Meaningful to them


To the Editor:The following is a copy of a letter sent to Mr. Nixon, MVRHS principal.

The Times and Gazette articles — and their corresponding online comments — on the stole controversy have made me very upset in the past few days. I wanted to share a few thoughts based on only what I’ve found online.

I believe that graduates should be able to celebrate in the way that is most meaningful to them.

Commencement is for the students and not the school. Celebrations like this are often more meaningful when they represent students’ heritage and identity. This is why, at my college graduation two weeks ago, students of African descent wore kente cloth, queer students and their allies wore lavender sashes, and Latino students wore multicolored stoles, among other student groups.

Cultural forms — including stoles — that carry the most meaning can also present the greatest damage to personal identity when the freedom to wear them is challenged. Unfortunately, your decision has been conflated online with some of the worst kinds of xenophobia and racism — epithets that I wish on no one, but especially graduates who have excelled academically. I hope you and the school can in some way address this racism and stigmatization of the Island’s Brazilian community.

It is deeply disturbing that some comments have turned this debate into a referendum on undocumented immigration. The comments, too, are at times ironic. One person, cowering behind an online pseudonym, told the “illegals” to “stop turning our great country into a third world country.” Since Brazil is a G-8 country and certainly not “Third World,” I assume this comment is about political and social ideals, haphazardly separating the world that doesn’t have them from the United States, which does. We do, of course, have political ideals, which include First Amendment rights, and any attempt to limit the freedom of expression is a step backward in our democracy.

The comments online are a deeply unfortunate effect of what I think was a poor decision, the main support for which seems to be fear of a slippery slope. This, however, has little basis. No student group until now has approached the school about wearing stoles since African Americans were allowed to twenty years ago. (One possible exception is the Wampanoag tribe members, but no one can remember if that’s true or not, speaking to the insignificance of this gesture to people who are not members of the tribe.)

But even if more student groups did come forward, why would that matter? Shouldn’t the school encourage its students to make their graduation as meaningful for them as possible? Do ten students wearing stoles make the ceremony less meaningful for others?

The Brazilian community on the Vineyard is subject daily to stigmatization, both in institutional inequality — in healthcare, housing, education, and other public services — and in interpersonal racism, as demonstrated online. If their ceremony will be more meaningful to them if they are draped in the colors of their country of ancestry, please let them.

Duncan Pickard

Oak Bluffs