Eating Ice Cream While Black (Or My Life In Wellesley, Mass)


Let me first say that I’ve been called the n-word before…to my face…shouted along with “Heil Hitler.” It was 1992, and I was sixteen years old, living in Barcelona, Spain. I was a foreigner, and I knew to be especially cautious of skinheads. They wore their racism and xenophobia as badges of honor. I’d run away from them a couple of months prior to that evening because once you spotted them, you knew to take off in the opposite direction. My life in Wellesley hasn’t been about that kind of racism. There are no skinheads. There’s a subtler, more insidious kind of racism experienced over time that most people of color in the United States are accustomed to. There’s a term for it now: microaggressions, the subtle, daily instances of racism that you don’t always see coming and that you cannot easily run away from.

Wellesley is a beautiful, affluent community in suburban Massachusetts. Known, of course, for the all-women’s college, but also for its prestige as an exclusive town of sorts with one of the best school systems in the state. Those are wonderful attributes, but diversity does not make it into their town’s historical records. My husband and I packed up our home in our bucolic town in South Jersey the summer of 2011, and we brought our ragtag family of four to live in faculty housing at Wellesley College. Lots of stress comes with a big move, but I was grateful that I landed a postdoc at the college, which has led to my dream job as an Assistant Professor of Art History.

With that description in mind, imagine a beautiful September New England afternoon just weeks after our arrival. I joined a colleague from the college, an African American woman with two beautiful kids of her own, to take a walk together to a popular ice cream spot in the center of town. We sat with our brood of four on a bench outside when an older white woman approached with pearls firmly clutched (ok, maybe I’m imagining that). In seconds, the woman began fondling the feet of the infant, and then she raised her head curiously to take all six of us in. Flustered, as if she couldn’t believe there could be so many of us—brown-skinned people, that is—sitting before her, she remarked with surprise, “Do all of these children belong to you?” She then placed her hand on my four-year-old daughter’s head, and she said almost admiringly, “I want to see your face.” After repeating herself once more, she forced my child’s head to look upward into her eyes, away from my own. After a few more awkward moments, she walked away. My friend and I stared at each other in disbelief. With nervous laughter, I said aloud, “When did we become the petting zoo?” Shaking our heads, we acknowledged this blatant form of patronizing and humiliating conduct that could sometimes be expected from an older generation. We still knew better than that though. If this account seems innocuous to you, and you are a white reader, please check your white privilege (Check out George Yancy’s opinion piece “Dear White America” from the New York Times. Then read Anna Keglar’s “The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility” to come closer to understanding my position-and yours. When you’re done, pick up Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Get in touch with me directly about a more complete reading list). 

xavi-ice cream
My son enjoying ice cream in Martha’s Vineyard. Summer 2013. Photo by Nikki A. Greene

Fast forward to July of this year, on the nearly fifth anniversary of our move, a group of Wellesley High School students’ racist and homophobic rants over Facebook Messenger were revealed. The group went as far as to single out two students, an African-American and Mexican-American, enrolled at the school. While this hate speech may have come as a surprise to some white residents, for most people of color, LGBTQ folk, and other underrepresented groups living or working in Wellesley, this warranted a knowing shake of the head, understanding full well that these sort of disturbing, violent stereotypes constitute the underbelly of microaggressions in the town. Whether one is innocently eating ice cream or going to school, there is no armor strong enough to protect you from the painful effects of experiences like these in a conservative community that lacks the racial and economic diversity and education to prevent these incidents from happening.

Residents of Wellesley aren’t the only citizens affected by these actions. Since 1966, Boston parents have been sending their children to the suburbs through the METCO program, a voluntary desegregation program. These brave parents put their even braver children on buses to public schools in places like Wellesley in an effort to offer their children access to the best education possible where their own zip codes do not. While the schools’ academic offerings indeed rank high, much of the social and intellectual work surrounding “multiculturalism” still lags. The few children of color within the school system take on the undue burden of not only educating their classmates (and some teachers), but also facing their own set of microaggressions. Those may include not-so-innocent remarks about their hair texture to teachers’ disproportionately penalization of their behavior, sometimes due to their own unconscious biases. How do I know the affects on the children? My own daughter was bullied in the first grade, and she only found the courage to tell us two years later. In hindsight, we understood why she cried on more than one occasion about wishing to change her skin color.

Why has this overall treatment persisted, or in some instances become worse, in Wellesley and elsewhere in suburban Boston since desegregation efforts began in the sixties? An African-American student at Wellesley High, who spoke anonymously to the Boston Globe about the hate speech, put her finger on one of the central problems:

It’s very possible to go through Wellesley Public Schools from pre-K through graduation and not even interact with a person of color. Not even on purpose — just because of the numbers game…And when you hit 18 and you’ve never interacted with a person of color, it’s very difficult to avoid being a little biased, or a little sheltered, or a little ignorant.

If we were to stay in Wellesley for the long haul, a very unlikely probability, what would be the impact for my children to never encounter an educator of color in their classrooms and scarcely in the administration and for thirteen years? What is the potential psychological damage of facing years and years of microaggressions in the classroom, on the playground, or in ice cream parlors? I am especially leery of this prospect considering that when my six-year-old son grows into an adolescent that he is no longer seen as an adorable, energetic playmate, but rather as a menace to society. This is a fear every black mother possesses; we’ve witnessed the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and far too many others, suffer through the same fear, only theirs were realized.

On July 28, World of Wellesley, a diversity group, organized a “Gathering of Peace”(#WellesleyStandsUnited), in concert with faith and secular organizations. Around 75 attendees sang together and supported each other as individuals shared personal accounts of their experiences as parents, students, and citizens and offered suggestions for future actions and steps toward healing. After each testimony, the group that stood in a circle of unity recited, “We see you. We hear you. We are grateful for you.” Though we still await the next steps by the school administration and police department to these verbal assaults, it was a promising demonstration of what can be possible in Wellesley to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.

My daughter and her friend make signs for the Gathering of Peace. July 28, 2016. Photo by Nikki A. Greene

Ultimately, I want my children to feel safe not only on our block, where we are surrounded by a diverse group of loving, openhearted, and open-minded Wellesley College faculty and their families. Ultimately, I want my kids to thrive in whatever space they occupy in order to stand confidently in the brown skin they are in. In the meantime, we are taking off to Martha’s Vineyard this week, one last getaway before school starts. The Vineyard, the town of Oak Bluffs especially, has historically been a vacation refuge for black families to fellowship while swimming on the beach, strolling on the sidewalk, and, yes, even while eating ice cream. There, we all walk with our backs a little straighter, heartened to see families like our own, families who have faced their own set of microaggressions in their hometowns. Our time will overlap with President Obama and his family again this year. I certainly wouldn’t mind my children turning their faces upwards to meet their eyes.

Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard. Summer 2014. Photo by Martha McNamara



74 thoughts on “Eating Ice Cream While Black (Or My Life In Wellesley, Mass)

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  1. “we are taking off to Martha’s Vineyard this week”

    Must be nice to have all that economic privilege.

    1. Yes it is very nice. Being a black woman from Needham, I dont know what it is like to go “down to the cape”, something that I used to hear about from my white classmates for years. Now I can live vicariously through this woman who shared her story with all of us. So yes, it is VERY nice to have all that economic freedom, because she worked hard for it. I bet you would not say that to someone who was white!

      Microagression at its finest.

    2. Nikki has too much class to say it. . .so I will; shut your face. Just shut it. She wrote a beautiful piece and we don’t need your veiled racist commentary.

      1. Where was the racism in that Casey Roberts’ post? You may not like the sentiment of the post, but I have a hard time finding it racist.

    3. assuming you’re white when all you get out of this article is that this amazing family and mother landed a job at a phenominal school, and can now afford vacation!!! Think before you post ignorant thoughts!!!

  2. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt writing and wonderful photos. For your graceful willingness to offer the scholarship of your lived experience alongside other scholarly references. May white listening from heart & head increase the capacity of white communities to behave in more inclusive ways, to move beyond perpetuating ignorance and micro-aggressions.

      1. Dr Nikki — thoughtful beautiful concerned words not just for your children but for the community culture in which they and their classmates are watching and absorbing everyday what it means to be a ‘good citizen’, a ‘good boy’, a ‘good girl’: who gets included and who gets excluded. I am two weeks away from my practice-based PhD (I made art as well as wrote a thesis) viva here in the UK where I will defend my use of the methodology of auto ethnography to investigate my fractured identity coming out of growing up in Wellesley as a working-class girl with a deformity. Very happy to share my findings.

    1. You don’t need to explain yourself Nikki. You worked hard for what you have and you deserve to vacation on the most beautiful place in the world! I go every summer myself. One of the reasons I love it? The diversity. It’s such a welcome relief.

    2. Ms. Greene- This article absolutely captures what I saw, growing up as a white kid, in the nearby town of Weston, MA. As a lower-income kid growing up in (at the time of the early 80’s), the richest town in America, and treated like a second class citizen myself, I always empathized with the Metco kids. Please understand, I know that I can’t truly compare my experience to those students experiences; all I’m saying is that I just knew that I was treated similarly to the kids who were deemed, ‘different’, for their skin color. I was too shy, but daily held back rage and screams at the horrible snobs who treated those with darker skin like they were second-class, or, maybe worse, as if they didn’t exist or matter at all. I actually never heard the ‘n’ word uttered until high school, but saw it’s equal in glares at blacks, huffs of annoyance and many times refusal to even acknowledge some students. In my opinion, there were a few teachers who displayed this ignorance, also. I loved the METCO program, and how it broadened my vision, but can’t imagine how strong the kids had to be. I TOTALLY get it about these blue-blood towns. They need to grow up. I applaud this wonderful article. I love the photos, too. You are a wonderful writer.

      1. Ms. Greene- After rereading my negative spew about these rich towns, I want to make sure that I include that there ARE wonderful people there, who are very inclusive and kind. Although I grew up with a general feeling about the attitude, I can’t blanket judge all of those I grew up with. What matters is that we all teach our children now, as you appear to be doing, to create a new world where all are appreciated and treated with respect. I am so thankful that these discussions are happening, and that change is afoot. One step at a time is the way to a hopeful, new, and fun world, and starting with the children is the key! 🙂

      2. Unfortunately, some residents in Weston haven’t changed that much since the ’80s. As a minority just moved into Weston, I definitely noticed some subtle microagression permeates throughout the town. Small things like selected some would purposefully ignore or frown at your presence, non-responsive to your attempt in conversation, etc. Because I am also a mother of two, I am very concerned about how this kind of behavior would affect the schools. So far I feel the schools have done a fantastic job keeping my kids involved and not alienated. I don’t know how the METCO kids are feeling in school. But whenever I see the METCO parents at the sports events, I always try to engage them. If I feel invisible among some town folks, I can’t imagine how they feel. We probably can’t change how everyone perceives minorities. The only thing we can do is to treat each other well.

      3. Thank you for reading and responding with your own experiences thus far. I am sorry to hear of your experiences of feeling invisible in Weston. Treasure those neighbors, parents, and children with whom you’ve bonded. Many of our schools have fantastic staff and faculty who work hard each day to keep our children safe and take care of their academic, social, and emotional needs. Thank goodness! May your children feel seen and cherished in all spaces. Day by day, I am holding on to hope for that for my children as well.

  3. I have to comment. I have lived in Wellesley my whole life, and have chosen to raise my family here as well. We moved briefly to a town west of here, and I can honestly say that the Wellesley you are describing and the Wellesley I live in presently are two different towns. My children went through the school system (one is still in high school) They encountered classmates of color. Ours is not a white-washed town. The town we lived in before did not have a single minority. I take pride in our diversity. It’s not as diverse as some others towns or cities, but it’s come a long way. I also know that yes, some people especially of the older generation do not necessarily act PC. But honestly, I have been out and about when my children were younger with my nieces and nephews and have had people do the same thing. It wasn’t a race thing, it was a big family thing. I’m sorry you view Wellesley this way. I’m not naïve, I know that racism exists, but I also know that our town has come a long way from when I was a child.

    1. What is the point of this? This is Nikki’s experience. Do not dismiss it. This is her reality, and her children’s reality.

      “They encountered classmates of color”? Even your language shows that Wellesley is not an inclusive community for people of color.

      1. My point is that what one “person of color” (this is the PC term people use by the way) may experience in an ice cream shop is not that far off from what a Caucasian woman experiences. Would you rather me tell you that my kids had plenty of black kids in their classes?! That they have plenty on minority friends? My choice of words should not take away from my message. I see both sides, and I am embarrassed for our town.

      2. @Michelle – I was specifically referring to your use of the word “encountered” as if these POC classmates were not to be engaged with or if they were something to be observed. This is the exclusive language you were using. Please be aware of this in the future.

        This blog talks about Nikki’s experience. It is not comparative to one that a white woman experiences. You saying that it is similar and your interpretation of it being a normalized experience is disrespectful, disruptive, and dismissive of Nikki’s experience.

    2. Michelle, I have lived in Wellesley for 43 years and I am afraid this article is right on. Remember the Dee Brown incident? There is indeed racism here as there is in every place but it is well hidden under designer clothes.

    3. Do yourself a favor and read the Police Blog every Thursday in The Wellesley Townsman. It is littered with the names of minorities. Every single week, every single arrest, incident or warning. Rarely does one come across a homogenous name or story of a resident in the wrong. Look into the window of the cars pulled over by the Police on Washington Street or Route 9 and you will almost always see a minority in a less than desired vehicle. Never are the Wellesley moms/dads in their big SUV’s or expensive foreign cars penalized for speeding or blowing through stop signs and red lights while texting, talking on the phone or simply feeling entitled while racing off to whatever is next. I have never come across such disregard for one’s neighbors and have always felt shocked by it. My family and I are in the process of moving overseas – not because of Wellesley but, honestly, I cannot get far enough away from this place.

      1. Yeah, I got caught going 56 in a 30 and running the red left turn light by the post office to go down to Truly’s. Cop stopped me but did not ticket. It was about midnight, but still. After the experience, I wondered if that would have happened had I not been a white woman. Speculation, but still an interesting thing to be aware of and consider.

    4. Michelle, I too have to comment. I appreciate you sharing the historical context of Wellesley. Further, it is GREAT to hear that Wellesley has come a long way from when you were a child. I believe that the large racial chasm in our country will only heal if we continue to engage in honest discourse. However, please hear me when I tell you that as a Black woman with a Black husband and two Black children, Nikki’s recounting of her experiences in Wellesley, most closely correlate with our family’s experiences.

      I also appreciate that you do acknowledge that racism exists. It would be helpful if you could share that with other White people in Wellesley. Why? Well, unfortunately, when I shared serious racist incidents that happened to my children in the Wellesley Public Schools, we were met with arguments that perhaps it wasn’t racism. Perhaps the family that launched false complaints with the Wellesley Police (against my almost 12 year old son) wasn’t racist, just a bad case of helicopter parenting. Perhaps the child who yelled that “Blackies” shouldn’t play on the playground was making a joke. Well, such “helicopter parenting” and “joking” has serious psychological and social implications for our children and families. Fortunately, our family is focused on more than racism. We are raising our children to be emotionally intelligent, compassionate, Christian, curious children. We work hard every day to earn the “economic privilege” that Casey Roberts so arrogantly mentioned.

      However, it is difficult to live in a commnunity that pats itself on the back for growing from 100% White to 90% White. Great, there is more numerical representation. Yet, what about the hearts and minds of the people who live here. There are some brilliant, kind people living in Wellesley. But, their private calls to me during our family’s travails suggest that these people may feel outnumbered and unable to confront those who hold racist viewpoints. I also disagree that it is people of the older generation alone who hold these views. No. That simply isn’t borne out by statistics, academic research, personal experiences (of many, not just me), etc. While racism has shifted in form from overt to covert, it is still there.

      Please do not dismiss Nikki’s situation. Yes, you may have experienced something similar. But, that does not mean that Nikki’s experience is invalid. Similar to when men used to tell women, “Ohhhh, come on. So he asked you to get the coffee? So he tapped you on the butt?! He jokes with me all of the time.” I dare say that you would not tell that woman that it’s just a joking thing…you might pause and think, “hmm, even if he meant it as a joke, given that I’m a woman, it certainly doesn’t feel that way.” Please consider that.


  4. I just looked up census numbers for Wellesley, for 2000 and 2010. The town has remained 85-90% white.

    Thinking that her children being touched and forced to show off their faces isn’t “a race thing” IS naive.

  5. Addressing your Wellesley Public Schools claims:

    While I know that racism and microaggressions certainly exist in Wellesley, I personally found that the METCO program fails not because the white students were racist towards them, but because they didn’t mesh with a lot of the Wellesley students.
    For example, lunch: I think lunch is a really accurate representation of the social dynamic of a school. A large percentage of these METCO students–white AND black, mind you–all sat together segregating themselves to the side of the cafeteria in high school. Is it as simple as they didn’t want to sit with everyone else? No, of course not. The Wellesley students definitely share some blame for this situation, but from my experience, those who did fit in became good friends with Wellesley-resided students. Myself included. I can name several people that were a part of the METCO program that I was friendly with and had a lot of respect for. At the same time, there were a lot that I didn’t care for or respect because I didn’t like their personality or character. I think most of the people I hung out with were like this–they didn’t consciously judge a classmate by the color of their skin but instead by their character and personality. No different from anyone else.
    I completely disagree with the quote that someone can go through their entire WPS lives without interacting with a person of color. While it’s most likely a hyperbole, there is the same proportion of interaction with colored people as white people. It’s just that the percentage of white students is sooo high. The problem that I think you’re addressing is more the lack of color in and around Wellesley rather than racism. And that’s a socioeconomic problem with a much larger scope–something small gatherings will not and cannot change. Wellesley is a rich town. I honestly hope I can afford a place like it when I’m older.
    To say that a few immature, racist kids (from last year?) speak for the entire WPS community during my time from 2002-2015 is just not fair to the thousands of students–the silent majority–that have treated all of their classmates the same, regardless of race, religion, or anything else.

    1. Dear Wellesley HS Graduate, If racism does not exist in Wellesley, please ask yourself why you used the term “colored”, an offensive and highly racist term. You skewered your entire argument with that one word. Also, trying to school an accomplished, highly educated professor at a world class institution about the experiences she and her family deal with firsthand, experiences for which you will never have a barometer, was short-sighted, arrogant and kind of embarrassing.

      1. JC – Wellesley HS Graduate does not say racism doesn’t exist. Read his or her first line: “racism and microaggressions certainly exist in Wellesley”. Also, offering an opinion based on his or her own experiences does not indicate that he or she is “schooling” the author. I think it’s great that the author is having this dialog and bringing attention to these very real issues that she has been experiencing first hand. Maybe some changes will happen when people become more aware of it. By the way, respectful dialog is a 2-way street.

      2. Honestly I just meant to capture all non-white races–Latino, African-American, Middle Eastern, etc–in one term. In my post, I was using the term color, quoting the article even. It just slipped in there and I meant it without harm. I didn’t mean for it to “skewer” my argument. You’re right, I’m young and don’t know a lot of things. But I have a voice right? How am I supposed to learn without discussion, whether it be in a classroom or a forum? I experienced WPS firsthand, experiences for which neither you nor she will ever have a barometer.

    2. Good God, did you actually say “colored” in print? The portion where you claim “there were a lot that I didn’t care for or respect because I didn’t like their personality or character”. If you’re ever up for it, and hopefully in a graduate program, take a racism and oppression course. The whole thing, don’t drop it the first week because it’s lame, or never enroll because you’re not racist and don’t need it. If you’re interested in evolving (hint: if you want to own a nice expensive house, not saying or doing racist stuff will keep you employed and out of HR, if nothing else motivates you), it may be worth examining why you find some METCO students worthy of your respect and friendship and some were not. You may have a bias or two you’re not aware of.

      I’m not saying this to be mean, I’m just hoping you’ll care and not decide you know it all already, especially on things like this. Some really good professors opened my mind to the microaggressions we commit as white people and don’t really have to think about because our lives roll on regardless without a dent in our access to things like jobs and social status. Please care.

      1. See my response to JC above on the mention of “colored”. I believe I said this already, but I’m sure there are biases and stereotypes in my head that I don’t realize exist. But that’s no different from anyone else, right?! If I see some huge white man with tattoos everywhere, I’m likely to have subconscious biases too. I think it’s only human nature. But that doesn’t prevent me from giving them a fair chance and getting to know how nice/not nice a person they are.

  6. I have to disagree, respectfully, with Michelle Grignaffini’s comment. Although it may be possible to find less diverse towns, Wellesley is undeniably homogeneous. Even my first grade daughter came home from her school’s MLK Day assembly and asked,”If white and black people are supposed to be friends now, how come there are no black people in Wellesley?” She spent this year interacting with my graduate-school classmates, who were very diverse, and had the good sense to question our current lack of diversity here in town. I’m white and have had many occasions to question casual expressions of prejudice– to deny that it is here may be getting in the way of seeking solutions. Having been raised in the south, I can’t say I prefer some of the more obvious racism I encountered, but it at least prevented the excuses and denials I hear in some of these comments.

  7. I was born and raised in Wellesley. After my husband passed away 9 years ago (at aged 32) I came back. I love the town’s proximity to Boston. I love it’s landscape and it’s history. I love almost everything about it. I hate, however, its’s lack of diversity. I went to school with African American kids from the Metco program. I remembered how much I loved having my friend (whom I’m still friends with) Patrice in my class. Mostly because she was allowed to stay over at my house on a school night after girl scouts! But. . there was that “divide.” We knew there was a difference because they didn’t live in Wellesley. Why didn’t they just live in town. It was never properly explained. For a long time, I actually thought African Americans weren’t “allowed” to live here. That’s a horrible thing for a kid to think. I also remember the Dee Brown incident all those years ago. It was horrible and shameful. I honestly don’t think we’ve come that far since. If fact, it might be worse.

  8. Dear white readers/commenters,

    I grew up as a white girl in homogenous Maine and attended Wellesley College. At first I couldn’t believe the stories my POC classmates related about Wellesley store clerks following them through shops or Wellesley restaurant employees asking them to keep it down while laughing with friends. “This must be a misunderstanding,” I thought, or “Is there a chance you gave them a reason to be suspicious?” I am embarrassed now that I thought these things, and I am so thankful that I kept my mouth shut and listened. There’s a deeply uncomfortable inner turmoil to discovering that the world is not as safe and just for everyone as it is for oneself. But please, white people reading this, don’t make my mistake of thinking that your experience is the only true one. Nikki knows best what happened to *her*. These microaggressions happen all the time, particularly in relatively homogenous communities where they go unchecked. If the POC in your community are saying this is what happened, don’t you think you owe them the respect of hearing them out? Without immediately reaching for the comments section to explain to *them* why *they* are wrong about *their* experience?

    Thank you for sharing your story, Nikki. I wish I could have read it at 18 – or earlier.

  9. I am so very sorry that you have had these experiences in Wellesley. Given your experience, it may be hard to believe that most people in town aspire to become a more diverse community that welcomes all. Despite our best efforts, your experience proves to the contrary, so we need to do better. The woman you encountered outside the ice cream place might have posed the same question to me several years ago, upon seeing my twin boys and their brother only 23 months older, but I know, however rude, her comment would not have been the same for me as a white person. I apologize for her and for anyone else who has not made you feel welcome. Thank you for having the courage to speak up and I hope you will forgive the town for these failings and give Wellesley another chance. You are most welcome here.

  10. Grew up in Boston, Cambridge 50’s on Dad was Wellsley Mailman..Mother Non-profit, then many years at Harvard Bureau of Study Council , My cousin was a Dean in 60’s I get all of it ..Mass is a trip invented de-facto segregation….Cambridge beatniks/hippies/jazz/ and always the Cape the Vineyard the women for whom Michelle was to dark and to ‘ghetto’ ….its a trip …I’ve been gone forever 71′ but it sounds the same …I’m too old to worry anymore….don’t let white folks handle your babies …rub their heads etc just tell them to back off… or have your kids shout “stranger” when approached!!!! Another great tactic is having nothing to do with them “obviously” let them chase you until they ask if you hate white folks then you know they got it and you can be friends… follow the rules but take no sh** ….love Oak Bluffs and fried clams necks!!! Stay Black and strong

  11. I taught in Wellesley for two years as a middle school math teacher. During that time, I had racial epithets yelled at me by high school students driving by in their cars, had classmates tell some of my black students to “go back to the plaintation”, had a blonde blue-eyed colleague say in a team meeting, following the events in Ferguson, that she knew black people were exaggerating about police abuses and discrimination in St. Louis because she used to live there. I stood there while a Wellesley man on the commuter rail told the woman traveling with him, while staring derisively at me, that a family member had decided to adopt a Chinese baby because THEY are beautiful intelligent people. Listened while she said, “yes, they’re beautiful.” And I saw how the “Boston” students (a euphemism for all the black students) were openly derided among some teachers, disproportionately punished, and expected significantly less of. As a person of color, one can get so used to abuse that you expect it everywhere, but it isn’t the same everywhere and I’m grateful to my colleagues here in this very Northern point in England for showing me that (though no place is completely without bigotry) that even a place without a great deal of diversity can be open, warm, welcoming, and genuinely friendly. I think Wellesley and many other such communities could learn from them…at the very least by being open to hearing the experience of minorities in your community and recognizing that their experience is clearly very different from your own. What’s the alternative? To assume that we just like being miserable and making all this up? My life is quite exciting enough, thank you very much.

  12. Hoping you are not teaching your kids to wrest identity based on their skin color. There is more to a human being than the color of their skin. Read more of James Baldwin!

  13. Thank you Professor Greene for sharing your thoughts in this courageous piece and your unacceptable experiences in Wellesley. As a resident, this is incredibly upsetting to hear and I hope it’s part of a greater conversation about racism with your lead in what is a ridiculously homogenous community. I’m so sorry that you have had to contend with this in a place that should be welcoming and inclusive given all of its other successes.

  14. Nikki, Thank you so much for sharing your experience and the beautiful pictures of your family. Reading some of the comments are troubling. If only we realized that we were intentionally made with two ears and one mouth for a reason. We would listen to one another more and deepen our learning and understanding. I stand with you in solidarity my sister.

  15. Dear Dr. Greene, thank you so, so much for sharing your story. It is beautifully written, open, and frank and a must-read for all of us. When I read the Wellesley High African American student’s comment, I was similarly struck by the idea that kids could move through the system without ever knowing another person of color because the numbers are so small. By sharing your story, hopefully, you will open many people’s eyes and spark important conversations among educators, parents, students and the community at large. Linda

  16. Dr. Greene, it’s a wonderful story you’ve told. And I can understand your concerns for your children and their healthy adjustment to life as it is in a still racist America.

    I would argue that, as traumatic as it was for so many, forced desegregation in the public schools did more to take the hard edge off of racism in the U.S. than anything else; the fact that it is now back in a defacto reality bodes ill for the future of the United States. That, combined with the fact that Ronald Reagan made meanspiritedness and intolerance not only acceptable, but even fashionable, has erased much of the social progress that was so hard fought for by the Civil Rights Era movements. Clearly, we have much to do, and we need to recognize and buck up to the fact that when political parties seek votes by appealing to white nationalism and catering to white privilege, we can only expect limited progress, which will be halting at best. And now we have a presidential candidate that could, if unchecked, undo virtually all of that hard-won progress.

    Politics shapes culture. As a sexual minority, that is something of which I am acutely aware, a lesson pounded into me at every turn. And those of us who are fighting for the rights of all quickly come to understand that politics is the obstacle, and it is where our efforts need to be concentrated. That is why I have chosen it as my battle.

    Good luck in raising your adorable children in a world that is all too often mean and intolerant, and I hope you can find your tolerant society in which to live, but it has been my experience that you never will. I hope you come to appreciate that your fight is a political one, and that you will learn, as I have, that you can run but you can’t hide. It’s a challenge and a responsibility that we all have to bear, regardless of our personal circumstances, if we are to make this a better world for everyone.

  17. What do you say when your daughter tells you a classmate nicknamed her “brown bunny”? What do you do when a classmate accuses your son of stealing a souvenir he wasn’t supposed to bring to school and the parent threatens to have your son removed from the school system? How do you explain to a host parent that your daughter will no longer be allowed to spend the night because she overheard that her overnight stay (i.e., she) was the reward for their child doing chores and not peeing in the bed? How do you comfort your child when they spend so much time proving they belong in an honors course that they don’t enjoy the experience? How do you handle three educators summoning you to school to discourage you from allowing your senior to take 4 APs?

    If you’ve never been a METCO parent, you have NO IDEA what it’s like. My heart aches for youth who don’t have parents or mentors that they can confide in or who can empathize and uplift them.

    Most Wellesley residents have the best of intentions, but I believe socio-economic differences, stereotypes, prejudices and a general discomfort with African Americans get in the way of authentic relationships and conversations.

    I agree with the student who said many Wellesley students have never interacted with a person of color and with that comes the assumptions that we’re all like the characters they see on television shows or music videos (which are mostly negative).

    To answer my questions above, my daughter gave her classmate his own nickname (and he didn’t like it very much). A resident classmate returned the souvenir the next day (she forgot to ask if she could take the signed Red Sox baseball home to show her father). Let’s just say I had no problem explaining that my daughter would no longer be a REWARD for good behavior. Both of my children were always encouraged (by me, their father and grandparents…yes, we’re ALL present in their lives) to take difficult and challenging courses and that’s exactly what they did!

  18. Nikki, thank you for this courageous and candid “day in the life” snapshot. Too many people, myself and my kids included, have had experiences not unlike those of you and your kids. “And still we rise…,” to paraphrase Dr. Maya Angelou. I’m glad for all of the people in Wellesley who have stepped forward to show that “another world is possible,” even in Wellesley at this challenging moment, and I lovingly invite everyone who reads your essay to “sit with it” (as one of my guiding lights, Thich Nhat Hanh, might recommend) until the chord of empathy begins to resonate and speak in the tongue of solutions.

  19. Nikki, thank you again for sharing life-text words/scholarship that set this conversation in motion. And for offering links to the scholarship of George Yancy and Anna Keglar, which I found very informative.

    Layli, I am moved by your loving invite and reminder to “sit with it… until the chords of empathy begin to resonate and speak in the tongue of solutions.”

    My heart is touched by getting to view the historical footage offered above. Thank you to the person who posted it.

    One hope I have is that white Wellesley Public School educators will take this opportunity to move forward – in an informed way – toward being about the business of building positive white racial socialization.

    Toward that end, I recommend Ali Michael & Eleanora Bartoli’s 2014 article “What White Children Need to Know About Race” from which the following quotation is taken:

    White children are racially socialized by a number of forces, many of which, as educators, we cannot directly control. Schools, however, can play a crucial role in shaping racial socialization for white children. Ideally, white racial socialization in school would promote children’s abilities to build productive and genuine relationships with the people of color in their lives, and to recognize the effect that race has on their experience. In this way, children can be more than simply passive participants in an unjust racial system, but actually shape the racial reality in which they are embedded in the very ways that so many parents and schools already wish for.
    The white racial socialization perspectives and skills proposed here will contribute not only to healthier schools and communities, but also to healthier individuals, less susceptible to the acquisition of misinformation and therefore less likely to perpetuate harm toward others. These skills and perspectives create spaces where it is more difficult for racism to thrive because there are more white people resisting it and deconstructing it.
    This work stands in stark contrast to color-blindness, which provides ample room for the status quo to develop stronger roots. A community in which critical race analysis plays a central role is one in which people truly have a choice about how to be more fully themselves, outside of the pre-established roles assigned by racial constructs. Given the importance of this work, it’s hard to imagine why we wouldn’t embrace it.
    If we want a racially just world, we need racially aware schools.

      1. As a white person, I do not find it so myself. And I am sobered in my own white-on-white conversations – how true the following observation of Martin Luther King, Jr. often feels. “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their [our] sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they [we] have so little to learn.” But, other times, white hunger for further racial understanding and learning is clear. My vote is for increasing white listening and learning.

  20. As a typical Wellesley resident I want you to know that I welcome you here. I don’t feel I have the right to think of you as an outsider so I hope that you welcome me as well. I know the feeling of “not belonging” and I don’t want anyone in this town to feel it. Also know that I have an older relative who is crazy around babies and she touches them all – usually to the annoyance of parents. But she is otherwise kind. Please assume the best in everyone – what looks like condescension in one person might (I wasn’t there) be an uncontrollable urge to touch beautiful children. I know pregnant women also are often touched inappropriately by strangers on the belly. Some people have such a strong positive reaction that they don’t take the time to see how their action looks/feels to others.

    1. Well said…Wellesley is one of the best towns and has a lot of amazing people. They are crazy people in every race or culture and religion. They are also good people and the crazy ones are not that many!

  21. Thank you for this essay. While the town of Wellesley is perhaps uniquely exclusive (because of the number of ways in which it is exclusive), you now have me wondering if other smallish liberal arts colleges in predominantly white suburbs have trouble retaining faculty of color for the reasons you have described so well. I know that students of color struggle with the town, too.

  22. Thank you for your essay and for teaching outside of the classroom even as you teach inside it. I am a white resident of the town with three kids in the WPS system, and want to so much to help them be sensitive and helpful in moving our town to a better place. I need to better understand the experiences of my neighbors in order to do that well, and these kinds of essays and conversations help. I especially appreciate the comments above sharing experiences in the METCO program. My son, in particular, has many good friends in that program and it helps me to know how they might be experiencing the town and the school. I am so fond of the boys my son pals around with and will give them an even tighter hug next time I see them.

    1. In the attention economy, people are rewarded for extremism. They are rewarded for indulging their worst biases and stoking other people’s worst fears. They are rewarded for portraying the world as a place that is burning to the ground, whether it’s because of gay marriage, or police violence, or Islamic terrorism, or low interest rates. The internet has generated a platform where apocalyptic beliefs are celebrated and spread, and moderation and reason is something that becomes too arduous and boring to stand.-Mark Manson

      1. The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define…

        Every year we see scores of books and articles which tell [people] what a state they are in — which make intelligent or simpleminded or extravagant or lurid or demented statements. All reflect the crises we are in while telling us what we must do about them; these analysts are produced by the very disorder and confusion they prescribe for.


        In private life, disorder or near-panic. In families — for husbands, wives, parents, children — confusion; in civic behavior, in personal loyalties, in sexual practices (I will not recite the whole list; we are tired of hearing it) — further confusion. And with this private disorder goes public bewilderment.


        It is with these facts that knock us to the ground that we try to live… There is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness… But I have made my point; we stand open to all anxieties. The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread, we are agitated in private life and tormented by public questions.-Saul Bellow

  23. What a beautiful family you have! Stumbled across your blog and just wanted to encourage you. As a Wellesley alumna (’02) who on more than one occasion dealt with what you’re talking about as a student in the shops in “town” – there’s nothing more humiliating and strange especially if you HAVE known the privilege of growing up in a diverse place (Oakland!). Now as a mother of a mixed-race brown skinned boy I can only offer encouragement that you are making the right choices and this is just a season. I’m not sure people of color would otherwise willingly live in affluent mostly white neighborhoods otherwise – because of all the burdens you speak of here. I wouldn’t – it’s not the real world! But in the time you are there, there is the hope that you will somehow expand your family’s experiences to include even this highly homogenous community. And in the end, my hope is that the community will reflexively benefit and contribute more positive aspects to your lives.

  24. I live in Wellesley Hills and many of our neighbors are Asians and Europeans, so I believe things have changed significantly.

  25. Nikki, amazing article. I grew up in the neighboring town of Newton. Tons of my friends growing up were in the METCO program, and would hope they weren’t treated like some of the stories you share, though I’m sure I do not know every deital of their struggles in communities such as these. Thank you for sharing this is incredibly important for anyone growing up in the metro west area, and communities like this nation wide! Hope to see you around Wellesley sometime would love love love to hear more from you!

  26. We live in Wellesley. We have a daughter in the Wellesley public school system. Although she is “brown-skinned,” she has never been excluded or treated differently due to her race. She has many friends of all colors. I am not dismissing the concerns raised in this blog, but yet I wanted to offer my family’s experiences. I am curious about the line that stated, “as if [the woman] couldn’t believe there could be so many of us—brown-skinned people, that is—sitting before her.” Did the woman say this? Or is this just the author projecting? Why is it assumed that the woman was reacting to race? Perhaps she was; impossible to know unless she said so herself. My family and I get odd comments and glances from strangers, just as I suspect everyone does if they interact with enough people. I don’t attribute these occurrences to racism, but rather to the personalities of the people making the comments and glances (and I certainly can’t know what is going through their minds at the time). Racism exists, no doubt. However, when looking for it, it can be found everywhere whether it exits in those particular instances or not.

    1. I agree with leslie. I am of color and grew up in wellesley. You will see a race issue wherever you’re looking for one

  27. You and your family are beautiful. I just moved to Wellesley and worried about the lack of diversity and inclusion, equality, race and social justice. I was lucky enough to take a White Fragility class in Seattle for work. I learned so much and it has changed my focus and outlook and I hope to work harder and better for inclusivity, race and social justice.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  28. I am Asian-American, born in America, and moved to Wellesley for middle school. Throughout middle and high school, I was spat on, called racial slurs, spoken fake “Chinese” to, and once hit with crutches. In high school, the drama department put on the play “Anything Goes” which had to “Chinese” characters, Ching and Ling, who spoke pidgin English. When I protested, faculty told me it would be “censorship.” Today I read an article about a Chinese-American, Harvard-educated lawyer and Wellesley resident who was told by a man wearing a “Wellesley Hockey Parent” shirt to “go back to China.” Your experience does not surprise me. Wellesley is just like I remember it.

    —- From The American Lawyer Nov. 18, 2016:
    At a time of political upheaval in this country and uncertainty over the future of civil rights, William Lee, the former co-managing partner of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, has a chilling story to tell.
    On a Tuesday night in August, Lee stopped at a gas station near his home outside Boston in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to fill up his Mercedes-Benz SUV. Lee—a graduate of Harvard College and one of the nation’s most accomplished intellectual property litigators—was wearing a suit and tie, having finished a long day at work.

    As Lee tells it, a man wearing a “Wellesley Hockey Parent” shirt walked up to him.

    “Where does a guy like you get a car like that?” the man said to Lee, looking at the litigator’s vehicle.

    Lee, whose parents came to this country from China in 1948, tried to defuse the situation. “From Herb Chambers,” he said, referring to a local car dealer.

    “Why don’t you go back to your own country,” the man said, according to Lee.

    “I don’t understand you,” Lee said.

    “You mean, you don’t understand English,” the man said.

    “I don’t understand ignorance,” Lee replied.

    The Wilmer partner drove away, but the man followed in his car. When Lee pulled into a nearby police station, the man vanished.

    “In the bluest of Blue States, Massachusetts, a mile from Wellesley College, if someone tells you to go back to your own country, this can happen anywhere,” Lee said. “If this can happen to the managing partner of an Am Law 200 firm, what’s happening to the rest of the country?”

    Lee said he hadn’t heard a comment like this for 40 years. He attributes the encounter to the political environment that has encouraged hostility to immigrants. “He felt he could say it,” Lee said.

    Lee told several of his partners, and the younger ones were the most shocked. One in particular, broker-dealer compliance and regulation chair Yoon-Young Lee, encouraged him to go public with the story.

    “I grew up in the fifties when we were the only Chinese family in our school district,” Lee recalled. “It was not a great time to be Asian. In many ways this brought back things that I thought we had put behind us.”

    The day after Donald Trump won the presidency, Lee and other prominent law firm leaders spoke to The American Lawyer about the need for lawyers to stand up in the U.S. and protect the rule of law.

    “Given the election and its many implications, there has been no moment in recent memory when it has been more important for lawyers to fulfill their professional responsibilities,” said Lee at the time. “As a profession, we must ensure that the rule of law that is our fundamental core value is our highest priority and applicable and available to everyone.”

    Although the incident in August upset him, Lee said he doesn’t feel afraid.

    “I’m concerned that if this can happen in Wellesley, it’s indicative of people having similar views, whether expressed or unexpressed,” he said. “It’s something we have to address as a country and as lawyers. Who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe it will be better than we hope. If not, it’s important for lawyers to be heard and stand up.”

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