By Yassie Liow
New York City, New York
On April 16, a snail mail letter from Andrew Gutmann, an angry parent at the Brearley School, arrived in the mailboxes of hundreds of community members. The letter announced that Gutmann, a 45-year-old ex-investment banker, would be withdrawing his daughter from the school in response to Brearley’s anti-racist reforms. As an Asian-American senior at Brearley, I have spent the past few days thinking about how the letter misrepresents my school.
“Brearley’s obsession with race must stop,” wrote Gutmann.
What exactly constitutes Brearley’s “obsession with race”? Gutmann wrote about reforms around the school ranging from mandatory anti-racism training to curricular changes highlighting authors of color.
Throughout his letter, Gutmann accused Brearley of advancing an “anti-intellectual” agenda that includes the “gutting of the history, civics, and classical literature curriculums” and “censorship of books...because they contain dated language potentially offensive to the thin-skinned and hypersensitive.” He further complained that his daughter had faced this as early as fourth grade.
As a sixth grader, Gutmann’s daughter has encountered roughly half of the Brearley curriculum. She has not encountered Latin at Brearley—as students start the Classics in seventh grade—has not analyzed Cicero, and has not translated “Caecilius est in horto,” the famous phrase and fan favorite from the Cambridge Latin Course. If she is Gutmann’s main lens into Brearley, does this make Gutmann qualified to give an educated critique of Brearley’s classical literature curriculum?
About Brearley’s attitude towards “dated language”—Brearley has not censored “dated language.” Sure, we don’t run up and down the hallways screaming slurs at each other. We do, however, read Huckleberry Finn and A Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, Beloved, and Their Eyes were Watching God, which include the n-word. We don’t take it lightly. We discuss the meaning of the n-word in its historical context, how it has been used to harm others and why we should not use it.
As for Gutmann’s criticism of (pardon the word) gutting traditional curricula, i.e., those that contain primarily white authors: why don’t we look at a sample senior year English curriculum? In a course entitled “Magical Realism”, we read One Hundred Years of Solitude, Song of Solomon, and The Elephant Vanishes, none of which were written by white authors. This was my English course, and so I have not read a single word written by a white author in English this year. Quite frankly, it was liberating to hear non-Eurocentric perspectives on colonialism. I left the class feeling better equipped to assess power dynamics, having analyzed narratives on both sides.
Gutmann would argue that such curricular changes force students of color to see themselves as “helpless victims...incapable of success regardless of their skills.” I argue quite the opposite, and so would Gabriel García Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
In his Nobel Prize Lecture delivered on December 8, 1982, García Marquez said that “Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration.” When he writes about Latin American struggles under colonialism, García Marquez takes agency over an otherwise white-dominated narrative and empowers people to eschew the victim character. I will note that none other than my Brearley English teacher brought this lecture to class for us Brearley students to analyze with our close reading and critical thinking skills, which we learned at Brearley.
As the mother of a Brearley senior wrote to Gutmann, “What is most startling in your arguments, and yet completely pedestrian, is the superiority you assign to whites, the unquestioned assumption that all whites at Brearley (and everywhere in the world for that matter) by definition signify a raising of standards, or that every white person is where they are based solely on their own merit. This assumption is a pathology of which many an enlightened Black person is all too aware.”
But why does everything have to be about race? Gutmann argues that “by viewing every element of education, every aspect of history, and every facet of society through the lens of skin color and race we are desecrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Sure, not everything has to be about race, but race is undeniably a crucial factor. We view and experience education, history and society through our backgrounds—lived experiences, race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality and more. To deny discussion of race as it intersects with history is to deny students a part in history—and, by extension, a chance to connect with that history.
One of the books by white authors removed from the Brearley curriculum is A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Rowlandson offers readers a whiny account of being moved from one Native American camp to another in King Phillip’s war, peppered with racist retorts. It will not be missed.
That year, we also read A Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass, one of the few books in my (since amended) sophomore year curriculum writtten by a non-white author. This book gave me a much greater understanding of American history than Rowlandson ever could.
I did not receive Gutmann’s letter in the mail, but rather via a group text to the entire senior class on Friday. It was met with anger, fear and disgust. The Brearley administration immediately scheduled two Google Meet calls with the Upper School, during which students expressed their thoughts.
According to a New York Post article published on April 19, Gutmann denied the idea that Brearley students would be “frightened” by a letter.
“The upper schoolers are afraid of getting a letter at their home?” Gutmann inquired Saturday. “They’re frightened and intimidated? The school has said it’s [sic] number one priority is to teach the girls intellectual bravery and courageousness. Either they are lying or else they have done an atrocious job.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the adjective “intellectual.” Intellectual bravery is selecting a difficult research topic. It is raising your hand in math class to answer a question you’re unsure of. It is offering a counterpoint to your teacher in a class discussion. Intellectual bravery is not walking to school afraid of being attacked on the way. It is not seeing people who look like you murdered in the news. There is nothing “intellectual” about fearing for your life. It is a privilege, one of a wealthy, white person, to intellectualize the trauma of people of color. It is a privilege to see racism as a debatable issue. It is a privilege to deny its existence altogether.
I am not afraid of getting a letter in the mail. I think it would be difficult to get through the college process if I had to run and hide every time an envelope with “Bennington College” on the front appeared on my doormat. But this was not an ordinary letter. Personally, I am more afraid of an underground group of Brearley families who deny that I have a rightful place in the school or argue that I contribute to a “lowering of standards”. I am not thrilled with these beliefs, in the form of a letter, intruding on physical space in my private life.
“I object to the charge of systemic racism in this country...Systemic racism is unequivocally not a small number of isolated incidents over a period of decades,” Gutmann wrote.
This statement is ignorant at best, facetious at worst. Surely Gutmann has read the news lately. People of color are being shot and killed “accidentally” on the regular. Systemic racism did not end in 1960. In fact, it continues to benefit white people, whether or not they acknowledge their privilege.
I am so tired of hearing that my existence takes up too much space. I am tired of hearing debates about whether my voice belongs in the classroom.
Martin Luther King, Jr., whose legacy I am supposedly desecrating, claimed that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In other words, what Gutmann calls censorship and one-mindedness is really intolerance to intolerance. Teaching students about anti-racism might make them more close-minded to racist views, but it ultimately helps them appreciate cultures and perspectives other than their own. Brearley’s anti-racist programming is a step in the direction of a more inclusive future, one which some might be afraid to encounter in their households, but one which most of the community readily embraces.