Claudia Rankine, award-winning poet, MacArthur “genius,” and author of “Citizen: An American Lyric,” flipped through pictures from the recent presidential election and commercials from different countries to highlight the construct of whiteness in society. Rankine took the stage on Monday’s All School Meeting (ASM) for Andover’s 28th annual observance of Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day.
Each year, a speaker elected by the Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) team is invited to Andover to help students take the “day on.” The day encourages students to think more in depth about the significance of MLK Day and connect to social issues in the broader world.
In an email to The Phillipian, LaShawn Springer, Director of CAMD, wrote, “Every year the CAMD team brainstorms a list of speakers who have contributed greatly to the advancement of their field and to the national dialogue on diversity. Because this year’s theme is ‘citizenship’, we wanted to find a speaker that would thoughtfully challenge our collective understanding of who is conferred citizenship and who is not; how does one know they are a citizen; who and what decides that; what does being a citizen give one access to, etc.”
Rankine was chosen particularly because of her works in discussing citizenship.
Springer said, “Claudia Rankine explores those questions and more in her book ‘Citizen’ using everyday experiences that speak volumes to what it means to live in a racialized body – experiences of racism and microaggressions that are so frequent in nature that you feel both invisible and hypervisible all at once.”
Rankine is an author, a poet, and currently a professor at Yale University. After her speech, students at Andover they were able to share their thoughts on Rankine’s presentation through a Q&A session.
Abigail Ndikum ’20 said she was inspired by Rankine’s words on creating change within yourself.
Ndikum said, “I felt different after the ASM… especially [after] the part that she said to focus on yourself, because a lot of the times I feel people try to focus on others. But if you start from yourself, it will really make a change and a change in how you treat other people, because then hopefully that will trigger a set of events, hopefully changing the society. Maybe not now, but hopefully in the future.”
Louis Aaron ’18 was surprised by Rankine’s response to a question posed by Davis Barrow ’20. Barrow asked Rankine how white males with blond hair, like himself, can contribute to deconstructing implicit biases.
“Her response was that he could first recognize that by helping other people particularly interracial minorities, he is helping himself. Obviously there’s truth in that, I was surprised to hear that the way she would frame an advice for somebody. Usually the narratives of every religion on this earth is that we should be inspired by doing good for others, and selflessness, and sacrifice, and it was surprising to me that she would instead frame it as a selfish act to help other less fortunate or less privileged groups,” said Aaron.
Springer hopes that the community will take what Rankine said in the ASM and carry the message forward.
Springer said, “I was impressed with the questions that students asked because it was clear that people were trying to thoughtfully grapple with the history and intentionality of the construction of whiteness. And, it made me hopeful that if we could unpack that as a community that that also means there is something we can do to move forward in our efforts towards creating a more inclusive Andover.”
Students of all grades used the rest of the day to participate in programming designed to continue conversation around King’s legacy. The programming was led by students and faculty.
Juniors watched a play entitled “We Speak” directed by Justice Robinson ’18. The play featured students of the Advanced Theater course, who presented monologues tied to the theme of identity. The monologues touched upon various aspects of identity and the issue of making assumptions.
Matthew Suri ’21 said, “I enjoyed learning that you can’t base your opinion of people’s identity just off looking at them and barely having conversation with them. You have to be really close to someone to fully understand them.”
Lowers participated in a game simulating socioeconomic disparities and learned about unequal distribution of opportunities based on class. Each group divided into four neighborhoods: one with a lot of money, one with a moderate amount, and two with almost none. The four groups were then asked to build the best neighborhood possible with the money they had. The town’s police officer, social worker, and mayor were instructed to discriminate against poorer groups.
Emma Staffaroni, Instructor in English and one of the event’s organizers, said, “We wanted the students to experience systemic privilege in a tangible way. I hope that [the simulation] sparks some critical thinking about privilege. Hopefully this busts some of the myths people have about class and poverty, and the ways that it affects a community.”
Uppers and Seniors attended various workshops organized by their peers. A total of 16 workshops were hosted throughout the day, and focused on topics ranging from the struggles of young girls in global education to the history of “black hair” and how hair can affect one’s social mobility today.