Column: There is a lot to learn from the black-doll hanging incident at Burns Park school
On March 13, AnnArbor.com reported that a black doll with a chain around its neck had been discovered hanging in a tree on or near the Burns Park Elementary School yard by a small group of 5th-graders.
The news article provoked some concerned comments on the website, but many more dismissive ones insisting this was a non-event, and it generated anger, especially in the black community, reflected in the guest commentary by Charles A. Lewis posted March 24, “Where is community outrage over hanging of black doll?”
This is a follow-up to the incident.
File Photo | AnnArbor.com
What we learned
• The response to the incident was appropriate in handling the initial impact that seeing the doll, or hearing about it, might have had on the children. The group of 5th-graders called the hanging doll to the attention of their principal, who, expressing concern and disappointment that anyone would do this, removed the doll from sight and alerted their parents and teachers about it. She called in the school’s AAPD liaison officer, who made a thorough investigation of the incident and prepared a police report. She asked an AAPS school psychologist to talk with each of the students in the group who saw the doll and to be available for anyone else who wanted to talk about the incident. She asked school custodians to be on the lookout for signs of any other concerning items on the grounds, informed all the school’s teachers, and sent a note home to all the parents. The superintendent’s office was actively involved.
• There was no way to determine what motivated this incident from the existing evidence. Malice or prank? The evidence itself was inconclusive. People wanted more information so they could assess motive/threat for themselves, but there was no more information. Some made assumptions based on their own histories and perspectives.
• There was a polarization of reactions to the incident that appears not to have been expected. This incident set off alarms in the African-American community. Who can forget lynchings from not-that-many years ago? For some, it is clear that racism still exists so comments like “Why is everybody making such a big deal over this?” is an insult. To others, this is a big deal and comes as no surprise. Consequently, as one of our group’s members put it, “The polarized reactions to the incident seem to be more informative than the actual incident and seem to reveal an opportunity for proactive work in building Ann Arbor into a more cohesive and considerate community that considers all as valuable members.” Additional steps that can be taken in the future in handling incidents like this one
• Use extra care in the reporting of the incident. People want all the information they can get -- and tend to create what isn’t provided unless the reporting is clear and follow-up takes place. The comments to the AnnArbor.com article were filled with inaccuracies, which were later picked up by others as if they were facts, sometimes provoking unrealistic arguments in the comment exchange. A follow-up article might help remind people of the details of the story and assure them that it is being given due attention. Content should always be timely and clear to prevent inaccuracies from triggering unwarranted concerns.
• Be aware that the reactions to an incident may, in the long run, be more important than the incident itself. How can you prepare yourself to anticipate what the reactions might be - or learn what they are?
• Educate yourself now by attending some of the many training and dialogue sessions available to help people better understand one another. Check out www.understandingraceproject.org (click on events) and/or sign up for a free 6-week series of conversations on race at firstname.lastname@example.org and look for other offerings on diversity.
• Identify and develop resources in your organization and in the community who can help you understand what others are feeling and saying when an incident occurs.
• Use the incident as an opportunity to bring the community together through education and dialogue. Ignoring the situation will not make it go away, and for many, ignoring the situation simply adds to the insult. Fortunately, incidents that result in anger and misunderstanding also create opportunities - brief windows in time when talking and listening can have the deepest impact.
• Contact the Ann Arbor Community Response Group when incidents occur that might be motivated by bias or hate. Our mission is prevention and healing and we can help.
Submitted by Leslie Stambaugh on behalf of the Ann Arbor Community Response Group, comprised of people and organizations representing law enforcement, the schools, advocacy, faith, and human rights groups, and organizations involved in conflict resolution. You may contact the group at AACommunityResponse@gmail.com.