We all know that Haywood County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte shared a meme viewed by many as racially insensitive. Without rehashing it too much, the meme stated, “Poor children of every color picked cotton; open a book and gain some knowledge.” I don’t think that Dr. Nolte is a vile racist who should resign immediately; but, I also believe that his sharing of the aforementioned meme is very problematic and needs to be addressed in some way other than his defensive apology. A lot of people are mad that people are so “easily offended,” but it isn’t about people simply “being offended,” it is about what this meme represents. So what is the problem?
On its face, the meme is true: white people picked cotton. But it is incredibly dismissive of the multitude of issues of injustice towards people of color. The argument “white children picked cotton too” is part of the line of thinking that suggests that the struggles of Black people in America aren’t unique; therefore, any suggestion that racism still exists in a systemic form is a “false narrative.” But racism does exist — both in individuals and in institutions. We, white people, recognize it when it’s overt, such as when people use racial slurs or make generalized negative statements about Black people.
But it is often much more insidious than that. In other words, sayings and memes and ideas and policies that belittle and dismiss the suffering of others beget ingrained ideas and attitudes about groups of people. In a very real way, when someone like Dr. Nolte shares an idea like “white kids picked cotton, too” in our current racial climate, he is educating our community with ideas that ultimately lead to insidious racism. Now, please note that I am not saying that Dr. Nolte is a vile racist, but the fact that he did not consider the implications and impact of him sharing that meme is incredibly problematic.
To further complicate matters, after realizing the impact of sharing it, Dr. Nolte deleted it and shared an equally problematic “apology.” Now, his explanation was that he posted the meme in response to a news story from June 14, 2020, almost a month ago. That explanation is questionable, at best. But to further complicate things, he appealed to the fact that he had a Black friend several decades ago. Proximity to Black people does not make someone an anti-racist. Instead of recognizing the problems with his public display of the meme and explaining how he will do better in the future, he ultimately blamed those who were “offended” for misunderstanding him.
I wholeheartedly believe that Dr. Nolte has done good things for Haywood County Schools. He has worked in our school system for three decades, and, in my own experience, many of the administrators and teachers who work under his leadership are incredible, especially pretty much everyone that has come into contact with my own son.
With that being said, there are three ways Haywood County Schools and Dr. Bill Nolte can handle this situation. Number one, they could dismiss the concerns of those who were upset by the situation and move forward, knowing that the majority white population won’t really care about it. Number two, Dr. Nolte could resign, forced or otherwise, and the school board will hope that those angered by the meme will forget about it and move on. Number three, which I believe is the best way forward, the school board and Dr. Nolte can use this as a chance to educate themselves and the rest of the educators in this county by LISTENING to the voices of Black people in our community.
Listen to former and current Black students; listen to Black parents; listen to the leaders of community organizations like the local NAACP and local black churches. Reach out to Black educational administrators in neighboring counties and states. Listen to the words of Black educators from across the country. I would also encourage you to, as the meme says, “Open a book and gain some knowledge.” I would recommend Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, in which Kendi traces the insidious nature of racism throughout our nation’s history and how it has shown up in every facet of American life, including education. And then take it a step farther and listen to the voices of Latinos, Native Americans, immigrants, and all of the other people who make up our community in Haywood County. If these steps or comparable steps are not taken, then Dr. Nolte and the Haywood County School Board will have refused to be educated while at the same time standing for the education of the children of our community.