#StopAsianHate, Part II: An Open Letter to the Students of Vermont Commons School
April 1, 2021
Yesterday we learned of what appears to be another attack against an Asian American. More specifically, Vilma Kari, a New Yorker of Filipino descent, was viciously attacked–apparently without reason–in broad daylight, sworn at and told by her assailant, “You don’t belong here.” The New York Times reports that in all of 2020, there were 28 anti-Asian hate crimes in New York City. Already in 2021, however, the NYPD reports 33 such attacks.
Such an act is, and should be, utterly stunning. It should stop us in our tracks. But so should those words. You don’t belong here. I think one would feel those kicks for months to come, while those words would remain seared into the brain for all one’s days. If I don’t belong here, but I am here, then what am I? Rather, what am I to do? Perhaps more importantly, what are you going to do about me, with me, to me?
The question of who belongs and who does not haunts our human society. Structuralist theorist Ferdinand de Saussure posited that humans organize our understanding of our world through language-based binary oppositions. Good/evil. Hot/cold. Dark/light. Further theorists expanded on this by suggesting a code of sub-binary oppositions that help flesh out binaries through further pairings of opposed meanings, and so on and so on. Post-structuralist thinker Jacques Derrida pushed this notion further in the way one term of the binary opposition dominates, governs, or controls the dynamic between the two. Good dominates evil (we hope) or, in unfortunate circumstances, evil dominates good.
So the question, in the case of yesterday’s attack, is what is the binary opposite of belong? Interestingly, there are nearly, or perhaps no, functional antonyms for the word belong. Seriously. Spend a little time looking it up in your dictionary, thesaurus, or online. English doesn’t have a clean, single word antonym that actually captures the directly opposite meaning of “to belong.” English seems to indicate that one either “belongs” or one simply doesn’t exist. That, to me, is why the language of yesterday’s attacker is so stunning. To utter that Ms. Vilma Kari does not belong is to place Ms. Kari in the category of non-existence, to suggest that where she might belong isn’t a consideration.
Sometimes I hear people use the phrase beyond the pale, an idiom in English that means, variously, outside the bounds or limits of good judgment, behavior, or understanding. If someone does something that’s described as beyond the pale, it generally means that the action is outside of what a reasonable person operating with reasonable judgement would be expected to do. While the notion of the pale–in this usage–has shown up in other points in history, it comes to us in the English language from 17th-Century Ireland, in which–during the English occupation there–a line was drawn just outside Dublin which separated off the rest of the island from the city. Dublin was where the English felt they had controlled and civilized society according to their own standards, and outside of Dublin was beyond the Pale, where ignorance, barbarity, and inhumanity reigned, where a lack of judgement or acceptable behavior was to be expected, and where what happened was, in short, beyond understanding. Ireland was England’s first colony, where the English tried out the various methods they would later employ to colonize much of the world, starting with forcing the Irish to cease use of the Irish Language and instead only speak or write English thereafter.
Belonging apparently doesn’t just mean that one is in the right place, but also that one is as one should be: one bears the qualities, habits of mind and action, judgement, and attitudes appropriate to that place. Not belonging–so unspeakable that we literally don’t have a word for it–also means that you lack those qualities, habits, etc.
Two urgent questions pose themselves. First, who gets to decide who belongs and who doesn’t? That is to say, who gets to determine what qualities, habits of mind, judgement, attitude, appearance, identity, status, etc. are right or wrong for a place? And if we haven’t actually anointed anyone with that power, from when does it emerge such that someone in New York City believes they have a right to assert it and inflict in on another, physically and verbally, at random? Or in Washington, D.C.? Or San Francisco? Or Burlington? Does it emerge from us collectively? Do we as a society act as bequeathers of belonging or its ambiguous opposite? If so, that’s both daunting and empowering. Daunting, because it’s much easier to go after one person: it’s easier to say that attack was just about the person who kicked Ms. Kari. Just about the person who murdered eight people in Atlanta on March 16th. Just about the indicted police office who forced his knee into George Floyd’s neck.
We can just blame it on them, but if we want to be both honest, self-critical, and empowering, we likely need to recognize that the ideology of the phrase you don’t belong here is something we collectively learn, maintain, and reproduce. That stinks, but it also means that if we’ve done it, we have the power to undo it.
How? That’s the second urgent question. How do we undo a society’s worth of casting each other as either “in” or as non-existent? This week is a sacred one in several of the world’s faiths: Pesach in Judaism, Holy Week in Christianity, Holi in Hinduism. Whether you are a religious or spiritual person or not, I do hope you do, or will at some point, consider yourself a person of philosophy. A person who considers meaning and your place in it. I find many of the worlds great philosophers overlap with faith or belief. And in considering our answer to how we combat a systemic, societal habit of saying to others that they don’t belong, the Dalai Lama comes to mind. For Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama is both spiritual and political leader and the literally physical incarnation of divine compassion. When asked how to be the most compassionate person possible, he said simply, “Reduce suffering in the world.”
If we even at a young age begin drawing lines between ourselves and others, creating binaries of opposition that put some of us in and some of us out (or beyond), we need to look at that action–at the moment we did that–and ask ourselves whether we added to someone else’s suffering or reduced it. With each of our interactions with another person, we need to consider if what and how we acted made them feel better or worse, helped or harmed them, set them up for a better or worse future. If we want to be compassionate, we need to think of others in each of our actions and seek to act in ways that both improve their lives and reduce their suffering, sometimes even if it means it comes at a bit of a cost to us. I have a difficult time imaging real-life circumstances where telling someone they don’t belong is a compassionate act. Our school and our society aim explicitly in our language, mission, and practice to be entities of anti-bias, not the least of which is anti-racialism and anti-racism. To do so we must wrestle with the implicit power dynamics in words such as belong, inclusion, membership, appropriate, right, fitting, behave, understandable, words that seem innocuous or even positive but by their usage can assert power, draw lines, and increase suffering or even flat-out erase or make invisible (which is not quite the same thing).
Maybe the one thing we can try to do is reduce the suffering of others through compassionate consideration of their value and humanity in all we do together. I think that’s our charge right now, what these times are calling us to do. I think it starts in small, everyday interactions with everyone around us. If we’ve built these problematic attitudes as a society, it’s been through the repetition of small everyday interactions over time. And so we can certainly unbuild those attitudes and replace them. Let’s do this work together, with each other, in our school. Let’s make compassion a trademark of our school, the expression of our guiding principle of social justice. We can change the world. You can change the world.
Dr. Dexter P. Mahaffey, Head of School