It’s time to address racism in our school—beyond its name

Anna Arnsberger

After nearly a century of hindsight, it’s easy to label President Woodrow Wilson as a racist. The bygone president’s affinity for segregation and the KKK, among other offenses, is clearly problematic when held up to today’s standards. But as renaming efforts dominate the conversation, we risk neglecting some of the most dangerous ways racism exists in our school.

Wilson is often lauded for its unmistakable diversity and the “wokeness” of the student body. As we pat ourselves on the back for fostering an mutliracial, socially-aware environment, we ignore the inequities that surround us. 

There’s no secret as to why we all clamored around the efforts to rename Wilson this summer—the name is one of the only explicit forms of racism at our school. Still, countless subtler, more-destructive inequities run rampant in Wilson.

DCPS’s US History curriculum still doesn’t require coverage of Native Americans. Our English classes are still dominated by books by white authors. Every day, our school prioritizes the white narrative, at the detriment of its substantial BIPOC population, and yet the only change we deem necessary is relating to our name. 

If we can talk about President Wilson being problematic, we can talk about the disparity between white students and students of color in AP courses being problematic as well. We can—and we must—discuss overhauling the culture that segregates classrooms, clubs, and sports teams by race.

Our school is not some post-racial, picture-perfect ideal of diversity. Reading Toni Morrison and August Wilson every once in a while won’t reverse the glaring eurocentrism of our curricula. The plurality of our population doesn’t change its all-too frequent pattern of white kids sitting next to white kids and Black kids sitting next to Black kids both in class and in the atrium. By continuing to ignore these problems, we are reinforcing dangerous societal structures of racial separation and hierarchy.

While getting a new name for Wilson is critical, it can easily become a distraction from some of the harder conversations we need to have about race. I fear that this feel-good movement that everyone can get behind will be the only serious effort our school community makes towards addressing racism. 

Real progress won’t come easily. The inequities that plague our school are deeply entrenched in our culture and are not easily discernible with the bare eye. There will be no changes quite as tangible as replacing the words on the atrium floor and certainly nothing as fun as picking out a new name. But if we really care about addressing racism, we need to start putting in the work to show for it.

Though symbols do hold power, renaming is simply a symbolic transition and we can’t be satisfied with such a meager attempt at progress. If our goal is truly to strive for racial justice, we must go beneath the surface and our sights on more substantial changes—changes that actively dismantle systemic issues rooted in our community. 

Replacing the name in front of our school may ensure that we don’t look racist, but what’s the point if we do nothing to fix the inequities that consume the inside?