Interview by Kyra Steck
My name is Dhakir Warren, and I currently serve as administrator of student affairs at the high school. My role spans a wide range of responsibilities — everything from initially implementing a new code of conduct, overseeing its oversight, and dealing with all student matters. Discipline, restorative practices, student life, student culture, social and emotional learning, programming and services – all of that kind of falls under my purview.I came to Martha’s Vineyard, I want to say, in 2016 or 2017. My wife was born and raised here in West Tisbury. We moved back here because my wife had an opportunity to go into work with her brother, who owns Vineyard Decorators. My office was based in Cambridge, and so I said, “You know what? Let’s do it.” And so that’s how I got here.
I am a wash-ashore, I suppose, but I do feel an interesting connection to the community. One, because of my work in the high school and the students we serve, and their families, but also because my wife grew up here, and I also summered here in Oak Bluffs when I was a child.
Having grown up for half of my life in California and the other half in Boston, I certainly think there is that idea, especially when you think about the South — that it is very racist — it’s very overt, it’s very clear. They’ll call you a n_____ to your face, right? In New England, they treat you like a n_____ behind your back. It’s very passive. It’s very much built around this ideal that, in Massachusetts in particular, we’re leftist, meaning we are liberal and forward-thinking. Yet we remain a provincial state. If you really dig down deep from the realm of systemic racism, that is the racism that permeates institutions, and those institutions are driven by people who support policies and practices that are specifically designed to disproportionately impede upon a certain group’s ability to engage in forward mobility. Systemic racism is undeniably present in the Northeast.
I’m an African American male that grew up in America; I went to pretty much all white schools, undergrad, grad. I could go through a full roster of experiences. It’s all harmful and hurtful, whatever the context. My experience, short of ever being physically assaulted, or having my life threatened, really echoes the day-to-day experiences of most people of color in this country. That doesn’t mean something happens every day, but that’s my world. I know when I walk out of my house, I’m not a white man. I know that when I go into a store, there may be a chance that somebody may look at me funny or decide I’m up to no good.
When I think about the fact that I live up-Island, that I live in West Tisbury, I’m very much conscious of the fact that I’m Black. I’m very much conscious of the fact that I am Black living in a community that, although I love it, lacks diversity. I think I’m more tuned into it because I am the father of a biracial child, and when I look at the environment that we live in, I look at the representative examples or places where my daughter can see herself or her culture in the world around her. When we’re in West Tisbury, there is not necessarily an abundance of availability for that.
There’s another piece of this, which makes it interesting. I’m married to a white woman. I’m married to a white woman from a pretty established family on the Vineyard. And it also kind of shifts my position in some respects, rightly or wrongly.
But fundamentally, I experience implicit bias every day. I’m not articulate, I’m educated. And you’re educated, and I don’t need to call you out for being educated because it’s a natural assumption that you are an educated person. For me, if I can pull together a cohesive and coherent sentence, apparently that warrants being called articulate. Call me eloquent, say I said something rather eloquent. But why am I articulate because I can actually string together words? I’ve never heard a white person be called articulate or be referred to as articulate, but I get it a lot, and people really think it’s a compliment. And when I’m out with my daughter, you know, “What is she? She’s so exotic.” What do you mean? She’s a human being. She’s my precious little angel. And no, you can’t touch her hair. It’s those kinds of things, you know? It’s innocence, but ignorance.
On the Island, we are a community. I love this community, I want to raise my daughter here because of the characteristics of this community. But man, is it concerning when you have folks say racism doesn’t exist. It’s paramount to saying, “Well, I don’t see color.” Well, if you don’t see color, you don’t see me. And if you don’t believe racism exists, that means you’ve normalized behaviors that reinforce and fuel systemic racism.
Let’s be real, you have an all-white school committee, every seat. You mean to tell me every single school committee is only comprised of white people? We can’t do better? No, there’s a reason for that. And all the selectmen? I think with a few exceptions, the major governing bodies of this Island are white, and it’s not representative of the population and its makeup.
These are important lessons. People have to understand that no, this is not a utopia, racism exists.
But … here’s the opportunity, here’s who’s driving it: It really is the youth that’s driving this. Let’s show that there’s an opportunity to change. We can’t always approach it from the fact that we’re going to try to change hearts and minds, because sometimes we’re not. But we can plant seeds, you know?