At a Cherry Creek School District awards banquet, the district's board of education president used a term on stage that he later apologized for as “racist” and “deeply offensive.”
When first confronted about the term, board President David Willman was defensive and tried to explain why he used it, Willman wrote in a May 1 letter to district staff.
“I have since had time to reflect on my actions and to have conversations with people in my life, and I now understand that my words were hurtful and damaging,” Willman continued. “I own my mistake and I apologize for it.”
At the teacher awards event at the Denver Marriott South hotel in Lone Tree, Willman used the term “tar baby” when telling a story of a teacher he had in his youth whose last name was Tar, said Abbe Smith, district spokeswoman.
Willman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Scot Kaye, president of the teachers' union for Cherry Creek Schools, attended the April 30 banquet and said Willman was referring to one of his favorite teachers growing up.
“He was connecting (an) award to somebody who made a substantial difference in his life — it was a very applicable message, and he spoke very highly of her,” Kaye said. “I don't believe he meant it in a racial way. You know how kids sometimes will turn their teachers' names into things?”
Kaye, who sat at the front of the room rather than in the crowd, did not notice a reaction when Willman used the term, and he said he hadn't heard from teachers or parents about it. Smith said she believes the district has received a few calls regarding the comment.
In his letter, Willman addressed his apology to those in the room who heard him speak but also to district staff, writing that “my use of racist language at a school event does not reflect Cherry Creek values.”
Kaye took the apology as “very honest” and said the use of the term didn't stand out to him at the time.
“I mean, it must be a terrible place for David Willman to be in,” Kaye said. “I think everyone has the right to their own opinions and feelings, and if that's how it struck them, they're going to have a reaction to it.”
“Tar baby” likely isn't a phrase people hear often these days, said Scott Levin, director for the Anti-Defamation League's mountain states region.
But while it can have multiple connotations, the negative impact to people of color is the reason people shouldn't use it, Levin added. The ADL is an organization that works to combat anti-Semitism and other discrimination.
“It has a very negative connotation to African-Americans,” Levin said. “There are a lot of words and phrases that have been used over time that we choose not to use anymore because we now understand they can have an impact on people of color, on women or on different religious organizations.”
When elected officials use words that they learn are taken as offensive, they should take time to educate themselves about them, Levin said.
“In many ways, intent doesn't matter as much as does the fact that people are hurt by it,” Levin said.
Levin was glad to see Willman quickly apologize and “own it,” he said.
Willman, who was elected to the board in 2011, is term-limited, and an election to fill the seat will take place in November, Smith said.
“We do not condone the use of racist language in any context,” Smith said. “We are committed to continuing the work of creating a district-wide culture that is safe, supportive and welcoming to all.”
In his letter, Willman sent his “deepest apologies to the entire CCSD community.”
“I commit to you that I will do what it takes to repair the damage I have caused,” Willman wrote, “and to work toward an inclusive culture that values and respects all.”
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