Blackwell Elementary Chinese American Community’s letter to LWSD

On March 18th, Blackwell Elementary principal, Jim Eaton, sent out an “apology” letter addressing the Blackwell Chinese New Year incident. The Chinese American community has repeatedly requested that the school and district rescind their decision to label the incident as “cultural appropriation” and issue an apology to Mrs. Nicholson and the Chinese American community. Yet, principal Eaton’s letter did not address either requests.

Not satisfied with principal Eaton’s “apology” letter, 62 parents from the Chinese American community at Blackwell Elementary sent LWSD a co-signed letter with their requests on March 21. Below is the full content of their letter.

Dear Principal Eaton,

We, members of the Blackwell Chinese community, are seeking redress regarding how you responded to Mrs. Nicholson wearing Chinese traditional clothing at Blackwell.

What happened in the classroom

On February 1st, in recognition of the Chinese New Year, as you know Mrs. Nicholson introduced the holiday to her class while wearing a traditional Chinese gown and hat as part of her teaching materials. Mrs. Nicholson is well known to wear a variety of hats and costumes as part of her engaging and uniquely effective approaches to teaching. On this occasion she gave her students a wonderful lesson on Chinese tradition and culture in which she explained that the outfit was gifted to her by a former student family. She talked about that family and how she had developed a relationship with them. The students watched Discovery Education videos about the Chinese New Year and discussed Chinese traditions such the meaning of the color red. They wrote numbers from one to ten in Chinese, made Chinese lanterns, etc.  Mrs. Nicholson demonstrated and taught appreciation and respect for Chinese culture and the diversity our beloved neighborhood has to offer.    

The school’s response

Instead of praising Mrs. Nicholson’s culturally sensitive teaching and inclusive embracing of Chinese culture, you shortly thereafter determined to label her wearing of a Chinese gown while teaching Chinese culture as “cultural appropriation.” Citing a complaint of undisclosed origin, you apparently believed Mrs. Nicholson’s behavior would harm the Chinese community and caused her to believe she had committed an offence. You led her to apologize to the class and send a letter of apology recanting her behavior to parents of students in the class, none of whom complained. In all this, you did not consult with any members of the school’s Chinese American student families. It is hard to fathom what the children learned from this experience.

What it meant to the Chinese community

Had you involved us, the Chinese community, in your response, you would have learned that people of Chinese origin are open, inclusive, and proud of our culture, and as such are delighted when others celebrate it, whether through wearing our traditional clothing or in any similarly respectful manner, especially during the Chinese New Year. To us, Mrs. Nicholson’s wearing of this clothing and teaching were gestures of appreciation and inclusion to be welcomed. As done by a person of authority, such as a teacher, these gestures go even further in setting a positive example toward teaching children the importance of open mindedness and appreciation of diversity. Those of us who saw Mrs. Nicholson greeting students wearing a Chinese gown at Blackwell that day felt proud to see their school joining the celebration and valuing our traditions. Our hearts were warmed to learn how she had celebrated the Lunar New Year with her class including the wearing of these gifts from another Chinese family. We felt welcomed and included by this positive gesture of recognition of our tradition and celebration of the diverse culture of our community. We must assume that the family who gave her these gifts would have likewise wished her to feel completely free, as an American, to wear them in a public school. We felt reassured by Mrs. Nicholson’s cultural appreciation, all the more so in these difficult times in which hatred and violence toward Asians is increasingly evident.

On the contrary, we found the act of making Mrs. Nicholson apologize for this to be deeply disturbing and beyond our comprehension. Her letter sent a message opposite to what Mrs. Nicholson had conveyed in the classroom, effectively revealing a reprimand to those who show affinity to Chinese culture. While we can’t speak for other cultures and communities, this twisting of the definition of cultural appropriation to apply it to Chinese culture is baffling. It has been difficult to refrain from questioning the motive, having seen Blackwell teachers and staff wearing costumes or outfits of other cultures on many occasions. Even you, as the chief authority of the school, have worn a turban of another culture at a social function, as immortalized in the yearbook for all to see. In doing so we must assume that you had learned about, expressed appreciation for, and shared about the culture it represented, as did Mrs. Nicholson, or that it was for a teaching purpose, as it was for Mrs. Nicholson, and not merely for a photo op.  We in the Chinese heritage community at Blackwell assume only the best of intentions on the part of others when they celebrate others’ cultures. So receiving a letter effectively condemning this celebration of Chinese culture created for us not a feeling of belonging, inclusion, nor of being “protected,” but rather a feeling of stark alienation from the broader celebration of diverse cultures we have otherwise witnessed at Blackwell.

We moreover find it patronizing that others took it upon themselves to speak for and be offended on our behalf.  While we have heard that whatever person or persons complained about Mrs. Nicholson included an ”Asian American,” regardless of his/her background and heritage, whoever complained that this was “cultural appropriation” clearly has not lived nor truly understood Chinese culture. It is frankly stereotyping us as “minorities who must be offended,” and is a direct insult that the school took action against a teacher to protect our community without having heard the voices of the very community you supposedly intended to protect.  By excluding us from whatever conversation led to the apology you have effectively marginalized us.

Finally, we are confounded by the lack of transparency about the complaint and how the decision of the school was taken or how cultural appreciation got confused with cultural appropriation. What rule or policy did Mrs. Nicholson break to warrant such a public humiliation? If there is one, who was it designed to serve? Without understanding what happened, we are left to wonder and be afraid of whatever other actions of cultural suppression we and our children may be subjected to in the future.  Will our children be safe from persecution should they choose to wear Chinese clothing? What if they don’t “look Chinese” enough? Will Mrs. Nicholson feel compelled to further edit her collection of hats? 

How we can move forward, and what we expect to see from the school and district:

1. An immediate written apology to the Chinese community at Blackwell, acknowledging that Mrs. Nicholson’s behavior was appropriate, and her letter of apology unwarranted.  Come also to the classroom and explain to the children what was learned and why it was wrong to make Mrs. Nicholson apologize for it.  Make it clear the school fully supports such culturally appropriate expressions of appreciation as Mrs. Nicholson demonstrated. Rescind the previous judgement mislabeling Mrs. Nicholson’s clear actions of appreciation as appropriation. Recognize that it was insensitive to the Chinese community and wrong. Ensure teachers and students of all backgrounds, as our Chinese heritage children whether or not they “look the part,” are safe from harassment should they choose to embrace and respectfully display evidence of their cultural heritage through clothing or otherwise. Ensure culturally appropriate expressions of cultural appreciation are not suppressed, and no feelings of intolerance were given credence to fester by the school’s response.

2. Get to know Chinese culture and the Chinese community, one of the major ethnic groups in our district. We believe there is a lot more to be learned by engaging in dialog with other communities than by engaging in acts of imperious censorship or reprimands that effectively suppress the rare opportunities for learning about differences in minority cultures, cultural expression, and preferences of expression by those cultures. Educators and leaders charged with the responsibility of promoting diversity and inclusion should especially recognize the importance of understanding diverse cultures before jumping to potentially harmful conclusions counterproductive to DEI goals. Going forward, actively involve members of communities you serve before making judgements about how they might be offended or censoring respectful free expressions of culture by others.  

3. Have the district conduct a full and transparent investigation and report back to the community on what exactly happened (a time lined detail since 2/1) on how this happened, what principles or guidelines were applied, what process was followed, and who was consulted, so we can avoid such incidents in the future. Clarify school and district policies relating to cultural expression. What are the rules or guidelines by which teachers and students can celebrate culture and diversity?

4. Become familiar with, and educate staff about, the differences between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Appropriation involves taking an aspect of a culture not one’s own without consent or any cultural context or relationship to the item or practice—solely for personal interest, such as to gain popularity. Appreciation and sharing a culture being celebrated by respectfully wearing clothes, when seen as desirable by the community being celebrated, is not appropriation.  

5. Mrs. Nicholson is an exemplary teacher in her approach to inclusiveness and teaching in general. Her educational methods are greatly valued to broaden every child’s horizon, enhance their interest in learning and promote friendship. Please find an appropriate way to honor her contributions, ensure her record reflects this, and that she is left feeling fully respected and appreciated for her unique style and contribution to learning, including about other cultures. Ensure she and other teachers at Blackwell feel completely free to continue their own unique and respectful styles of teaching so that our children continue to learn to appreciate other cultures and feel the sense of belonging and inclusiveness that we are confident the school and district are trying to inculcate.

Respectfully, Families of Blackwell Students of Chinese Heritage:

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