For the past few months, Michelle Chalmers, President of The World of Wellesley and facilitator of diversity discussions, has put together community conversations about race at the Wellesley Community Center. In February, two people showed up. In March, no one came.
Then, out there in the world beyond Wellesley, Freddie Gray, a 25 year-old black man died while in Baltimore police custody as a result of a catastrophic injury apparently caused after he slammed into the back of a police van while he was inside it. Thousands turned out in Baltimore to peacefully protest Gray’s death, only to have their voices drowned out by a couple hundred rioters.
The Swellesley Report remained silent.
Here at Swellesley, it’s not that we personally are unmoved by such events, it’s simply that we are committed to blogging exclusively about life in the exclusive Wellesley bubble. We don’t post about the news in Baltimore any more that we would cover the doings over in Needham. Just try to suggest we write up some important thing that happens outside the borders of our town. “It happened in Needham? They’re dead to us,” we’ve been known to retort when someone dares pitch a story to us suggesting we broaden our horizons.
Stick with me here, it’s all germane.
Because meanwhile, as Baltimore shattered and burned, and one no-nonsense mom took to the streets to take back her son using some old-fashioned whooping techniques, here in 85% white Wellesley, another mom in the 2% black demographic the town has somehow managed to score fired up a Facebook post heard round the town about the trauma her family has endured since moving here five years ago.
“So sad. All that glitters isn’t gold. Wellesley is called ‘Swellesley’ because it is such a ‘posh’ area. Well, beneath that veneer lies some of the most vicious, ignorant racism I have ever experienced. We’ve been here for almost 5 years…and while we’ve had challenges, they were nothing like what we’ve experienced over the last few months,” she wrote.
Suddenly, I had a feeling that April’s community conversation about race was about to attract more than zero people and I might want to wander down to the Community Center and see what was up. Open circle on steroids was what was up, as I took my place among the most racially diverse group of people I’ve been among since my high school days in the New Haven area. A group of approximately 60 people, around 40 of color and 20 white, showed up, some long-time residents of the town, some Wellesley College students, and some from Cambridge, Boston, and Medford. The Wellesley police department, the METCO and ABC programs, and the Babson College Multicultural Programs office were represented. Superintendent Lussier and other members of the Wellesley Public Schools administration were on hand to listen.
Chalmers said that the point of the discussion was to “move the needle forward.” For those who are afraid of needles, well, take a deep breath because I won’t lie. This is gonna hurt. A lot.
The stories were hard to hear. Here are the facts: the black women who attend Wellesley College simply do not feel comfortable or safe walking around town. They leave the school generally only with specific purpose, accomplish that specific purpose, and rush back to the bosom of campus, because when they are in town, they feel looked at, looked down on, watched, even unsafe.
One Latina woman voiced complaints about the METCO program and how it matches up students with host families who she said refer to the kids as “their adoptive kids”, something she took offense to. And you bet that the white METCO representative there wanted to respond to the criticism. That was probably the diciest part of the night, and it was the part where mediators had to step in because, as one said, “I can feel things falling apart right here.”
So could I, because hell, I know that white woman who moves heaven and earth for the METCO program and I don’t like to see her attacked, and yes, attacked is what it felt like. Damn, white privilege is a boon (when you’re white) and a burden when you get called out on it and just have to shut up and listen and learn because you went to the damn meeting to shut up and listen and learn, without expecting people of color to always teach you, all while trying to be a white anti-racist ally without acting condescendingly as you try to figure out how in tarnation to avoid cultural appropriation.
As the majority at the meeting pointed out, that’s the minefield they tiptoe through every day. The bombs they dodge are different, and they’re hidden under different parts of the terrain, but the bombs are there, ready to explode, and as current events and history teach us, they’re utterly deadly. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t be loud. Shrink or be shrunk. Submit or be subdued.
It’s not the first time overt racism in Wellesley has been pushed to the forefront. In 1990, Boston Celtics first-round draft pick Dee Brown and his fiancee were surrounded by nine police officers and ordered face down on the pavement. After the dust settled, it turned out Mr. Brown hadn’t robbed a bank after all, it was just someone who looked nothing like him.
Former ABC student Vanessa Martir, who writes about race issues, talks about how when she hit the halls of Wellesley High School, “Everything I was was labeled too loud and too much.” The Latina student was called “Rosie” because actress Rosie Perez starred in the then-current movie Do the Right Thing, and Martir’s classmates wanted to hear her “tawk”, something she refers to as one of countless microaggressions she faced at school.
Last year while heading to breakfast, two female Wellesley High School students had a racial epithet shouted at them from across the street by a homeless, non-Wellesley resident. The girls reported the incident to a teacher upon returning to school, leading to both a police and school-wide response
One Wellesley mom said she got to the point where she was ready to chuck the leafy green of Wellesley and its fabulous public schools, all but guaranteed to send her kids to college 100% college ready. She started looking for a home in a diverse community. She was checking out private schools. But she stayed. She found her community, did the cost/benefit analysis of it all, and decided to stay.
I shudder to think what we might have heard if any young men of color had been on hand to chime in.
The meeting was over two hours of nervous laughs and choked-back sobs. It was teary and sometimes confrontational. Our police department was called out for their policy of responding to every call, including the sketchy calls that claim that there is a person who “doesn’t seem to belong here in the neighborhood.” 90% of the time it turns out that person (of color, generally) is actually a neighbor or a guest. Oops.
Above all, it was people who have had more than enough and swore a long time ago that they weren’t going to take it anymore, but then more and more and more just kept coming.
And so here we are, dear white people of Wellesley. We wear yoga pants and pearls. We bid high on crazy elementary-school auction items. We are pit bulls for our kids and their education, no apologies for any of that, even the yoga pants and pearls part.
But we can do better. We have to. Last night, we were asked to.
And so there you are, dear people of color of Wellesley. We hear that you keep on keeping on and we hear that there are those who try to knock you down, some consciously, some unconsciously. You said that many of us get caught up in the minutiae of our everyday and don’t especially ponder race issues, even while there are others of us do better than that by miles.
Last night, you asked us to do better. To set aside the minutiae and ponder. To go more miles. We can. We have to.
Consider the World of Wellesley mission statement, which reads in part, “The World of Wellesley is dedicated to making Wellesley a welcoming community where diversity is celebrated.”
There it is, in writing. What People Of Color Want. A welcoming community where diversity is celebrated. Last night, Wellesley was asked to keep on working toward that goal until diversity is celebrated not just in writing, but in spirit.