Sisters call out Southborough for “White silence” that perpetuates racism

by beth on June 18, 2020

Last week, police officers in Atlanta made headlines for the killing of Rayshard Brooks at a Wendy’s. This week the story is making local headlines as papers tie an officer involved to Southborough. And two women raised here have pointed to the link in their public indictment of “White silence” in our community and school system.

One police officer has been charged with murder for the shooting.* The second officer involved grew up in Southborough and graduated from Algonquin. He is accused of standing on Brooks’ shoulder after the shooting and failing to provide medical aid for over two minutes. He has been charged with aggravated assault and violating his oath of office. His lawyer denies any wrongdoing.

Caroline and Emily Joyner posted an opinion piece on the online Medium publication LEVEL with the headline:

We Grew Up With an Officer Involved in Rayshard Brooks’ Murder. We’re Not Surprised.

The story was shared by Southborough’s Neighbors for Peace’s email list with the explanations:

Their piece. . . hits very close to home as it is about the way our community of Southborough has and continues to promote white privilege. It’s important for us to hear these words and recognize how the system impacts people of color.

In the article, the sisters, “mixed Black girls with light-skinned privilege”, explained their motivation for going public:

We were moved to write this essay as our present history reopens wounds of racial trauma — wounds first cut in Southborough. Unlike many of our White peers, we were not surprised that two public figures of racial violence were raised within a square mile of our home. We cannot separate our upbringing from the White silence that continually perpetuates the racist systems built by White people.

The mention of two figures is a reference to the 2017 Charlottesville protests. Photos led to media identifying one of the White Nationalists marching with torches as a Southborough native. According to the Joyners, he was also a member of the graduating class of 2012. They note having ridden the bus with both.

The Joyner sisters’ story doesn’t include any specific interactions with the two men. Instead, they share general memories of the racist slurs, jokes, and remarks from peers. Still, the focus of the story isn’t the students. It’s the environment that fostered it.

It sounds like they won’t be surprised if many readers reject their narrative:

The truth is that Southborough, like many White suburbs, is shrouded in the lie of White neutrality. . . Indeed, for White people in Southborough, an accusation of racism would likely be met with a blast of incredulity, fragility, and defensiveness. It is wholly unsurprising that the White people raised in this town go on to perpetuate and replicate racist systems of oppression.

Last week, district leaders of the Northborough-Southborough Public Schools issued a letter pledging to do better on issues relating to racial bias and education. The message acknowledged “much work” to be done for their “fundamental role in preparing students to oppose systemic racism, prejudice, hatred, and intolerance”.

That message didn’t specify how the district has fallen short. As alumni of the district, the Joyners had some related thoughts in their essay: 

Our education in Southborough did not help our town’s “unconscious” racism. While very well-funded, the town’s school system actively erases narratives of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. At the elementary school, fifth-graders still celebrate “Colonial Day,” donning White colonial garb and yelling, “the British are coming!” Our high school, Algonquin Regional High School in the nearby Northborough, Massachusetts, had a tomahawk as its mascot, perpetuating negative and hurtful stereotypes of Indigenous people. We never learned about the history of the Algonquin people, yet we were encouraged, in the name of school spirit, to wear inappropriate war paint and headdresses and repeat demeaning racist chants.**

From first grade through high school, there were swaths of stories, voices, and perspectives missing from our curricula. Our teachers both implicitly and explicitly taught us that racism is a problem of the past, solved by the White-palatable version of docile and peaceful Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the “noble White folks” who supported him. We learned that this version of history consisted of objective facts. The White-centered lens Southborough socialized us in had lasting and dangerous implications.

The sisters go on to charge that White silence is dangerous:

Your White inaction is violence; it manifests in people like [the officer and white nationalist], and eventually in the killings of people like Brooks and countless others. The scars of these environments are deep and long-lasting for Black people. It is not our responsibility to educate you. You must realize your complicit behavior and do something about it, right now. Your indifference to a system you actively participate in is appalling. Your silence not only disgusts us — it endangers our lives.

You can read the Joyners’ full essay here.

*Brooks had resisted arrest and fired a taser while fleeing. An officer shot at Brooks while he ran. The District Attorney alleges that Brooks posed no threat to officers’ safety. Details of the shooting with timeline and video are available through the NY Times here.

**I think it’s worth noting that questions about the Tomahawk mascot was raised more than 30 years ago. In 1988-89, Algonquin school paper’s editorial board (of which I was a member) voted to change its name from The Smoke Signal to The Harbinger. We lobbied to get rid of “Tomahawks” as the school’s mascot and sports name, arguing about inaccurate stereotypes and other linked issues of racial insensitivity. (At that time, the school store was still named the Trading Post and its walls were decorated with goofy caricatures of Native Americans.) We also highlighted the lack of education about the Algonquin people in the curriculum.

The name change petition was met with widespread opposition (and anger). The Regional School Committee decided to put it to a student vote, and the change petition failed. As a compromise to deal with the issue, the administration brought in a native speaker for a student assembly that spring.

The Tomahawk issue came up in local media again in 2017 when a state bill opposed using native american logos and mascots. It looks like that never went anywhere.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tim Martel June 18, 2020 at 6:54 PM

I find this article to contain a lot of anger, more than a few generalizations, little data, and no actual suggestions for improvement. In short, it is meant to inflame and divide rather than unite. Racism is a major problem, but this article is not the solution.

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2 Matt June 19, 2020 at 8:51 AM

Hi Tim,

I think you should reread the piece and perhaps reflect a bit more.

These sisters are relaying their experience as POC in our town. They don’t have to keep a running tally of slurs used to statistically prove it to you. They didn’t create the systemic racism they felt and it’s not their burden to solve it. They took the time to give you their perspective. It’s up to us to listen and change.

Admittedly it made me uncomfortable too. But if you care about the lives and experiences of the POC in our community and making a change, then I suggest you listen with a little less fragility.

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3 Tim Martel June 19, 2020 at 10:38 AM

Matt, just because someone may have a slightly different point of view doesn’t mean that they are “fragile” or “defensive” or any other negative adjective that you care to use. That sort of passive-aggressive response wherein you automatically discount a perspective not identical with your own makes discussion impossible.

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4 Matt June 19, 2020 at 11:10 AM

Hi Tim,

Not how I intended it to sound. I can see how the use of fragility might sound negative… but it has been a popularized word with respect to reactions that challenge experiences of POC.

I’d like discussion to be possible and meant no ill-will.

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5 I agree Matt June 19, 2020 at 12:08 PM

Tim, That is the point of the Joyners’ article…This issue its not about you and how you interpret how they should feel. I am guessing it makes you uncomfortable what the Joyners reveal in their article about Southborough and it should. Why don’t you reflect on what these two young women are saying instead of reacting?

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6 n June 19, 2020 at 12:24 PM

“That sort of passive-aggressive response wherein you automatically discount a perspective not identical with your own makes discussion impossible.”

Read that sentence. Slowly. Maybe one more time. Tim. You wrote it.

See what you did?

Now go back to your initial post. Imagine someone who does not know you reading it.

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7 Jackie June 18, 2020 at 7:13 PM

Thank you for putting this article online. My husband and I are looking for a town to live in and I often am so anxious about moving to a suburb because of lack of diversity. I do not want my children to feel discriminated against or not welcomed. Reading this is just another reminder that I have to choose my future home very carefully for the protection of my children. Needless to say, Southborough is not for us.

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8 north July 1, 2020 at 1:15 PM

Don’t let one article shy you away from an entire town filled with MANY many caring and compassionate people.

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9 Diane Romm, PhD June 19, 2020 at 8:52 AM

Tim,
I would have to sincerely disagree with you. I found the article passionate and insightful and provided some suggestions, like renaming the Tomahawks, re-thinking Colonial Day at Neary, etc.

Are you familiar with Peggy McIntosh’s article about “white privilege?” (I would expect not….) I would like to recommend that you read it before attacking someone else for sharing their experiences in Southborough.

Sincerely,
Diane Romm, PhD
You go girls! Your thoughtful piece is very impressive. I’d give you an A++++++ Please know that you have a lot of support!

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10 Tim Martel June 19, 2020 at 10:42 AM

Diane, I am not familiar with that article but I will search it out. Thank you for the reference.

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11 contrarian June 19, 2020 at 11:28 PM

Well, I am familiar with Peggy McIntosh. Read her back in 1994 I think.

It is amazing how this paper progressed from complete obscurity to becoming highly influential and has been responsible for the subsequent proliferation of a rigidly enforced theory of privilege throughout social movements and university classrooms. So central has this doctrine become to progressive politics, pedagogy, and activism, that to even question its validity is to invite the inquisitorial wrath of ‘social justice’ radicals…

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12 Luis June 19, 2020 at 9:47 AM

@ Tim Martel. I am glad to hear we at least agree that racism is a major problem. One of the problems with the type of racism that prevails around here is that it is not always easily measured (e.g. the microaggressions that hurt, but don’t get recorded). However, many times racism’s effects are quite visible and measurable, from the disproportionate likelihood that a person of color will get stopped by police to the incredible wealth and opportunity disparities. My sense is that the opinion piece mentioned in this article was not meant to be a formal report or a guide on what you need to do–the latter part should be your and others’ responsibilities to learn. Generation after generation of oppression, I am also not sure why anyone would be surprised to sense some anger when discussing these issues. This is all of our problem, and thus we ALL have to actively respond to it. We cannot just sit back and say to communities of color ‘please educate me’, oh and do it with a smile on your face while you are at it!

p.s. I don’t think the authors’ intent was to portray Southborough as the only community where this is a problem. Rather, the idea is that it is a microcosm of MA/New England/US.

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13 djd66 June 19, 2020 at 10:01 AM

Tim –

I would have to agree.

How about this paragraph: The racial makeup of the town is over 80% white and under 2% Black. The overwhelming Whiteness of Southborough is due to long-term institutional segregation policies. There are countless reasons why towns like Southborough are seemingly off-limits and undesirable for Black people.
Southborough may look like a pleasant town populated with tidy lawns and white-fenced homes. “Nice people” live in Southborough, and their children enjoy a well-funded public school system. Southborough is where people come to cash in on their American dream. For many White people who grew up alongside us in, this description probably checks out. This “utopia” was their lived reality.

I live in a neighborhood where we have Chinese families, Indian Families, Muslim families, Jewish families Christian families,… If there were any black families that have been stopped from moving here, please give me some proof. Personally, I could care less what color your skin is, as long as you pay your taxes and are a nice neighbor – I would welcome you in my home anytime!

Basically the author called out the whole town as racist, I would say that is just as bad as actually being a racist. They don’t know me and they do not know what my beliefs are. Please do not assume anything about me or my family.

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14 beth June 19, 2020 at 10:16 AM

You seem to be mischaracterizing the arguments made. They don’t claim that Southborough has been actively keeping black people out. They don’t claim everyone white person living in Southborough or raised here is actively racist. They talk about issues in the school system that contribute to the problem. And they share their view that White silence of the community as a whole contributes to systemic racism.

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15 Tim Martel June 19, 2020 at 10:49 AM

Beth, I respectfully disagree with your interpretation. See this quote:

“It is wholly unsurprising that the White people raised in this town go on to perpetuate and replicate racist systems of oppression, much like Brosnan and Colligan have.”

That is clearly an attempt to paint all “white people” in Southborough with a very broad brush. As I wrote initially – this article contains some heavy generalizations, which is never a path forward to successful change.

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16 beth June 19, 2020 at 11:20 AM

I interpreted that differently than you. Given the overall context of other statements made, I took it as unsurprising that some people in the community are actively involved in the system – and that others are helping to perpetuate systemic racism by not actively and vocally fighting it.

I understand the criticism that you made about “no actual suggestions for improvement”. (Although, I do think that specific criticisms of the school system do give people an implied suggestion for some actions people can take.)

I see this as part of the “uncomfortable conversations” that speakers at the vigil on Sunday encouraged as necessary.

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17 djd66 June 19, 2020 at 10:53 AM

“You seem to be mischaracterizing the arguments made. They don’t claim that Southborough has been actively keeping black people out.”
Really?
Directly from the article I quoted above:
The overwhelming Whiteness of Southborough is due to long-term institutional segregation policies. There are countless reasons why towns like Southborough are seemingly off-limits and undesirable for Black people.

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18 beth June 19, 2020 at 11:06 AM

I interpreted that differently than you do, as referring to widespread societal issue that create roadblocks for Black people to be able to live in towns “like” ours.

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19 djd66 June 19, 2020 at 11:12 AM

Roadblocks??? What are those? If someone comes to me with an offer to buy my house and the money is green – sign me up! Everything is for sale!

20 Longtime Observer June 19, 2020 at 12:59 PM

For anybody who wants to start understanding why so many suburbs are disproportionately white, and why over time whites have had an easier time building wealth (through homeownership, first and foremost)…

The term is “redlining.” 20th Century American History 101. It’s part and parcel of suburbanization, first in the 1930s-40s, but it exploded in the post WWII era. Look it up.

Or, go here:

https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america

The terms “blockbusting” and “Urban Renewal” are also worth looking into, if you want a better understanding of how cities developed into discrete neighborhoods, some of which were or are known as “the ghetto.”

https://www.fastcompany.com/90155955/the-racist-roots-of-urban-renewal-and-how-it-made-cities-less-equal

21 Matt June 19, 2020 at 10:30 AM

Read it again… try and read it as the perspective of people in your community that you care about. Don’t read it and immediately measure it against your experience (because your experience here doesn’t apply).

The interesting thing is, the authors specifically mention your reaction in their article. The fact that a black person giving their perspective caused you to become defensive is kinda their point. It’s not the blatant overt racism they are calling out… it’s the subtle and systemic version illustrated in this very conversation.

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22 Tim Martel June 19, 2020 at 11:00 AM

Matt, I’ll completely and readily grant to you that more reflection is needed.

But the author’s mention of a “reaction” was merely a poorly concealed attempt to win the argument before conversation even started. Which makes the whole purpose self-defeating, if their goal was to get people to think about this topic with an open mind.

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23 Matt June 19, 2020 at 11:15 AM

Maybe that’s the difference. I didn’t approach the article as an argument that could be won or lost. I read it as a person in my communities experience. I didn’t feel like I had to fact check their feelings.

As I mentioned, a lot of what is written is new to me. As a person who held similar sentiments to both you and djd in terms of their certainty that my community is above racism, I found it helpful.

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24 Karen Muggeridge June 19, 2020 at 11:49 AM

Tim, it’s not an argument.

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25 Diane Romm June 19, 2020 at 4:09 PM

Tim,
I give you a lot of credit for hanging in there with this discussion. Ultimately, if your perspective can be heard, and the article modified to address your concerns, perhaps it would reach a wider audience. So, thank you for continuing to express your opinion.
Unfortunately, understanding the topic of racism requires a lot of introspection and there are theories out there that outline the steps that “white people” go through to acquire understanding. It’s like this: I was watching the news the other night and a black woman in a mask was talking about the situation in the hospital where she was working and then she said something about “racial disparities.” What was my initial thought? Wow, she’s smart for a nurse! Well, guess what, she is a doctor. That points out the assumptions we all make, unfortunately….
We had a wonderful, black police officer in town by the name of Aaron Richards and I was so happy that he was the school officer so that the kids could have access to diversity. Unfortunately for us, he moved on to become a State Trooper.
I ask myself, why do I live here in Southborough and not in Framingham? If I want diversity, I could move about 100 yards behind where we live in Southborough and live in Framingham….
It’s complicated.
–Diane

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26 Jonas June 19, 2020 at 5:21 PM

His name is Aaron Richardson

27 I am a smart nurse June 19, 2020 at 6:36 PM

“Smart for a nurse?!!Your assumption is then that nurses aren’t smart? Now this nurse is insulted…BTW the police officer’s name is Aaron RICHARDSON.I would have been smart enough to make sure I got the name right.

28 CS June 20, 2020 at 8:18 PM

While I do agree that the burden of proof is on the claimant, I find it interesting that you used your neighborhood demographics as a counter argument. Correct me if I am wrong, but your statement, “I live in a neighborhood where we have Chinese families, Indian Families, Muslim families, Jewish families Christian families,” is supposed to be indicative of Southborough’s diverse and multicultural makeup. Considering that the paragraph you quoted specifically refers to the Southborough’s black population, the fact that your proffered ‘slice of the town’ fails to include them stands out.

Ultimately I feel there are two ways to interpret your response. On one hand, your evidence does not disprove their argument, as the presence of Chinese and Indian families has no bearing on the idea that Southborough has a low Black population. On the other, you paint Southborough as an all-inclusive town, which just so happens to be conveniently absent of Black families (for whatever reason). Regardless of which is chosen, both are unsatisfactory. Considering that the plural of anecdote is not data, it would be remiss to base an argument on just one.

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29 Longtime Observer June 19, 2020 at 12:39 PM

The issue is an undercurrent (and sometimes overt current) of prejudice and discrimination that exists in our community.

If that is expressed, we should have enough respect to listen and assume its existence at face value.

The issue is NOT:
– that it makes Southborough residents or former residents uncomfortable
– about whether the description meets some data burden of proof
– that some people of color have also had success in Southborough
– that the claimants are “too angry” or “too emotional” or too anything
– that the claimants have not provided readers with the solution to a problem they expose

As for a solution? Here’s a start: LISTEN.

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30 Frank Crowell June 19, 2020 at 3:50 PM
31 Jon Radoff June 19, 2020 at 6:42 PM

Like Beth I’ve been a member of the community for quite some time. I grew up in Northborough and was a student at Algonquin 30 years ago when the school tried to pull back from the racist tropes around native Americans. Beth, I remember the school assembly you referred to when we invited the native American speakers to come talk to us about their experiences. I remember how they were treated with contempt and ridicule. And when I was at Algonquin, there was only one member of our entire class (I was ’91) who was black, and I remember some of the things said about him when he wasn’t present. I took AP History, yet I don’t remember learning anything about the Tulsa massacres or other blights on our history. I remember being in a locker room and hearing another student use “Jew” as an insult, which hurt me as a Jew myself and I can only imagine how it would feel to experience this on a far more omnipresent basis.

What the Joyner ladies say is correct. I’ve also seen it first hand, from my own white perspective. And here’s the dark truth: I was part of the problem. No, not in that I was an overt racist. In fact I considered myself devoted to civil rights. But I also saw it as a problem created by people of the past that no longer applied to me, and resented being told that Native Americans have legitimate grievances for the challenges they endure to this day. If I had the wisdom of my years back in 1991, I’d have been more open-minded and have wanted to hear them out. I feel like if there were more adults and leaders at that time, it would have made a difference.

So–I get it. I understand what they are saying. It is going to take leadership and a willingness to change. As for the previous post that observed a lot of anger… why shouldn’t they be? I think black people must be really tired of being told to stop being angry.

My kids are now in the Southborough school system. I have friends with kids at all levels of the school system. There’s still a lot more that we can do to educate, inform, create empathy and improve the community for everyone. We’ll be stronger for it.

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32 Anonymous June 20, 2020 at 8:06 AM

Not only are many of the residents in Southborough prejudice against race, but they are also prejudice against class. There are only two units in town for low income housing and it seems that every year people in town vote against having low income housing. Being a heavily tattooed resident of Southborough I can’t even walk through my neighborhood with my child without getting glared at by half of my neighbors. When I graduated eighth grade there were no black people in my class. When I went to high school at Algonquin there was only one black person in my graduating class. Props to the Joyner sisters for acknowledging this oppression in our community.

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33 southsider June 22, 2020 at 9:45 AM

One potential clarification to Anonymous’ post..I don’t think we “vote” on allowing low income housing. I think as long as the % of housing in town is below a certain level, builders are even allowed to bypass many ( all?) of our zoning laws.
Kudos to the Joyner’s for kick starting a conversation that was long overdue.

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34 Eileen June 22, 2020 at 9:49 AM

Thank you for writing this, Caroline and Emily Joyner.

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35 Camille June 26, 2020 at 5:50 PM

Upfront racists are slightly easier to tolerate than the nice sweet liberal who doesn’t want to hear it…and not from you. You’re biased after all, living in that skin. Who needs to hear it. Maybe there’s a white person who can speak on how it really is for black folk. Such a person can be objective! And, you know, not so emotional and all.

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36 Jack June 29, 2020 at 4:37 PM

I’m confused by this post. It almost seems like you’re trying to say that you’re a white person who can speak on how it really is for “black folk”.

I’m hoping that was tongue in cheek, but this is the type of talk that makes Jackie (from June 18th comment) not want to live in this town. After seeing this post, how can anyone blame Jackie for not wanting to live in what most of us view as such a great place to live and raise a family? I want my kids to grow up with other kids who don’t all look the same, and I’m disappointed that Jackie came to the conclusion that Southborough is not for her family.

For the record, I do not feel that “upfront racists” are easier to tolerate than anyone. I wish 100% of our town could agree on that simple statement. Upfront racism = very bad. I can’t believe that I need to write that, but I don’t want the next “Jackie” to find Camille’s post without any objections and also decide that Southborough is overrun with racists, upfront or other kinds.

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37 beth June 29, 2020 at 4:56 PM

I understand your confusion. I was confused on first reading as well. In re-reading it, I interpreted it as the opposite, which is why I allowed it.

I took the section beginning “You’re biased after all, living in that skin. . .”, as intended to represent the attitude she perceives that some “nice sweet liberals” direct at black people.

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38 n June 29, 2020 at 5:22 PM

My take is that the racist in the white hood on some level is easier to deal with because they know they are racist and do not even try to hide it.

Dealing with people who may mean well but are not aware of their racist tendencies, subtle as they may be is likely much more challenging.

And to be clear, our community would be better without either.

Reality is that those who mean well and are unaware are here and it’s difficult to have a real conversation when the starting point is “who, me? that’s not racist. it was just misunderstood….I meant well, etc…”

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39 Neighborhood June 30, 2020 at 1:36 PM

I think you mean well and all but to say that our community would be better off without well meaning people sounds rather elitist to me.
As our kids are taught at circle time, there is always room for one more, no matter how many are already there.
Well meaning people are have open hearts are always welcomed. No one is perfect but many are willing to learn and evolve. That’s how change happens.

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40 n June 30, 2020 at 4:59 PM

Agreed. Always welcome well meaning people.

Well meaning people (I guess that’s a thing now, awkward as it sounds) that are unaware of their racist tendencies are the point I intended to make.

But enough from me, a white guy that speaks English as a second language.

How about asking those who are non-white about their lives and what they experience in our town. Suspect there will be some eye opening experiences shared, and some that may be questioned and not recognized by the majority in the same way they are experienced by the minority.

Willing to learn and evolve. This, I too agree with 100%. In theory and in practice I hope we can be willing.

41 beth June 19, 2020 at 1:31 PM

I think “Lontime Observer” has done a good job of specifying some of those roadblocks.

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42 Jack June 22, 2020 at 12:06 PM

Agreed – the most important one being the last – to listen. When we feel defensive, the tendency is to put up a mental wall and push back. We nitpick minor details, and miss the broader point. Take a deep breath, and instead of feeling the need to be “right”, we should be asking if there are things we can learn to do “better”.

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