“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, on May 2.
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.
After using a term at a Cherry Creek School District awards banquet on stage that he later apologized for as “racist” and “deeply offensive,” the district's board of education president resigned from his position May 3.
In a letter posted on the district's website, Cherry Creek Superintendent Scott Siegfried announced the resignation to the community, writing that he respects David Willman's decision and thanking him “for putting the best interests of our students and community first.”
“In Cherry Creek Schools, we are committed to creating a district-wide culture that is safe, supportive and inclusive,” Siegfried wrote. “I look forward to working with the board and district staff in our continuing efforts to provide the kind of education that values all students.”
At a teacher awards event at the Denver Marriott South hotel on April 30, 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.
When first confronted about the term, 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.”
In a May 3 resignation letter, also posted on the district's website, Willman said his resignation is effective immediately.
“It became clear to me in these unique times, that the board needed a strong and consistent leadership message moving forward within our community,” Willman wrote. “Thus my time in this role on the Board of Education needs to come to a completion.”
Willman did not directly reference his use of the phrase in his resignation letter. Siegfried's letter did not explicitly mention it either, although it did include a link to Willman's initial apology letter.
Scot Kaye, president of the teachers' union for the school district, 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 on May 2. “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.
Willman, who was elected to the board in 2011, was term-limited and would not have been able to run for his seat again in the upcoming November election.
“The board will launch an application process to fill the vacant position in Director District C. Details of the process will be released shortly,” Siegfried wrote, referencing the board of education district Willman represented. District C is located in the south Aurora area, mostly north of East Smoky Hill Road.
Willman wrote his letter of resignation to Siegfried and the board with “deepest regret,” the letter said.
“It has been my absolute honor and privilege being a part of the 69-year history of the Cherry Creek School District in service on the Cherry Creek Board of Education,” Willman wrote. “I am so proud of you and all we have accomplished in the past recent years, and I have no doubt the board will continue these successes in the future.”
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