By Luke Ferrell
Middletown, it’s time that we have a conversation about race. Merriam-Webster defines a conversation as “an oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas”. Let’s “exchange” ways to make our community a better place without “exchanging” hate or negativity. I’d like to explain why even the “fifth safest city in America to raise a child” (SafeWise, 2016) cannot be excluded from hearing stories of overcoming racial adversity.
As a proud Middletown High School North senior and a Middletown resident, I would have never in a million years imagined that the community I love and cherish would ever be subjected to any sort of racial prejudice. Up until the past few days, I have confused what I now consider hurtful and insensitive comments and slurs with humor. We’ve always been taught to treat everyone equally, but have also often been taught that it’s better to “stay out of it” or “not get involved” when it doesn’t concern us. Standing up for what is right and speaking out, even when it is unpopular, has been demonized for too long. A statement made by my classmate and good friend will change the way I see the world for the rest of my life.
On Monday, June 1, Middletown High School North’s 2020 valedictorian, Jada Tulloch posted a video on Instagram, now with over 28,000 views, 7,754 likes, and 1,453 comments. Her video is in response to students organizing a protest outside of the Middletown Township Board of Education office to push for an in-person graduation. While we all desperately want a way to celebrate our accomplishments as a class, I think our greatest accomplishment can be uniting against an issue we’ve let persist for too long. Jada states, “For me graduation represents the fact that I’ve survived years of racial discriminiation, oppression, and disgusting comments from the close-minded people that I surround myself with in this god-forsaken town”. This powerful statement has opened my eyes to realize that I have been quiet for too long. Whether I was walking down the sidewalk or the hallways of my high school, I have heard racially insensitive comments and made excuses for it– usually I brushed it off as humor. Meanwhile, a person of color could’ve overheard the same comment and felt threatened and worthless. Today, I realize that not only is it ignorant to allow these comments to reach my ears without hesitation or action but that my beloved hometown isn’t in a bubble secluded from the issues of the rest of the world. Every community displays instances of racial insensitivity, and worse; however not recognizing that this is a problem in a particular area just because of its location or socioeconomic class often normalizes racially inconsiderate sentiments. This ultimately allows a snowball effect of acceptance of more and more “jokes” and slurs that target minorities.
Jada has shared an important and disheartening message in an attempt to make our town a better place. It is simply impossible to dismiss her message without understanding her experience. Few of us have walked in the shoes of a person of color.
Genesis Everett, a Middletown High School North alumni from the Class of 2019, shares a similar story and says, “I’ve had interactions with many people who have said racist remarks and comments without even thinking twice about what they said and feeling no remorse for how disrespectful they were being”. She goes on to say that the same people who constantly use racial slurs “don’t have the RESPECT to repost a simple post standing up for POC [people of color]”.
Dr. William O. George III, the Superintendent of Schools for the Middletown Township Public School District, released a statement acknowledging Jada Tulloch’s accomplishments and sharing her resilience as a student of color: “We support our Middletown High School North valedictorian, Jada Tulloch, in using her voice to share her perspective and speak out against racism”. In a separate statement, Dr. George says, “A collective call to action is warranted, and serving as an ally to those in our community who have been most impacted by social injustices, especially our students, is paramount”.
It is truly heartwarming to see that parents are having these difficult conversations with their kids and that school districts, such as my own, are standing with our students of color and developing ways to ensure that there is no more tolerance for racial insensitivity in our schools. However, since quite the opposite attitudes are still occurring here, we are not done. We need to start an open dialogue about recognizing the problem that exists here and creating change in this wonderful community. Right now more than ever, people of color around the world are making their voices heard and it is time we amplify their voices, hear their stories, and start making our communities places where they feel loved and accepted. For instance, Middletown High School North Alumni, Frank Meade, has spoken on Twitter suggesting “adding [a] course in African American history for students”. Furthering this point, we can adapt current social studies curriculums to include integral moments of African American resillience besides the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. African American history is an integral part of American history. Additionally, we love to act on the Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign to report suspicious activity to protect ourselves. What if we adopted a “If You Hear Something, Say Something” approach to combat racially insensitive remarks? Those are just two things that we could be doing around our community; make your voice heard with more ideas that could protect our residents of color.
Jada closes her video by saying “Put your energy into something that actually matters […]”. This matters. Middletown isn’t perfect and we can do better to have open conversations about how to make everyone in our community feel safe, supported, and loved. If you care about this town, you can show it by wanting to make it a better place for every resident. No particular climate makes an individual or community immune to instances of intolerance.
Luke Ferrell is a senior at Middletown High School North. He plans to attend Rutgers University where he intends to major in history and minor in theater. He hopes to be admitted into Rutgers’ teacher education program.