Haddonfield is my hometown and I am a lifelong resident. Earlier this month, Haddonfield Memorial High School officials ended the season for the boys’ lacrosse team after a report that one of the athletes used a racial slur against a black athlete from another school.
Whether an athlete from HMHS actually used a racial slur says less about the culture of Haddonfield than the reaction to the incident, which has sparked much public outcry.
Shocked seems to be the word of choice for a lot of Haddonfield residents, but I am not shocked. Many people outside of Haddonfield are not shocked either. They have heard this kind of language used during Haddonfield sporting events before. I cannot corroborate the report that the N-word was used on May 1. But when I was a student at HMHS, it was not uncommon to hear this type of language used in hallways, in gym class, and on athletic fields. As is true in many towns, discriminatory attitudes have long been brushed under the rug.
That’s why I believe that the Haddonfield community should be worried about more than this single incident and address this as a fact of life rather than an anomaly. Now is the time for the Haddonfield community to have a conversation about race and racism. It is difficult, and brutally uncomfortable, to talk about. But an honest discussion about implicit and explicit racism is the only way anything will change.
The students involved in the controversy have been defended by those who know them. Many in Haddonfield are calling for a better “process” to determine consequences for this particular incident. Some people called for a walkout in support of the team. They argue that there is no concrete evidence that this event occurred and that the school they love has let them down by rushing, unfairly, to judgment. There are current and former students who, with good intention, profess that the use of the racial slur is the action of one individual and misrepresents the culture of Haddonfield as a whole. They ask not to be grouped with people who make racist comments.
But I ask these people: Can you look yourself in the mirror and say you are not complicit in allowing racial bias to exist unchallenged because it is too difficult an issue to confront? Do you believe that this is solely the action of one individual and not the result of a society that accepts these types of attitudes as part of the status quo? Has your silence not contributed to allowing such attitudes to fester within the minds of Haddonfield’s youth to the point where someone may feel comfortable telling a girl to get off of “their track” because they are of a different skin tone?
I know I have been complicit.
In the long run, it doesn’t matter who said what in this incident. Discussions about race should not be limited to the single actions or comments of one person on one spring day on a high school track in South Jersey. This must be a discussion about the inaction of all of us and how we make things better.
What should matter now is whether the Haddonfield community can acknowledge this underlying problem, learn from it, and ultimately do something about it. I believe it can, and I know HMHS is already taking steps to create change. We have a chance to better our community. To educate ourselves and our children. To make a conscious effort to understand the world and the people around us, rather than focusing only on what we see in our bubble.
It will not be easy. These issues cannot be fixed overnight. But this is an important moment in which Haddonfield can take steps to create real, positive, and lasting changes in attitudes. I remain a proud HMHS alum. And I hold out hope that my hometown makes the right choices going forward. But we have work to do.
Michael DeFeo is a 2015 graduate of Haddonfield Memorial High School.