But regardless, it’s intrinsically difficult to be in a place where you are not in a majority — as people of color certainly aren’t here.

Said VJ, “Imagine everyone in the institution looking different than yourself. Looking at you differently, speaking to you differently, and not including you in what the majority does.”

As one Upper School faculty member put it, “OES is a radically white place.” Another teacher opted for “lilywhite.”

Robin Schauffler, the Service Learning Coordinator in the Upper School, pointed to a specific example, saying, “A former advisee came here as a sophomore… she found it excruciating to be a student of color here. And a female student of color. People, for instance, constantly bothered her about her hair.”

Simon Mehari, an African-American dorm student and Dig writer, told me, “Being an African-American at this school has been one of the hardest challenges I have faced. There have been points in my educational career at the school where I have witnessed racial insensitivity through ignorance as well as intentionally.”

Simon did go on to credit the school, saying, “OES tries to counteract the intentional and unintentional racism that occurs in our community,” and, certainly, the school has committed itself to diversity work under Jordan’s leadership.

The past few years have given rise to affinity groups like Black Student Union — a group Owens helped begin, if no more than that, when he was here last year — as well as the expansion of Culture Shock and related events on black history in Oregon such as an X-Period presentation earlier this year.

The school has come a long way. Jordan said that, “It [the school] is incredibly, incredibly more inclusive than it was then. When I was a student here, I don’t think these conversations were really going.”

Even though he doesn’t support the idea of affinity groups, VJ agreed. “I’m delighted that students in your class [the Class of 2016] have brought this up,” he said. “This could be the start of something positive.”

But there’s evidence to suggest that OES’ efforts on this front haven’t been enough — or, in a way, have run counter to other actions and mindsets taken and held by school officials and students.

That split was evident to VJ when he arrived at the school. “I received a very warm welcome from the people I worked with when I first came here,” he said. “The teachers of Humanities, my colleagues in the History, Religion, and English departments.”

“However, there were quite a few people in the school — teachers and other employees in various offices alike — who I noticed wouldn’t greet me, but would greet other new teachers who came at the same time.”

It’s a fine line. One of the factors that makes the issue of race particularly difficult is that a majority of people in the school can barely detect it — let alone fully understand it.

Of course, the issue of race spills into other issues — mainly economics. Donovan told me, “OES will not fix its problems with race just adding Black students, faculty, and staff. It will take more intentional relationships in the community built over time that are not solely focused on recruitment.”

Intentionality is key. So is, in dealing with an issue like this, bravery. Said Regina, “I wonder if the school will ever get to a place where it consistently acts not out of what is safe, politic, or popular — amongst students, teachers, donors, or whoever — but out of what we know is right.”

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. This school is having trouble attracting and holding onto students and teachers of color. Now, OES needs to work to figure out why.

Said VJ, “I think our school is a good school — but it has the potential to become a truly outstanding school. This is where it has to start.”