Robbinsville residents made their voices heard in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice at a number of rallies last month. A group of six women—all Robbinsville High School students or alumnae—decided to take it a step further.
Keighly Butler, Karla Dimatulac, Princess Kinch, Shika Lakshman, Aparajitha Suresh and Brinda Suresh collaborated to craft a petition demanding accountability from Robbinsville Public Schools on racial justice. And they faced a considerable amount of blowback and vitriol from Robbinsville community members in the process.
The petition came on the heels of several protests in town. Robbinsville residents got together to host a march to Foxmoor Community Park on June 6 and a rally celebrating Juneteenth—the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States—on June 19. Township government and local faith leaders also hosted a Night of Unity at the Town Center Gazebo June 7.
The rallies were a response to the national protests held following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police in May. That inspired the six women to launch their campaign for change in Robbinsville.
“We all recognized that we wanted to do something regarding all the issues that were going on across the nation, but we weren’t sure how to start,” Brinda Suresh said. “It was a group of people who have connections to each other saying ‘I can do this, I can do that.’ It was never sort of one person who said, ‘I have this idea.’ It was a group of us together pioneering it.”
The petition challenges the school district to help students, faculty and staff lead actively antiracist lives using a set of actions.
First, the petition calls for mandatory antiracism training for all Robbinsville school faculty and guidance counselors. The document states that counselors should be trained not only to manage the specific emotional distress that racism and prejudice can cause, but to also assist in de-escalating situations where students or staff are engaging in racist behavior.
The women are also advocating for regular assemblies with guest speakers who address issues of racism, privilege and systemic injustice; mandatory annual antiracism training for school resource officers, plus periodic assessments; communication with students regarding their rights when interacting with officers; an audit of the current composition of Robbinsville administration, school board, teachers and faculty, followed by steps to make the district more inclusive; and the establishment of an antiracism taskforce.
Perhaps the most ambitious part of the petition in terms of scope, though, is its commitment to decolonizing and diversifying curricula at all grade levels. The petition challenges the district to add antiracist education for all students, as well as assess the historical accuracy of how subjects like Christopher Columbus, slavery, Native American history, segregation, internment, the Civil Rights Movement and xenophobia are taught.
The women also hope to see United States history and world history studied equally—and with a broader focus beyond European and ancient history. The petition advocates for a deeper understanding of non-Western countries without what they say is an imperialist lens, plus a more diverse array of authors and topics in the English, drama, music and art departments.
A letter from superintendent Kathie Foster and incoming superintendent Brian Betze states that the district supports the current and former students who have reached out about the petition. The statement also says the district is committeed to its SROs—a Robbinsville police officer is stattioned in each of the district’s three schools. Initially, the petition called for the the removal of the officers..
Additionally, the board of education approved a resolution “condemning racism and calling for a continued district-wide focus on equity.”
“As so many current and former students stand up and speak their truth, hope is emerging from the heart of their social activism,” the statement said. “We are grateful for this. It is highly evident from the communication we received that the Robbinsville community wants to be a part of lasting change.”
* * *
All of the women behind the petition say they’ve witnessed or been the subject of prejudice in Robbinsville.
Kinch, who is Black, has seen Latino friends face harrassment, and she’s watched as she and other classmates of color are stopped in the hallway more frequently than their white peers. She also sees certain traits—intelligence, eloquence—associated with whiteness rather than Blackness due to stereotypes.
“People consider [those characteristics] to be ‘white,’” she said.
Stereotyping is another issues the women say they’ve faced.
“If you acted like too much of a cultural stereotype, you got made fun of for that,” Aparajitha Suresh said. “But if you also didn’t act like that, you got made fun of that, too. You couldn’t win.”
Brinda Suresh says teachers have said things to her like “India is so dirty, why would you want to go there?” and “I thought Indians were supposed to be smart” when Brinda misheard something that the teacher said.
“It’s almost like it’s toeing the line between microaggression and overt racism. You don’t really know how to respond. You don’t even realize it’s wrong until you think about it later.”
Lakshman said she didn’t come to terms with the racism she faced and witnessed in Robbinsville until she went to college.
“It was the first time people weren’t othering you for not being white,” she said. “[Robbinsville] was a very toxic environment in terms of the lack of antiracism.”
Dimatulac had a similar experience. She grew up in the Philippines and then moved to Robbinsville, which, at the time, had a much smaller East Asian population that it does now, she said. It wasn’t until college that she recognized how stark that transition really was.
“The demographics are much different now, but back then, I felt like being Asian kind of became a caricature of sorts,” she said. “No one really understood any culture besides food or things that they learn on TV. I felt like during those years, I even played into that caricature, I played into those jokes, I was completely okay with it, but it wasn’t until I went to Rutgers that I realized how different that experience could have been.”
That kind of rhetoric doesn’t seem to have changed much. The petition originally called for the removal of SROs from Robbinsville schools, and it was met with an extreme amount of vitriol—some directed at the women themselves—from community members, particularly in the many Robbinsville-centric groups on Facebook. Women in their teens and 20s were being attacked by adults—the parents of their peers.
And it wasn’t just the petition. Calls for antiracism training in Robbinsville schools and support for people of color by current and former students across social media were met with adults making comments like “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read.” Lakshman, who now lives in New Orleans, was the subject of conspiracies—residents implying that she’s a “plant” because she no longer lives in Robbinsville, or that she never went through the school district in the first place.
Kinch said the experience has partially enlightened her about why so many of her classmates have biases—it comes from the top.
“Seeing their parents for the first time, it’s like, ‘Okay, that’s why you’re like that,’” she said.
Others co-opted an email template the organizers created to advocate for the petition, using it to instead send messages to the school board about the importance of a police presence in schools. Some denied that racism is a problem in Robbinsville.
“If Robbinsville was already antiracist, the petition wouldn’t be required,” Brinda Suresh said. “The fact that all of these clauses have to be said by students and alumni of color is predicated on the fact that there are many systemic issues which the townspeople have been complicit in or have actively promoted. More than anything, it should serve as an eye opener for all of us. I don’t think we expected necessarily the caliber of hatred that we received. It was kind of alarming. If Robbinsville is truly as post-racial as all of these people seem to be arguing, why are so many people resistant to listening to us and supporting the cause?”