We Built This City On…Racism?

I’m so embarrassed.

I just don’t know how much longer I can defend my city. My hometown of Boston and it’s troublesome label of being a racist city.

How about “the most racist city ever”?

I held a stalwart stance when New Yorkers would ask me, in all seriousness, “Are there any Black people in Boston?” or in a chary approach, they would let it slip, “Isn’t it racist there?” Their pity for me felt as thick as a beating sun upon your skin. I heard more remarks like, “Aren’t you glad you got out?” and “Ooooo! I don’t know about Boston!” I would always shake my head and grimace: ” Not my city!” And go on to think in my  head: not where I was born and as a child, I was a little black girl with fluffy braids and a name that began with the syllable “Sha-.”

Not my city where if a substitute teacher mispronounced my name, my White classmates hollered it the correct way and I would beam with pride. Not my city where I wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable to enjoy Coolidge Corner after school or downtown on the weekends. Not my city where I was raised by a high yella (she cringes when I call her that) Costa Rican mother and our difference in melanin likely amused but never brought on antipathy.


My mother’s decision to reside in Boston, raising my siblings and me, had always guided my perception that yes, racists do exist–as they do everywhere. But we weren’t subjected to seeing nooses idly hanging in Brookline, Boston, or spaces that were celebratory of Black excellence or local heroes, such as the Jim Rice Field by Dudley Square, on a regular basis. My mother had come too far from her homeland to entertain the idea of raising a family amongst racist assholes. I trusted my mother’s choice to remain here. And she was one of many immigrants that came to Boston and raised their families here. The city and its neighborhoods have strong enclaves of those of Irish, Cape Verdean, Vietnamese and African descent. For their children, this is their home.

I trusted my childhood that was beautifully multilayered with kids at Lawrence School in which a majority were American born, but plenty had first names and surnames that were undeniably of another land. If anyone grew up to be a racist from my elementary school days, it would be a farce. Tolerance wasn’t force-fed. It was led by example and a non-negotiable of our early education and the big world that awaited us.

Sadly, my experience with limited racism in Boston is an anomaly.


As of Wednesday morning, I felt frozen, and experienced, for the first time, a delay reaction in defending Boston. I felt hurt and angry that a paint brush had been grabbed and refreshed the ostensible color that many Bostonians had hoped had chipped away to a bruised, but clean slate on the subject of “the most racist city ever.” Damn. Even more racist than the sites of where Black people were hosed with the dangerous speed of water and attacked my dogs, trained to hate, in Southern states during the 1960s?

The color this time contained the anguish of Adam Jones, an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles. He had been reportedly subjected to the N-word slur and a bag of peanuts thrown at him during a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox. The incident quickly made national headlines in the news media and social media. That Wednesday morning as I reflected on the train, and had a copy of the Metro that read “Racism at Fenway” on the front, I had read just the night before that New York Yankees player, C.C. Sabathia, was quoted by Boston.com in saying that it wasn’t a secret amongst MLB players of color that when playing in Beantown, “expect” animosity in the form of racism. I felt so sick.

As an outsider of journalism, I assumed that bloggers and non-Massachusetts natives were quick to fire up think pieces. They did a Google search to back up the reports and maybe even included passed down from their parents’ generation stories of the unfortunate riots of the early to mid-1970s, regarding the integration of public schools between South Boston and Dorchester. It was via a yellow school bus “busing” system, eventually nicknamed METCO.

Many news outlets, outside of my city, surely do not care as much about the well-being and spirit of Boston or Massachusetts as those of us having to face the music when confronted with whether or not our home is still taking applications for Racists-R-Us. This was just a hot topic. (Though this Washington Post piece can be treated as an editorial ally). I saw how social media took advantage of the statement NBA legend Bill Russell made about the city when he was a Boston Celtic and lead the team to multiple championships in his day. A specific recollection, made official in his 1979 memoir Second Wind, verged on Twitter virality, 38 years later, the day after the Adam Jones incident:

“Boston itself was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-‘em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists.”

Take it from someone who’s from here. When incidents like Jones being called the N-word, or Michele Che jokes that ride on the Boston’s racist tag on SNL, make national headlines, having to be the sole soldier in a sea of New Yorkers–despite their own city’s horrendous history with racism–can be trying as you reclaim a bruised prideful stance of “that is not the city I know and love.” Shame is the color that washes over me, or us when the ugly comes to the light. Not my city.

Not my city in which the year Birth of A Nation was released in 1915, a conversation led by William H. Trotter, a leading Black figure for the Black community, occurred in Boston, and Black residents, and some White allies, protested vehemently against the film being shown because of its racist to the core storyline that elevated the Ku Klux Klan and deplorable images of blackface. How come we never mention these brave Boston civilians, fighting against hate? It looks like well-behaved men seldom make history either.

The person who allegedly spewed the N-word at Fenway Park was ejected from the game. But I sometimes wish these types would be brought to the front for further investigation. Not just a slap on the wrist. “Did you feel good about yourself afterward?” “Did that behavior make you any money or put food on the table?” “Did it set up a trust fund for your kids? A promotion at work? What did you gain from calling Jones a nigger?” “Who the hell do you think you are?”

The Red Sox since issued a sincere apology and the great Mayor Walsh denounced the incident. On Facebook, however, because I chose to again be proven that some people just ain’t right, I observed many comments that were sadly disgusting. For every “I’m so sorry this happened to you Adam” were a handful of individuals, often of the white trash division, that willingly wrote “get over it pussy” and “he [Jones] should’ve been grateful for the peanuts” prating. Gross. Leave it to the comments section of The Boston Herald, an already questionable, low brow tabloid. Nothing makes a Bostonian less proud to be a Bostonian than The Boston Herald comments section.

So what do we do know? The damage is done and has been broadcasted. The United States is watching us. Boston and its neighborhoods have a problem. States and cities with similar instances of hatred are also having to deal with such awfulness, like most recently, American University. Bananas were hung around campus with “AKA FREE” written on them. An apparent attempt by cowards to intimidate Alpha Kappa Alpha, a Black sorority and where the school’s current and first Black woman student government president is a member of.

It may be best and most effective for Boston, from its residents, sports teams and fans, and politicians to speak out against racism. (Disappointingly, most celebs associated with Boston have been quiet on the subject.) A label that was plagued our city for too long and sadly will because history can’t be deleted. But it can evolve. Combating the rude remarks on Facebook, I did see many more positive messages of support. And in an effort of solidarity when Jones came to bat the next day at Fenway Park, many Red Sox fans in attendance stood up and applauded. Now that’s a representation of the city I can be proud of.

To my fellow Bostonians and all those in Massachusetts: stop the bullshit if you are a part of it. My heart really does break for any Bostonian and visitor, past and present, that endured racism here. I want people to feel welcomed and excited to be here. I want to continue hearing artists say, “I love Boston. The fans were great.” We need more nights like the one in which James Brown healed a Boston crowd, distraught over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the night before, through his music, becoming one of the best music moments the city ever had.

I, however, will not sugarcoat the racism of Boston–I never did–but will also not allow the city to be a scapegoat. What happened at Fenway Park has made it harder, but I will not allow anyone in talks with me to forget the Howard Beach killing of December 1986. The Central Park Five. The 1999 Cinnicinati Riots. How about more recently, the deaths of too many Black lives in Florida state, Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore, leading to the necessary uprise of Black Lives Matter again and again. I want it to be clear that racism hits home wherever we are from. We should be ashamed and hurt no matter our locations when these incidents transpire.

On a final note, Boston gets highly criticized when racism occurs because this is a city that is supposed to know better. We glamorize being urbane and debonair at the same time and this is used to our advantage from college brochures to the Prudential Center mall. But we can’t just stand behind “Boston Strong” in tragedy. We should also be “Boston Strong” in everyday spirit. Boston, I WANT to believe in you.

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