Tendai Musikavanhu’s heart sank when he learned a photo of his family had been used in racist and xenophobic Facebook messages allegedly posted by some of his son’s peers at Wellesley High School last month.
“Until now, we believed Wellesley loved us. We felt safe and we felt welcome,” Musikavanhu said in a phone interview last week. “An incident like this, it basically shakes our world.”
Musikavanhu and his family were out of the country for vacation and work when police and school authorities launched an investigation into the messages. Now that he has returned, Musikavanhu is speaking publicly about the incident for the first time, attributing it to a broader climate of racism besetting the nation.
“This small group of kids have raised questions. How safe are we?” he said. “To me, this is not an isolated incident. It never is.”
The offensive messages joked about lynching and genocide, and surfaced after a Wellesley High student posted screenshots of the exchange on his Facebook page.
Musikavanhu said his son, a 15-year-old rising junior at Wellesley High, invited school friends to a barbecue at his house in early July. One of those friends snapped a photo of a family portrait resting in the living room. It depicted the family in front of the Olympic rings for the London Games in 2012.
That photo was shared in a private Facebook group chat that included two other students from Wellesley High and other youths, screenshots of which were shared with the Globe. Surrounding it were messages making references to a racial epithet.
“[Expletive] [N-words] taking our jobs,” said one message, written in capital letters. “Those animals don’t deserve this land,” another message read.
School superintendent David Lussier said Friday that the district would not discuss whether students involved in the chat had been disciplined.
In July, Lussier and Wellesley High principal Jamie Chisum sent a letter to the school community addressing the messages, calling them “disturbing” and saying they violated the school’s core values.
“At a time when issues of race and division are challenging the nation, we should not assume that we are immune to these same challenges in Wellesley,” the letter read.
Lussier said the school plans to discuss the incident Wednesday, the first day back from summer break. He said the school and the district are working to organize a long-term discussion on race issues, although he did not go into details.
“We want to use this as a learning moment to look more broadly and do a more general assessment of what that racism looks like,” Lussier said.
Musikavanhu said one of the students in the group chat was a close friend of his son.
His child, Musikavanhu said, has “got such a big heart and wants to give his friends a pass. But on the other hand, he is mature enough to realize that a line has been crossed.”
Musikavanhu said while his family had not previously experienced overt racist language in the town, he has “heard of a number of people in Wellesley complain about subliminal racism.”
This includes black children not being invited to student gatherings, he said, or not
experiencing close relationships with children of other races.
“It’s below the radar and below any sort of physical level,” he said. “You can’t immediately see the effects of it.”
Lussier said it’s that kind of racism the town must address through open discussion.
“That’s when racism can be most insidious, when it plays out in those very subtle ways,” he said. “Talking about race is one of the most uncomfortable things for anyone. It really takes some courage and honesty.”
Musikavanhu said his wife would like to invite for dinner the families of the students who engaged in the Facebook chat.
“Sometimes, we have to do the things that annoy us the most,” he said.
A local group that focuses on multicultural issues, World of Wellesley, is inviting students to share their feelings regarding diversity during a community gathering at 4 p.m. Sunday outside Town Hall.
Musikavanhu is set to speak, and Lussier said he and Chisum plan to attend.
The school leaders attended a similar event held by the organization last month, said World of Wellesley president Michelle Chalmers. She said she believes the school district has reacted properly to the incident, reaching out to several local groups to discuss it.
“Our mission is to make Wellesley a loving place. And the horrific nature of the conversation these children chose to have goes against that,” Chalmers said. “I think the Wellesley Public Schools system realizes that.”
Musikavanhu was born in the United Kingdom and his son, who is back practicing with the school’s football team, was born in South Africa. Musikavanhu is the chief executive of One Stone Global, a Boston investment advisory firm. The family has lived in Wellesley for seven years.
In a voice message shared with friends and family on Facebook, Musikavanhu urged parents to discuss issues of racism with their children.
“There is a justifiable outcry among people of color who feel as though they’re not being treated fairly, they’re not being included,” he says in the message.
He appreciates the response from community members, most of whom he said were disgusted and upset with the language in the Facebook messages.
“This is not the Wellesley I know or have known for the last seven years,” Musikavanhu said in the voice message. “And it really shouldn’t be dismissed as just a couple of kids. It’s obviously out there and needs to be confronted.”