Equity & Diversity Opinion

Symbols in Our Schools: What Messages Do They Send?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 30, 2015 5 min read
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Symbols are powerful things. Just try to change one that has been around for a long time. Let it be associated with athletic teams or school names and its power is even more profound. Just ask anyone whose district has lived through decisions about keeping or changing a Native American school identity like Indians, Braves, Red Skins or Chiefs. Grades can be considered symbols. Those letters and numbers can communicate “you are smart” or “you are not smart”. Those messages may not be the intention but they surely are the result. Celebrations and rituals are symbolic. Certainly, the end of the school year is filled with them. When a circle with a line through it accompanied by the words “No Bullying Here” is posted in the hallways, what message is being sent? Is it teaching how to offer welcome to others? Is it indicative of an embracing culture or one in which behaviors are either tolerated or not?

What about the faculty lounge, bus garage, the kitchen or the boiler room? Are there calendars or posters that would not pass muster in the hallways? And why would that matter? These words and images communicate values, instill pride or offend. The difference is in the intent of the sender and the experience of the receiver. The goal, of course, is the exchange of a shared meaning and that that work and often sensitivity, and sometimes the capacity to put someone else’s feelings above our own or at least make them equal in consideration to our own. This is an important skill and yet it is subtle, the way we listen and include, remembering that we are teaching students by how we address these issues.

Maybe now is the time to scour school buildings for signs, symbols, and rituals that unwittingly teach lessons unintended. Although teachers may have taken down their decorated walls for the summer, as they are being put back up a review and conversations can begin the year with a new awareness. Instead of posting “No xxx Here”, posting what is welcomed and encouraged in classrooms and hallways can become a positive shift. A look at what faces are captured in the pictures posted in the hallways, in the congratulatory messages, in the advanced classes and in the remedial ones, with a new eye, can inform new conversations. What information gets tweeted out and put on the webpage and Facebook? Each conversation, each sign, each communication holds a symbol, intended or not, that indicates what is valued.

What brought this to our minds right now is the Confederate flag controversy. Deep meanings are attached to it even if those meanings are not the same. Is it a historical symbol only or does it hold association with rebellion and pride (certainly men went into battle with it as a banner) or is it the residual symbol of our past as a nation, of slavery, white supremacy and racism. Here’s a bit of history on the subject.

President Lincoln sent orders that Anderson was to lead a delegation to raise “the SAME United States flag” over Fort Sumter that was lowered on the exact date four years earlier. Lincoln approved an entourage including abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and the British antislavery crusader George Thompson. It also included Robert Vesey, whose father Denmark had co-founded Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church before leading an abortive slave insurrection. That evening, after the flag-raising ceremony, thousands of newly freed slaves marched about singing “John’s Brown Body” and carried Garrison on their shoulders. They were unaware that Lincoln was being assassinated (TheAtlantic.com).

The flag Lincoln asked to be raised was supported by abolitionists. It was seen by thousands of slaves as a symbol of newly won freedom, and, clearly, it marked victory and defeat when one flag was lowered and another one, raised. Of course, feelings were high and long lasting. But, here’s another piece of history about the Confederate flag.

On May 1, 1863, the Confederate Congress adopted a second official flag that consisted of a battle flag in the upper left-hand corner on a field of white. Designed by William T. Thompson, editor of the Savannah Morning News, the flag was designated “Whiteman’s Flag.” Thompson wrote, “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the Whiteman over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematic of our cause...Such a flag would take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations and be hailed by the civilized world as the ‘Whiteman’s Flag.’” The flag was later sold and catalogued under that name. It was eventually redesigned with a band of red on the end--a necessary change because it otherwise gave the appearance of a flag of truce when drooped around its staff.Emory.Edu

It seems there has been an association between racism and the flag since its origins. And, there have been debates before about where it belonged in the history of the South and, symbolically, in the present. But, there it stands amidst statues and streets named after military leaders from the War Between the States. Why has it taken so long to take it down? Silence and inaction surely played a role. From 1979 to 1985 the popular television show, Dukes of Hazzard, had a car as part of every episode. The car, with the words, General Lee and a replica of the Confederate Flag painted on its roof, to our knowledge, never received anything but acclaim; no protests until now. Perhaps everything has its own time. Now the car is banned from NASCAR.

The Des Moines Register posted an article in which both the support for removal of the flag and criticism of the decision by retailers to remove the flags and toys with the flags on them was discussed. In it, they pointed out that one of the officials fighting to have the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina state capitol grounds is the son of “Strom Thurmond, the U.S. Senator from South Carolina who strongly supported segregation.” We all carry our father’s and mother’s as part of our histories; the gift we are given is to write our own lives. This young man can step away from his father’s legacy and lead us to a new day. Good for him.

People and times change. We cannot ignore the power of symbols and we hope that we continue to grow as people, educators, citizens, organizations, and as a country. We should be aware of not only what symbols mean to us, but how they are perceived by others. Thoughtful decisions about symbols affect children and ripple through generations.

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