“Gaslighting via wordsmithing:” Brandi Grayson Responds to Jennifer Cheatham’s Pledge to Take...

“Gaslighting via wordsmithing:” Brandi Grayson Responds to Jennifer Cheatham’s Pledge to Take on Racism in Schools

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Brandi Grayson

This opinion piece reflects the views of its author and not necessarily those of Madison365, its staff, board of directors or funders.

The superintendent of Madison Metropolitan School District, Jennifer Cheatham. wrote a letter to the Madison Community on 2/28/19, acknowledging the failure of MMSD to protect Black children. She acknowledged that MMSD should be held to a higher standard. She acknowledged that incidents are increasing with time. The problem with her letter is, and was, that she gaslit the hell out of us via wordsmithing.

Before I explain how she did it let me first define gaslighting and wordsmithing. Both are used in abusive relationships. Gaslighting is a term coined to describe a series of manipulative behavior resulting in emotional and mental abuse which causes the targeted individual(s) to begin questioning their feelings and emotions. One way Jennifer Cheatham did this is by downplaying incidents of racism and physical abuse. She often responds to concerns and demands from the Black community as overreactive, over-dramatized, or unnecessary, but never directly uses those words. That’s where wordsmithing comes in. Wordsmithing is defined as a person skillfully using words to convey a certain message or thought indirectly. It’s used by abusers to redirect, reframe, oppose, and downplay.

On February 13, 2019, an 11-year old Black girl was brutalized at Whitehorse elementary school by an administrator. The school district didn’t respond to the incident until nine days later. Jennifer Cheatham did not send out a letter to the community expressing her discontent following the incident, nor did she acknowledge the incident had occurred. An eleven-year-old Black girl was brutalized in front of her class. The dean of students who as acting principal for the day, Rob Mueller-Owens, 52, pushed her, threw her to the ground and pulled her hair out.

What did the school district do by way of their superintendent? They effectively denied that the brutal incident occurred through failure to acknowledge it publicly.

Denial is one of the first techniques used by an abuser. They simply deny that it ever occurred. Despite the evidence. Recall, gas-lighting makes the victim (over time) doubt their own emotions and feelings, and because Jennifer Cheatham denied that the incident occurred by failing to acknowledge it publicly, she — as representative of MMSD — began gas-lighting the public. Because who would believe the incident was as bad as “they” described it when MMSD themselves didn’t report the incident to the public, or police, or Child Protective Services. By not reporting it, they indirectly denied its occurrence. By not reporting it, they upheld the idea that Black lives don’t matter. That Black children don’t matter. That Black children are not worthy of compassion, or even recognition, during and after a situation that Jennifer Cheatham later framed as horrific.

On February 20, 2019, Madison365 released an article detailing the abuse suffered by an 11 year old at the hands of a MMSD teacher. In the article the author details how the events unfolded. The day after the article was published by Madison365, Jennifer Cheatham and MMSD publicly acknowledges the incident. Nine days after the incident occurred.

Jennifer Cheatham begins the letter by describing the incident as “a serious conflict.”

“The incident involved a staff person responding to a call for assistance in a classroom, which unfortunately resulted in a serious conflict between the staff person and a student.”

This is the same incident we now know was violent, brutal, and downright criminal. Remember, gaslighting is psychological manipulation over time. And recall, I defined her use of gas-lighting as wordsmithing. She first denied the incident occurred, and then she downplayed the incident, describing the brutalization of a Black baby’s body as a “conflict.” Recall, one of the strategies of gas-lighting is to downplay a situation that hurts someone, making them doubt their emotions, their perception, and their sanity. In a society rooted in white supremacy racism, this particular microaggression upholds narratives and ideologies that are rooted in the idea that Black bodies are NOT deserving of protection or recognition. This is the very definition of anti-Blackness, and because we’re all socialized to be anti-Black, and Jennifer Cheatham is perceived as being a good white woman by leaders, by design she is able to switch the narrative of the incident from being traumatic, horrific, unthinkable act, to merely a “conflict.”

You see the difference? You see how her use of words downplay and minimize the severity of the incident?

Later in the letter, she uses words like “healing,” “affirming,” and “protection” to insinuate that they are valued and practiced by MMSD without saying so. To say they uphold these values directly would have created a Blacklash, because Black families know that this is not true. But to imply MMSD hold such values – or would like to hold such values – creates a sense of partnership and compassion without it having to be true.

This is wordsmithing, which is used by abusers and politicians to implant self-doubt, and to change the narrative of a Black child being a victim to the Black child being the cause of their own abuse. Framing an eleven-year-old Black as the problem versus a 52-year-old white man trained in cultural responsiveness and racial justice. Which upholds and reinforces ideas of white supremacy racism that says Black bodies are undeserving of protection. She enforces and upholds white supremacy racism without having to say it directly. Without having to change or acknowledge the root of the problem, which of course allows the problem to continue. The root being anti-blackness, embedded in all of MMSD polices, practices and responses.

She goes on to say, “Our focus now is on fully supporting the student and family as well as the Whitehorse community as a whole.” The problem is they didn’t support the mom or the little girl. The mom felt talked at and around. They didn’t contact Child Protective Services, and they didn’t file a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. They also didn’t contact the police — the mom did. Again, Jennifer Cheatham downplayed the severity of the incident and failed to hold her self and her administrators accountable, framing the Black little girl as the problem, NOT the paid, trained staff. Jennifer Cheatham and her administrators, as well as her boss – the board of MMSD – failed to acknowledge and respond to the harm caused by so many at Whitehorse and MMSD.

Jennifer Cheatham follows up with, “As a school district, we must be the healers and protectors that our students deserve and ensure that our schools and classrooms are places that value, affirm and uplift our students”. First of all, there’s nothing affirming about being brutalized at school by a teacher, in front of your class. There’s nothing uplifting as a parent being called to the school by your daughter, NOT a teacher, and being told by your daughter, not an administrator, that she’s been badly injured by an administrator. MMSD failed this little girl and her family. Jennifer Cheatham covered it up by using words of sympathy and compassion while failing to act in, or extend—sympathy, compassion, and healing to the family. MMSD also failed to adhere to what Jennifer Cheatham refers to as “what the school must be,” but never addressed the realities of what the school district continues to actually be for Black students.

MMSD as a whole not only support policies that ensure microaggressions (also known as racism), such as police in schools and metal detectors, MMSD also fails to do anything about the consequences of their decisions and indecisions. Instead, they add additional funding to police Black bodies. That is the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing (criminalizing Black bodies) and expecting a different result. Jennifer Cheatham suggests that the values of MMSD are that of healing and being protectors that are affirming and uplifting, but how is that true when Mr. Mueller-Owens was not arrested, the police were not called, CPS was not called, DPI was not called and the mother was NOT called by the school but by the injured child? When do values translate into action? And when does the action and words of the superintendent and MMSD translate into protecting Black children?

MMSD and Whitehorse elementary school failed all the way around in providing protection for this little girl, but because Jennifer is so talented at gas-lighting she has some of us thinking her words are rooted in reality, when reality is in direct opposition to her words.

She goes on to say, “Whenever these systems fail, or when we face an incident that counters our values, we pause, review our processes and procedures to ensure that something like this can never happen again.” It’s crazy to me that she says this. One, because as you will see in the coming months, there are hundreds of incidents reported to schools that are not reported to the public. That hasn’t prompted the school district in any way to review and/or change its policies or processes to ensure that “it never happens again.”

Did you hear about the principal at Blackhawk Middle School who purposely triggered a student and then headbutted him? Yeah. I didn’t hear about it either. The school district failed to take any real actions in response to that situation.

In fact, abuse by the hands of administrators and staff is very common throughout MMSD. I’ve taken reports of several Black parent detailing their experience with MMSD and the abuse their children suffered. Including a high school student at East High school who was roughed up by a teacher in another teachers class. MMSD was given ample opportunity to “be” the MMSD Jen so eloquently describes. Each incident was handled the same. The child was suspended. Nothing happen to the teacher. Police report filed. Nothing happens. Complaint filed with DPI. Parent(s) get tired of fighting in an unmovable system alone. And the cycle continues.

Despite the latest incident being public, it was still handled the same way. The child was suspended. Nothing happened to the administrator. No charges have been filed. Instead of Whitehorse doing what their superintendent implied should be done, they did the opposite. They denied the brutalization of an 11-year-old Black girl occurred. They denied the mother protection by not contacting the appropriate authorities. They failed to do anything when another parent filed a complaint against Rob Muller Owens at Whitehorse Elementary for pushing her child against a locker months before the 11-year-old Black girl was brutalized. Consequently, they (Whitehorse & MMSD) sent a message that racism in the form of anti-Blackness will continue to be tolerated and they (MMSD) will continue to do nothing.

Her second letter was sent out on 2/28/19. Following the MMSD school board meeting on 2/25/18, at which time she and the school board were put on notice by youth organizers and community activists that a rapid response team and a legal team was being formed for the purpose of protecting students and families, and for collecting & documenting stories of abuse and racism.

You can read that full letter here.

Per her letter, she plans to implement:

  • A new system for staff, students, and families to report incidents of racism or discrimination that will launch this spring
  • A full review of investigation and critical response protocols to ensure they are culturally responsive, grounded in restoration, and more transparent
  • Revision and consistent application of the MMSD equity tool to ensure current and future HR policy and practice, as well as Board policy recommendations, are developed through a racial equity lens.
  • A refresh of the School Improvement Planning process to ensure that race, rigor and relationships are central to school-based decision making
  • A new required professional development series for all staff on racial identity, implicit bias, and racial inequity in the United States, along with a refined support and accountability system to monitor progress

According to Jen, a new system is set to launch in the spring to report incidents, but this system was not discussed with staff, or the school board, or the people that will be most impacted by it, Black students and families. NO one knows what this system is or how it will function, but supposedly it’s set to launch in a few weeks?

I explicitly talked at the school board meeting on February 25, 2019, about a community initiative that was set to launch that week. An initiative that would include a system for reporting incidents of racism and abuse centering Black students and families which would expose MMSD’s habit of sweeping racist incidents and abuse under the rug. Forcing them to deal with the outrageous number of cases of physical abuse. Making them visible via videos and blogs.

Her lack of details concerning a “new” system, and the fact that no one’s heard of this “new” system, leads one to ask, where did her idea come from? A Black activist? Me? Who she failed to give credit to? That is white supremacy in action. Her attempt to gaslight us and then steal ideas presented by the community without crediting the community is not only disheartening but also telling of MMSD’s inability to build collaborative partnerships with the community. And when we dig deeper into the question of what is this “new” system, we have to ask who will control this system? The perpetrators? The school district is going to control a system that’s supposedly set up to hold them accountable? Doesn’t that sound counter-intuitive?

She goes on to offer, “A full review of investigation and critical response protocols to ensure they are culturally responsive, grounded in restoration, and more transparent.”

Wasn’t the person who brutally attacked an 11-year-old Black girl, Robert Mueller-Owens, the director of their restorative justice program and director of inclusion and diversity? We should trust MMSD to review their own process for improvement? More disturbing is her use of words such as “review” that imply action, without having to take any actions. Again, Jennifer Cheatham is an expert at wordsmithing and upholding white supremacy racism. What does this mean? It means that if MMSD is serious about doing the “work,” they have to hire outside, community-based organizations to do the work.

It doesn’t make sense and it stands in opposition of the work required if MMSD administrators, the perpetrators, are responsible for investigating and responding to incidence(s) of racism. Not to mention, what is culturally responsive? And who gets to define culturally responsiveness? Nonprofit organizations that reflect the status quo? Or people directly responsible for maintaining police presence within our schools? Will they define cultural responsiveness? The people who think the answer to the challenges Black children face is to put police in schools? The same police that are violating Black bodies in Black communities? Will MMSD board members define culturally responsiveness? Folks who are removed from the realities of Black experiences? So much so, that every decision they make causes more harm to Black children versus eliminating it.

Her next actionable step is a full review and investigation of an equity tool that hasn’t worked and doesn’t work by the same folks who created it? Who thought the equity tool was culturally responsive? It’s so absurd that no further words are needed to explain why it’s absurd.

She goes on to offer a “refresh” of the School Improvement Plan, a plan that’s not culturally responsive. A plan that lacks resources to implement. A plan not supported by all teachers or students. A plan that isn’t working will be refreshed? What is refresh? What does that mean? Again, another example of Jen’s amazing ability to wordsmith us.

“Refresh”? How does something that isn’t working be “refreshed”? When I tell you that Jennifer Cheatham is an expert at wordsmithing, she is an expert. She is brilliant. The problem is, that we, the People, see her and we hear her regurgitation of our words and our desires framed to fit her white constituents’ desires of inaction, and it will not be tolerated.

Her last action step was a “personal development series for all staff on racial identity”, etc. Which sounds great on paper. However, what does personal development in relations to a culture rooted in anti Blackness mean? What’s the purpose of focusing on personal development when it doesn’t address MMSD’s culture and history of anti Blackness? The issue, Jen, is that the culture of the school district is entrenched in white supremacy racism, and NO personal development series will unpack or recreate the district’s culture. Any and all training and/or initiatives must deal with and address all levels of racism that are active within Madison’s school district. Which are personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural racism. For change to be genuine and lasting, it must encompass all four levels. These four realms are inextricably related. They feed into one another. As mentioned by Jen, MMSD must be willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt racism. If they are serious about disrupting racism, then they have to start at all levels. If they’re serious about interrupting their own institutional culture rooted in the criminalization of Black bodies, Jennifer Cheatham, MMSD—then they should listen, engage, and allocate funds to community/grass-root focused initiatives.

Her continual dismissal and failure to reach out to the folks in the trenches picking up the pieces of broken families impacted by the school district’s policies and practices is telling of whether or not the school district is serious about disrupting racism. As stated by Jennifer Cheatham:

“If we are serious about our vision — that every school is a thriving school — we have to
disrupt racism in all of its forms. We cannot be silent. We cannot perpetuate it. We must
examine everything.”

What really are they willing to examine if they don’t form real partnerships with the people doing the work? How do you disrupt or dismantle racism while oppressing Black children? The two are incongruent. How do you celebrate Black history month with Black Lives Matter curriculum while allowing the perpetrators of violence towards Black children (police) to roam the building locking up Black children? Our children see MMSD half efforts, which compounds their feelings of unworthiness and upholds the notion that they are indeed undeserving of protection and edification.

MMSD decisions and inactions send the message to the Black community that MMSD cannot be trusted. And Jennifer Cheatham’s open letter to the community confirms that we, the Black community, are right.

Throughout her letters, she undermines the efforts of the folks in the trenches by suggesting indirectly that the work that we’re demanding is already being done. However, as a mother and a community activist, I know this to be false and I am not alone. MMSD coordinators and other Black faces hired to do the work are not supported, nor do they have the resources to do the work. Their positions and efforts sound good on paper (like Jen’s letters). The reality is, without real actions and real results, their positions and efforts were and continue to be a public relations move, and we, the people, are demanding real results and efforts. As she pointed out, if MMSD is serious about disrupting racism, MMSD should be diligent in doing so. However, all we’ve gotten from the district is lip service, fancy strategic plans, and planning that lacks a backbone (collaborative community centered support) and funding.

Recall, gas-lighting is manipulation. Gaslighting is abuse. Maybe it wasn’t her intention to be abusive and dismissive, but as she pointed out, intention is not necessary for racism to be carried out. Dear MMSD and Jennifer Cheatham, put your money where your mouth is.

  • End the contract with Madison Police Department
  • Hire parents and community members instead of police to direct our children
  • Allow the community’s initiative access to schools to provide rapid response advocates for our children and their families
  • Engage the community by engaging organizations and individuals that are doing the work
  • Implement a zero tolerance policy for administrators. Send the message that racism in any form will not be tolerated. As well as abuse in any form.
  • Allocate funds to support a reporting system of racist incidents overseen by a community-led organization—like, for example the peoples’ initiative Building Capacity for Protecting Black Children.
  • Provide training that includes all realms of racism. Training provided by the community for the community.
  • File a complaint with DPI. Petition to have Mr. Mueller-Owens’ license revoked.
  • Support the community in demanding the arrest of Mr. Mueller-Owens.

We the people demand action over lip service. We the people demand results. WE, the people, will not stand by while you continue to play respectability politics with Black children lives and give us nothing more than lip service.

It was imperative for me to write this long op-ed to help folks understand how racism is upheld by folks who may or may not mean to be racist. As Jennifer Cheatham stated, “It is at times intentional and unintentional. It is everywhere, every day. It is within us and surrounds us. Any school district is a microcosm of the society we live in.”

It’s an honor to know, Jen, that you listen to my live videos, but you’re going to have to do more than repeat my words—you’re going to have to do the work demanded by those most impacted by MMSD’s culture of white supremacy racism.

Written by Brandi Grayson

Brandi Grayson is a social justice activist and a founder of Madison’s Young Gifted and Black Coalition.

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