Editor’s Message: Parallax Viewpoints, a Black-owned Facebook page, publicly published this open letter on Facebook to Dr. Laurene Simms 8 hours ago. Parallax Viewpoints granted us permission to share their open letter on our website and social media pages, with a plain text version of the same letter for BIPOC and other DeafBlind readers to have full access. Above this Editor’s message are our screenshots of the original letter, and below is the plain text.
Dear Dr. Simms:
Deny, Project, Deflect, Divide and Rule: An Entreaty to Replace the Sowing of Division with Goodwill, Respect, and Inclusion
This letter, at time of issue, is signed by 26 people — drawn from a cross-section of staff, faculty, students, and alumni of Gallaudet University who also represent some diversity of identity including race, gender, and sexual orientation. For fear of retribution, the list of signatories is provided to the Gallaudet Staff Council Chair, with a request that it may only be divulged if required by a District of Columbia or federal law, or a signatory voluntarily identifies themselves as a party of this letter.
“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that other are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed."
--- Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Dr. Simms, when you went on what was essentially ‘National TV’ for the Deaf community, on Thursday, June 18, 2020, for what had been billed as a ‘candid conversation on systematic racism and creating a path forward,” and proceeded to separate American-born Black Deaf and internationally-born Black Deaf individuals, our hopes turned into consternation. President Roberta Cordano then appeared to legitimize your demarcation of the Black community at Gallaudet, by adding a place-of-birth line to yourself — “our CBO, who is Deaf, Black Deaf, American-born,” and Dr. Elavie Ndura, “the Chief Diversity Officer, Black hearing woman, international-born.”
This rhetoric repeats the harm of racist thinking that the Black community, Deaf included, have been subjected to for generations. Regrettably, you appeared to be telling the members of National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA) and the Black Deaf Gallaudet Community who are not American-born that they are not true Americans and should, therefore, lie low. What happened to the focus on countless concerns expressed about racism and the systemic oppression of Black people at Gallaudet? We assumed the sit-down was to discuss frankly why President Cordano had not acted on these concerns and complaints and what she pledged to do going forward.
Xenophobic rhetoric involves the expression of thought which evince dislike, fear, distrust, intolerance, or the othering of foreign-born people. Xenophobia is often expressed against foreign-born people or organizations that welcome them in denigrating, exclusionary or hostile terms. Our response to your rhetoric proceeds from this understanding.
You spent much time compartmentalizing the Black community. You then appeared to insinuate that the demand of NBDA to remove President Cordano was tied to African-born Black people whom you implied did not understand American-born Black people like yourself.. This exclusion and denigration of African-born Black Deaf people to bolster your position deflects from the main issue of Gallaudet’s institutional racism and evokes the incalculable harms of racist and exclusionary thinking that the Black Deaf community has endured for far too long.
You then pivot from that carnage to address why you oppose the removal of President Cordano, linking it to an entrenched white patriarchy which undermined Dr. Elizabeth Zinser and Dr. Jane Fernades. You later also mentioned the removal of a woman of color, Dr. Angela McCaskill. The respective historical contexts of all three — DPN; covert racism and perception of flaws in the process; and blatant racism — contradict your assertion. Dr. Simms, you appear to be cherry-picking and manipulating history to justify your position. A timely reminder at this time is apposite: You were a staunch member and leader of the Faculty, Staff, Students and Alumni (FSSA) which fiercely opposed the selection of Dr. Fernandes.
By this point in the sit down, you had made two irreconcilably contradictory arguments: that foreign-born Black individuals had as their goal to remove President Cordano, and that the President is a victim of an entrenched patriarchy, essentially a racist and sexist institution.
Our primary focus, however, is on your divisive xenophobic rhetoric.
This historic moment marks Black people’s centuries of dying from white people’s knees grinding on their necks, literally and figuratively, and these horrors are reflected at Gallaudet historically and contemporaneously by the countless concerns expressed about racism and oppression of Black people at Gallaudet. Your sit down should have addressed President Cordano’s neglect in dealing with the ongoing racism and oppression of Black people at Gallaudet, despite many requests to do so since she assumed the presidency. This is the heart of the matter, not the sowing of Black versus Black division.
The one solid, direct question you asked President Cordano was why she had not acted on the many requests and complaints around racism and oppression at Gallaudet. President Cordano stated that she did not have the team she needed to help her accomplish the much-needed change, and you, unfortunately, did not pursue the subject further. Instead, you chose to place the burden on Black people to be “forgiving.”
Forgiveness is cleansing to the human soul, but this situation requires more than Black people forgiving. Black people within the Gallaudet community need the institutional leadership to enact visible, proactive change. While we have our thoughts about the nature of President Cordano’s response to your one question about not enacting effective change, the big picture is the focus: what had occurred during the first 45 minutes of the one hour and eleven minute sit down was the classic racist playbook of deny, project, deflect, divide and conquer at play in our community.
Many Deaf African-horn Americans trace their educational roots and advancement directly and adventitiously to Dr. Andrew Jackson Foster. Dr. Foster was never associated with xenophobic rhetoric, and he strove mightily and successfully to unite Deaf Africans across their European-imposed geographical boundaries, because he had been imbued with the African spirit of Ubuntu. Dr. Foster knew that xenophobia supports racism and its foundational ideology, whiteness. He understood the ancient African sayings that “one bean cannot make a whole meal,” and ‘true power comes through cooperation and silence.”
Deaf international-born Americans come to the United States with this same unifying spirit. This unity contributes to the cultural, economic, and educational enrichment of the Black Deaf communities with everyone as an integral part through acts consistent with unity and a sense of belonging.
Some of us have been asked how we prefer to be identified—African-American, Black American, or an American of this, that or the other national origin. Our response has always been the same, That I am an African-American. an American citizen.”
This message underlines our collective oneness, founded on certain values—a shared desire to better our country, a country with a multitude of Black citizens and also, tragically, a country founded on a bitter portion that is handed to us daily by systemic, institutionalized racism which impacts us in all facets of our lives.
Dr. Simms, our letter is motivated by affection and respect for our collective and beloved Black Deaf community and Gallaudet. We ask that you engage in retrospection and self-examination to understand how your rhetoric would sow disunity, and to challenge yourself to act from a place of affirmation for all people who constitute the Brack Deaf community that is free from othering on the basis of place of birth,
[Signed by a cross-section of staff. faculty. students and alumni]
NOTE: This letter is addressed to Dr. Laurens. Simms and copied to the Board of Trustees, the Gallaudet Staff Council (GSC), the Organization for Equity for Deaf Staff of Color (OEDSC), the Faculty of Color Coalition (FoCC.), the Gallaudet University Alumni Association (GUAA). Brianne Burger of the US Department of Education, and members or the Executive Team. The names and phone numbers of signatories will be kept confidential in the possession of the current GSC Chair, Tamer Arfehmoud. The fourth page is left intentionally blank, as the actual page of signatures is not public and only the GSC Chair would know.