Upper Schoolers gathered in Baker Theater Jan. 23 to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in one of the most fitting ways imaginable — through thoughtful community discussion, led by students.
The assembly was run by the Diversity in Action Club, led by Co-Presidents Dante White ’20 and Alex Clarke ’20.
It began with a retelling of the facts of Dr. King’s life, including his seminal time as a teenager working on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Conn. Summer jobs in 1944 and 1947 provided Dr. King with an experience of an integrated community, DIA club members said, and influenced his commitment to integrating the south.
A YouTube video by Australian-American comedian Jim Jeffries — “Tradition or Racism” — then provided fodder for discussion.
In the video, Jeffries speaks with two Australian toy shop owners about their refusal to stop selling golliwog dolls, and raises questions about both Australian and American companies that continue to use racist imagery to sell their products.
Students organized into “fishbowl” and “agree/disagree” dialogs that centered on questions like: Is it racist to use the products in the video? Does political correctness undermine free thought?
Answers were respectful and thought-provoking, including those by computer science teacher Poonam Gupta, who offered her thoughts about a Gucci sweater that drew outrage when it appeared in stores last year.
“The sweater is not offensive to me personally but that may be because I grew up in a different country, in a different culture,” said Gupta. “In India, there’s a different kind of racism, between castes.”
“In America, there are deep historical racial wounds from slavery which includes blackface,” she said. “I think with that background, I can understand how it would be hurtful to those who think this sweater amplifies discrimination both past and current and trivializes its significance.”
Gupta’s comments drew applause, including these thoughts on political correctness:
“I feel the subject breaks down into two separate issues,” she said. “One is what I call the outrage function. With social media exploiting, it seems to have created a machine of outrage, a hunger for outrage. Everybody wants to speak out on everything, everyone wants to be offended rather than understanding an issue deeply. Just put out a hashtag, and leave.”
“The second issue is of social and political understanding,” she continued. “Think about this. We have evolved as a society and as a people. Jokes that we made earlier, 10, 20, 30 years ago, about women, LGBQT, ethnicity, religion, were somewhat acceptable, and actively preventing groups of people from getting their equal civil rights. Understanding the cultural insensitivity, both past and present, which excluded groups of people is crucial to acknowledge before any positive change is possible.”
“Freedom of expression has never meant freedom to hurt,” she said. “It never is freedom to hurt.”