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ON THE SCENE: Town of Keene tries to heal after racist remark

KCS graduate says, ‘I made a big mistake’

March 2, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF - Correspondent ( , Lake Placid News

We all make mistakes. Who hasn't? Some, however, can cause pain, embarrassment and strain our social fabric. Last week, Maria Gates's poor judgment did that to a profound degree.

Gates, a 2017 graduate of Keene Central School, was a freshman at SUNY Plattsburgh until last week. A mistake on social media led to her early withdrawal from college.

Some people use Snapchat among friends the way others might chat in a bar, bantering back and forth, although instead of in person, it's online. Maria and her friends were doing just that, sharing expressions.

Article Photos

Keene Valley sign on state Route 73
(News photo — Andy Flynn)

That's when black humor went wrong. One of hers - featuring the banner "Lynching n---s tonight" - caused another participant to demonstrate her discomfort by posting Maria's Snapchat online for all the world to see.

That posting sparked a protest at SUNY Plattsburgh, resulting in students marching across campus carrying signs such as "Enough is enough," confrontations with the college president, calls for some faculty to resign, and coverage in the media with North Country Public Radio posting the Snapchat image. Back in Gates's hometown of Keene Valley, the local Nextdoor Keene community bulletin board lit up with a mix of damnations and others feeling that the expression did not reflect the Maria Gates they knew and there must be some other aspect to this story.

Maria, feeling unsafe at school and with growing concerns of physical abuse, resigned from college, while her family wondered if Keene was the welcoming and compassionate community they thought it was, as did families of mixed race living in the hamlet.

At 18 years old, Maria is an attractive, soft-spoken, intelligent, kind young women that under normal circumstances any lucky young person would be proud to bring home and introduce to their parents. Thus, for her to be the author of the controversial Snapchat message was a shock to many.

"I made a big mistake," said Gates. "I feel deeply sorry for anybody I offended. I take responsibility for my actions. It's no one else's fault. I never meant to harm anyone. I feel that I have let down my family, especially my mom and my brother. I am sorry for the backlash they are receiving. I feel guilty. I know that these are words one should never say even in a joking way. My community feels I let them down, that I failed them, and that they failed me.

"They didn't fail me. They've always tried to support me and help me get ahead and into college. I'm trying to do better right now, and it's hard because so many people are so angry."

Into this vortex stepped her friend and former schoolmate at Keene Central, Corrie-Anne, posting a plea on Nextdoor Keene. Corrie-Anne, 18, who is black, stood up for her friend, asked for understanding and stated she felt partly at fault for not having better counseled Maria and her classmates about the experience of a being a black girl growing up in the North Country. She pointed out that many kids, some whose parents leveled some of the harshest criticism, as well as some adults, have used racist language around her, often just trying to be funny without realizing how hurtful their words and actions are to Corrie-Anne.

"Knowing Maria as a person and seeing people who have also known her as always good-hearted and welcoming turn on her so fast, I couldn't sit back and watch them throw her under the bus and focus on this one mistake," said Corrie-Anne. "Yes, it was a big mistake, but they should not throw away all the good she's done for the community, for them and their kids. I felt I had to comment."

Corrie-Anne's love and caring struck a chord, causing many to consider what the school and community can learn from this episode and create cultural sensitivity. Many expressed that in no small degree, we have failed and are failing to prepare young people like Maria and Corrie-Anne to live in an increasingly diverse world. Just under 45 percent of New Yorkers are people of color, but you'd never know that by living in the Adirondacks. Schools like Keene Central are making an effort to reduce bullying. What they are not doing with equal zeal, is addressing the racism that exists in our society.

The fault and challenges are by no means that of schools or parents alone. The larger question is, what can we collectively do to make all people who live and visit here feel welcome, no matter their sexual, religious, ethnic, educational, economic, cultural or other difference, such as age and physical and mental abilities?

Over the past year, a growing number of women have shared in painful detail personal stories of sexual violence they have experienced by men. Their courageous stand is leading to a change of rules in the workplace and has forced some politicians, coaches, media anchors and others from their positions of power. This cry for justice is leading to changes in corporate rules, and I don't doubt that it will result in increased training on the school level. Maria Gates's actions, along with everything else, are a wake-up call that we need here in the North Country to address additional forms of violence.

As an example, it's not that we don't have people of color as visitors or athletes living here. Our Olympic women's bobsled team, which often trains in Lake Placid, is racially diverse. What we are not doing is stretching ourselves to make all people feel that this is a welcoming place to visit. Success in this area will provide our youth increased exposure to the growing diversity of the American populace, not to mention strengthen our economy.

Consider the lack of diversity in the teachers, ski instructors at Whiteface and other venues, rangers protecting our forests, State Police and Border Patrol, or people portrayed in the media we use to promote the region. How comfortable would we feel going to a ski center where it seemed that 100 percent of the staff was black?

Not that long ago, restaurants, bathrooms, buses, hotels and other aspects of life, especially in the South, were segregated. While passing civil rights laws improved many situations, they did not make centuries of hatred, exploitation and abuse go away. Nor will a laissez-faire attitude of hoping better days will slowly evolve.


Community meeting

Keene's Jane Haugh, the mother of a black child, decided to take a proactive approach by organizing a community forum held Monday evening, Feb. 26, at The Nature Conservancy office in Keene Valley as a means of starting a community dialogue to determine what can be done to educate our youth and make the town more welcoming.

"We say we're all nice people, none of us are really racist. What's the problem here?" said Jane Haugh. "The reality is the we all buy into and benefit from racial inequities in our institutions. We all have to understand that we all have racial bias. Even black people have bias against other black people. That's how deeply seeded it is here. I am hoping that we as a community can start talking about what we can do to educate our kids about racism. They need to know people are still be incarcerated because of the color of their skin, that black people don't feel safe."


Keene Central School

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the Keene Central School Board began looking into what they could do to improve diversity training and sensitivity. "Our staff is going to discuss what is our best approach, what are we going to do and how to we effectively address this," said Dan Mayberry, KVCC Superintendent. "I want it to be something meaningful. The challenge is to reach every group, all the stakeholders, so it's valuable for everybody. We need to engage our children in this discussion."

Meanwhile, Miles, a mixed-race senior, and classmate Corrie-Anne are working on a presentation based on their personal experiences at the school and in the community tentatively titled, "Even Here."

"Racism is an everyday experience," said Corrie-Anne. "We want to use our presentation to make parents aware that even their kids are involved in the joking, and back and forth that happens at Keene Central and elsewhere. We want to help adults become more aware."


Lesson learned

As for Maria Gates, she feels that it's unlikely she'll be welcomed back to SUNY Plattsburgh, so she is looking to transfer to another college and pursue a career as a social worker with a focus on children. She has decided she wants to be a change agent for the good.

"I've learned that you have to be sensitive to other people and where they came from," said Gates. "You never know their background. You have to be careful about what you say. A lot of what some people say as jokes aren't OK, especially when it comes to race whether it's black jokes, Muslim jokes, Spanish jokes or whatever. I've learned that words have a lot of meaning, especially if they're out there on the internet, and that anything you send can be sent around."



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