Determined to turn this talk into definitive action, Wilton High School Class of 2019 graduates Elizabeth Yoon (above right) and Teena Moya (above left) wrote an open letter to the Wilton Public School administration, calling for a change in how race is taught, discussed and represented in the schools. [To read the letter, scroll down toward the bottom of the page.]
The letter was sent to the administration just this past Monday night, June 8, with a total of 418 signatures from Wilton students past and present, from graduation years as far back as 1981, to current students. That number continues to grow, beyond 530 at press time. Yoon and Moya were joined by over 100 alumni and students of color as primary signatories, and there are currently more than 425 white students who also have signed in support.
The message they’re sending: education is a crucial step in making sure the district and members of the school community not only support the effort but take steps to become anti-racist.
“There are different experiences and they deserve to be talked about within the classroom,” Yoon said. “Because people don’t get to leave the classroom and then keep being ignorant.”
The letter calls for the district to effect three main changes: eliminate the “race-blind” narrative used and taught in Wilton curriculum; increase diversity in hiring by actively looking at institutional barriers that may prevent teachers of color from applying; and hold students or teachers who make racist and offensive remarks accountable with constructive punishment.
Other important points made in the letter include avoiding tokenism, or singling out minority students to be spokespeople on a certain issue, and being intentional about discussing race beginning when students are young. The letter also contains a five-page list of historical events and sources for the administration to consider adding to the curriculum to increase the discussion around race and the representation of authors of color in the classroom.
Additionally, recognizing that they cannot speak for every student or every race and heritage, Moya and Yoon opened the letter up to the wider student community before they sent it to administrators, consciously seeking to give an opportunity for all voices to be heard.
The duo has also encouraged people to send their own emails to administration with personal concerns or experiences.
“The main point of the letter is just to start a conversation with administration and to encourage other people to feel more able to go ahead and talk to administration and be like, ‘These are legitimate concerns, and we think you should do something about them,'” Yoon said. “It’s about normalizing that kind of conversation.”
Incidents and Microagression
George Floyd’s death prompted Moya and Yoon to do their own research on race, and they were shocked to realize how much they hadn’t known about racism and police brutality, as well as about where racism was happening within their own culture.
“So many questions arise. One of them is, how did I not notice information before? This is insane…. and then what can I do now?” Moya reflected.
Moya said that she particularly felt motivated to bring her concerns to the administration after recalling her own experience with race and identity during her time as a Wilton student and feeling like she struggled to find her place.
“When you’re around the age of puberty, that’s when you’re growing up and trying to figure your identity out,” Moya said. “When white is the norm, it’s kind of weird because you’re like, where do you fit in? You know something’s different but you can’t quite place it. So I think that’s when Wilton started to be less perfect.”
Moya said Wilton’s race-blind culture–one that de-emphasizes and doesn’t acknowledge race–led to her own internalized racism, where she downplayed her own experiences and culture in order to fit-in. With this mindset, it was hard for her to bring up incidents involving race in school, because she didn’t want to be the odd-one-out. She said she saw many incidents involving race go unacknowledged because talking about it was uncomfortable. But now she encourages people to speak up.
“There’s so many things that have happened in Wilton that just have been blown off…I feel so guilty of thinking that we’d let that happen, [that] everyone let it happen,” Moya said. “I blame myself, but I blame everyone else–[members of the school] administration who are old enough to see what’s wrong is wrong, they should know that certain things are wrong.”
In the absence of intentional conversations about race and identity, Yoon felt like she had to discern what was right and what was wrong herself. Given this, it was hard to feel that her emotions were valid in the face of microaggressions, or small, often unintentional but repeated racist remarks. As an example, she explained how in middle school some fellow students would stretch the skin around their eyes and say they were ‘Asian,’ something that despite being directly related to her identity, that took her a while to realize was wrong.
“In middle school, everything feels so abstract that you don’t recognize when things are wrong even when they’re directly related to you or how you view the world,” Yoon said.
These incidents and microaggressions are not uncommon.
A current Wilton High School senior, who asked to remain anonymous, said they had experienced racism on a personal level within the school.
“I’ve been called more Indian-related insults than I can count–most of them having to do with curry,” they wrote to GMW.
Julia Foodman, who graduated with the Class of 2017, recalled multiple anti-Semitic microaggressions during her time at WHS, by teachers and students alike. In her freshman year, she said a teacher would single her out to ask her for validation after world religion discussions, an act of tokenism. Additionally, when she was applying to colleges, her counselor kept recommending Christian schools despite her protests.
“My guidance counselor also repeatedly recommended Catholic U of America and Jesuit schools after we repeatedly explained that we were Jewish,” she wrote to GMW.
In terms of learning black history, she remembers debating about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in an AP Government Class. “I was asked to defend a racist murderer without really knowing what I was talking about,” she wrote. She also recounted taking African Studies, which she said, “was about slavery and colonization and not about Africa at all.”
Another student, Kirsten Perry a Class of 2019 alumna, suggested that Wilton schools should support the whole person of each student throughout their education, which includes talking about race.
“If WHS is ‘Striving for Excellence’ then shouldn’t that apply to all aspects of a student’s life?” she wrote to GMW. “There needs to be a class about racial prejudice and injustice that is a graduating requirement.”
All these incidents further necessitate action from the school, the Moya and Yoon said, no matter what.
“If it’s happening in your school and affecting your kids, then you have to teach them,” Moya said. “This isn’t political, this is human rights.”
Eliminating the ideology of race blindness was of particular importance to Moya and Yoon in the letter.
“You can go through your entire WPS career and not truly have to reconcile with race ever and that’s an element of privilege,” Yoon said, adding that this mentality, though unintentional, can prevent people of color like herself from recognizing their experiences and identity, and invalidate their experiences.
“If you don’t see race, [you] don’t see the issues that people encounter,” Yoon said.
On the flip side, the race-blind mentality can also take away from celebrating other cultures as well. “The great parts about race, all the culture and rich history that it does have that’s so powerful and beautiful, that’s hidden also behind race blindness. It’s forgetting so [many] years of culture and heritage, which is so important to remember.”
Additionally, not being educated on history of injustices, black history, Asian history, and other parts of the world left Yoon at a disadvantage, she said. “There were so many things I went to college, not knowing,” Yoon said. Moya agreed, saying that she “can’t name one fact” about Asian-American history she learned while a student of Wilton schools.
In terms of solutions, Moya added that the voices of people of color can be amplified not only in history and English classes, but in specials classes such as art or music.
Though the letter is comprehensive, Yoon is optimistic that the school will make specific changes because of the letter.
“Honestly, I see this as very attainable,” she said. “This isn’t some really far-off goal that we can’t reach. This is something where you are a taxpayer and a student, a direct participant, an educator and you have a direct say in what happens in your town. I think it matters that people feel ennobled to go forth and do so.”
The duo added that maintaining a level of ignorance and denying the existence of racism and real-world issues, though it may lead to “white comfort,” is done at the expense of people of color in the community. That’s what makes them determined to hold the school accountable for making concrete changes and actions to support people of color.
“This isn’t just about us,” Moya said, adding that “this fight has gone on so much longer than we have been here. It’s not just Wilton. There’s always more to do.”
Yoon and Moya added that the letter also represents the skills they learned during their time in the Wilton Public School system, in schools that taught them to write and stand up for what they believe in. All they are asking for is for the officials in those same schools to take the next step.
“You taught us how to write, now teach us how to better engage with the world by giving us the tools to properly do so,” Moya said.
Yoon added that the signatures speak for themselves in how necessary and supported this initiative is.
“We’re not in any way shape or form the leader of this. This isn’t an us thing. It’s just people in Wilton who have legitimate concerns that need to be heard,” Yoon said. “There are all the signatories that signed… that’s where the story is.”
Below is the letter written by Yoon and Moya, signed by more than 530 students and alumni of Wilton Public Schools, and sent to district administrators. A full list of signatories can be found here.
Dear Wilton PS Administrators and Staff,
As the nation begins its long-awaited reckoning with race and police brutality, Wilton students felt encouraged to reflect on our experiences within the Wilton Public School (Wilton PS) system K-12. The change the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement wishes to usher in extends beyond gestures. We thank the school community for their support in the fight for a better future. However, we believe more can and should be done to better serve the next generation.
The administration of Wilton PS plays a direct role in shaping the future of Wilton and the United States. We ask the Wilton PS system to rethink how race is (and is not) discussed in the classroom. Actionable steps for educators and administrators include changes in curriculum, hiring excellent diverse educators, and holding students who make publicly racist remarks accountable. (The email sent to Wilton administrators had suggested historical events and novels to add to the curriculum. See the document here).
In such a homogenous town, a common experience for K-12 attendees is exposure to a race-blind narrative. The homogeneity of Wilton unintentionally but systematically discourages students from exploring their racial and ethnic identities by depriving them of information and resources. While some motivated students do their own research online, a vast majority are left out of the conversation. The lack of nuanced classroom discussion surrounding race, gender, and sexuality produces well-intentioned ignorance and a dissociation of America’s history with one’s personal identity.
Growing up K-12 in Wilton is perniciously comfortable. The embedded and prevailing race-blind narrative at Wilton incorrectly presumes “racist” to be a stagnant, unmalleable category. A continued emphasis on white-by-default culture coddles white students and dissociates minority and Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC/POC) individuals from their racial realities. It impedes students from acknowledging the experiences of minorities and POC at large. Many misguided teachers have tokenized POC students in class while covering ethnic or racially specific topics. We are not asking for more of that. Most students at Wilton High School have grown up within the Wilton community. The experience of a POC raised in Wilton is wildly different from a POC raised in New York City. POC students are foremost students, often caught unaware of the identities they are being asked to represent.
More overt instances of racism thrives in Wilton as well and are perpetuated by students regardless of race. A non-exhaustive list of racist actions at Wilton include: swastikas drawn on bathroom doors, anti-Semitic messages on lockers, calling a fellow student a “slave,” non-black students using the N-word, wearing a “Warrior” Native American headdress at football games, etc. Some examples like the Native American headdress appear benign because we do not see the population harmed and have normalized the disrespecting of Native American culture. But that assumption of harmlessness perpetuates the race-blind status quo.
We see the racism at Wilton to be largely fueled by student’s topical understandings of history and the school’s [failure] to pull aside and admonish publicly racist statements. Not only do faculty and administrators fail to actively root out racist behaviors in the student body on and off Wilton school grounds, [but] they also miss important teaching moments when admonishing students. Students need to learn why these behaviors are harmful not just be suspended for them.
Moreover, the lack of diversity of faculty at Wilton PS is detrimental toward promoting an anti-racist culture and harms efforts to teach a more diverse and inclusive curriculum. A passive policy where Wilton PS waits for POC candidates to apply simply is not enough. Wilton PS must not only broaden its advertisement of open faculty positions in order to attract more POC candidates, but Wilton PS must also actively reach out to (and even recruit) capable POC candidates in order to diversify its faculty. We recognize that Wilton and Wilton PS’s homogeneous racial make-up is owed to centuries of systemic racism and that all the problems listed above exist all across America. Schools are routinely underfunded with teachers being pushed by the government and administrators to cover too many topics in too little time. We don’t want to unduly stress the system. However, we need to start addressing long-standing issues within our own community.
Thus, Wilton needs a diverse and inclusive curriculum K-12. Annotating Fredrick Douglass’ Fourth of July speech is not enough. LGBTQ+, Native American, Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American history should not be reserved for college lecture halls. Teaching the racial history of America K-12 is critical to producing more accountable and educated American citizens. By ignoring nuanced discussions of America’s racial history (Mexican repatriation, Japanese internment, Stonewall Riots, L.A. riots), Wilton produces sheltered and woefully under-informed white and POC students.
Yes, it is challenging to convey both the pride and suffering of minority movements. The experiences of POC Americans’ past is one part tragic and two parts hope. No child should be nor wants to be victimized and told that they are a “minority” and thus “disadvantaged.” But to exclude this reality from K-12 learning is a mistake.
For Elementary and Middle School educators, history can be taught through snack/storytime. Students can be given optional “continued reading lists” in high school to further their topical knowledge. Unstructured time in elementary school and Middlebrook LIFE class could be utilized to provide information and have conversations about historic injustices and white privilege. Music and art classes in middle and elementary schools should incorporate units on African American artists. Black History Month is an excellent opportunity to expose students to the contributions of Black Americans who are excluded from typical curriculum. This can be implemented through studying quotes in classes, hosting assemblies, doing creative units surrounding Black artists in elective classes, hosting fundraisers, and more. The same can be done for Asian-American Pacific Islander Month, Jewish Heritage Month, and Hispanic Heritage day.
For Wilton High School teachers, please talk about history not tested on the AP exams and give your students challenging readings and topics. English classes should be looking to actively disrupt the inherited literary canon by incorporating works by female authors and other minority authors whenever possible. The “classics” tend to be dominated by white male writers – an obvious result of the centuries-long oppression of POC and women across the world. If in each grade level, the curriculum replaces a single “classic” reading in favor of a lesser-known work by a minority author, students will develop a much more nuanced understanding of literature and humanity. Diversifying curriculum allows students to academically and personally grapple with important questions of identity.
The concerns raised by the signatories of this letter are legitimate and substantiated by our own experience within Wilton Public Schools. We are current and former students that recognize we are inheritors and beneficiaries of privilege and race-blind narratives. We as a community must hold ourselves accountable in the active creation of a more fair world.
Including LGBTQ+, Native American, Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American history and literature within the classroom is an actionable step. Properly admonishing and punishing students that make publicly racist remarks is an actionable step. Believing students when they recount their experiences is an actionable step.
We don’t want radical upheaval. We want the history taught, resources made available, and students held accountable for racist actions. We all want to make Wilton a more informed and more historically conversant place. Please take those steps and encourage students to be empathetic. Let’s endeavor to make Wilton graduates more erudite and racially conversant.
Elizabeth Yoon, Wilton Class of ‘19
Teena Moya, Wilton Class of ‘19
A full list of signatories can be found here.
If you found yourself agreeing with the contents and sentiments of this letter, please contact the Wilton Public School administration with your concerns and experiences, asking for much needed change by emailing email@example.com and cc-ing firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
Wilton alumni and students who resonate with this letter are encouraged to continue adding their names.