Frank S. Hackett Hall.
Frank S. Hackett Hall.

Riverdale Responds to Shooting of James Blake

The heads of the Middle School and Upper School condemned racism in communications with students this week in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

At a special Middle School assembly on Sept. 1, Milton Sipp, Assistant Head of School and Head of the Middle School, delivered these remarks:

How was it that Jacob Blake, who was outnumbered by the police when he was shot, was fired upon at point-blank range in the back, and in front of his children, and who after miraculously surviving multiple surgeries, woke up in his hospital bed literally chained to the railings as if a paralyzed person would have the ability to escape, was treated in such an inhumane way? While a few days later, a 17-year-old white teenager, who shot and killed two protestors, was allowed to walk around before he fired those shots with an assault weapon, get water from the police and even high fives, walk towards the police after he killed those protestors, and be allowed to drive home to a neighboring state and the comfort of his home. These are two systems that treat one group one way and the other another….without a doubt because of the color of their skin. 

Are all police officers bad? Of course not. Do all police officers and law enforcement officials engage in such racist behavior? Again, of course not. You can’t make that blanket statement about any group.

But skin color IS used in this way by some to say that a group is suspicious, that they must be questioned in a way that others never are. And when you can add even more power to racism by the use of guns, badges, and police lights to enforce this, it cuts deeply to your core and can leave lasting scars. How do I know this? Because as a Black American and as your Head of Middle School, I will tell you that it terrifies me. Because being stopped by the police simply for the color of your skin is a shared story among every Black friend, family member, and acquaintance that I know…and multiple times. I know it because it has happened to me. And it terrifies me…It makes me nervous for my own children.

That is racism. And that is why this system needs to be torn down…and it must start here.

Look, it is understandable that when these incidents happen, it becomes almost easy to say, “Can you believe that happened in Wisconsin, in Minnesota, in Portland, in Louisville?” But what about here? What are we doing to dismantle and tear down these systems? I want you all to be the change agents that I know you can be. But it has to start with every one of you…all of us. So look yourselves in the mirror. Ask, do I contribute to this system in the words I use, the way I treat others, the way I might laugh at a racist joke or even use a racist, or sexist, slur towards a group that is different from me.  In other words, I want us to look at our own house of Riverdale. How can we make this better? How do I begin to truly understand what is happening? Because change can never truly happen out there until it happens in here…in your hearts…and in your actions. I am asking you, pleading with you to be a part of the solution to solve it. 

Great movements have begun with children, with young people. You have heard me say this again and I will keep saying it…why not you…why not Riverdale…why not us?

We are going to have time for discussion with each other about these issues. I am going to ask you to lean into them…to really engage. This is all connected to us at Riverdale. And we will create the space to have deeper conversations about race, class, gender, and ethnicity this year. With a particular focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, DEIB. This will be an emphasis for our work at Riverdale throughout the new school year. We will talk more about that in the coming days and weeks.

Finally, I reiterate to tell you how great it has been to see you all over the last few days, to be back in school, to engage again with each other. And I know many of you felt the same way as you conveyed to us. One of the things that we are, of course, doing is wearing masks. I have thought about how this changes the way we do things, and how we interact. However, there is a special part of all of this that speaks more broadly to our humanity towards each other. None of what I said to you is about guilt. It is so much bigger than that. Guilt is an individual thing and can literally paralyze us, render us unable to move beyond thinking about other people rather ourselves, locked in fear that will not allow us to really listen, to really see each other for who we are.

This is about who we are as a school community, as a society, as a world. That is, we social distance and wear the mask to protect ourselves but also to protect each other. We must use this simple act in our everyday lives. We must protect each other from racism by calling it out, by refusing to allow this system to attack those we love and care about. We must protect each other from bullying and marginalizing others who we think are different, and instead, invite them to sit with us, get to know them, protect them from the harm that others want to inflict upon them. We must fight for women’s rights because they are our rights. We must protect and stand with our LGBTQ community because they are us and we are them … that is our humanity. Because when we do, we are stronger and we fight together against the injustices that we see and continue to hear about almost every day. We can be that change. So, DO this… for your teachers….for your family members, for your friends…, for your classmates….for those you have not met…, do it for me, your Head of Middle School who adores all of you and who is counting on you to make a change and a difference. More importantly, do it for you!

Thank You.

Tom Taylor, the Head of the Upper School, wrote to students on Aug. 31:

I am writing to acknowledge the recent shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of police officers in Kenosha, WI.  Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Jacob Blake is not an exception. Jacob Blake is not an outlier. Jacob Blake is another in the very long history of systemically endorsed violence against Black- and Brown-skinned bodies in this country.

The pain that accompanies yet another shooting of this type is heart wrenching, and for some of us, I imagine, numbing; we live in a world where events like this will continue to happen. Returning to school in the wake of this moment is a challenge. To see racism seemingly everywhere we turn, and then to force ourselves to return to the work of school is difficult, to say the least.

And yet, return we must. Part of what we hope you learn in school is why it keeps happening.  I hope through your time at Riverdale you become better equipped to identify systemic and institutional racism and are empowered to use your voice and your power to dismantle these systems. Our school’s mission calls us to grow here so that we can change the world for the better. 

Beyond this, though, we return to school to ensure that we are caring for each other. These moments impact our school. They impact us as individuals committed to equity and justice, and they impact us as a community striving to carry the work of anti-racism forward. The ongoing violence against Black people and other marginalized communities in this country results in trauma for our community and families, and we have an obligation to denounce it when we see it.

Your teachers, advisors, deans, and others hope to create spaces for you to continue these discussions at school. We want and need your voices in this work. We hope that advisory, affinity groups, and other venues will allow for more in-depth processing and reflection in the coming days and weeks.