What Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy students endured last week at the Museum of Fine Arts was not, as museum officials call it, “a range of challenging and unacceptable experiences that made them feel unwelcome.” What was inflicted on these children of color was blatant racism. To call the devil by any other name is to deny its feral existence.
Problems began shortly after a group of about 30 seventh-graders and two teachers from the Dorchester middle school arrived at the MFA. A woman whom teacher Marvelyne Lamy identified as a museum employee reportedly told them, “No food, no drink, no watermelon.” Taliana June, a teacher, told WCVB-TV that a patron said to a female student, “I hope you’re paying attention so you don’t become a stripper.” Then Lamy said she recognized that their group was being shadowed by a security guard. “As soon as we would walk, he would walk,” she said. “When we would stop, he would stop.” A group of white students from another school was not subjected to similar scrutiny.
It was so uncomfortable that Lamy cut short the class trip. Some students were in tears.
“They didn’t deserve that,” June said. “No one deserves to be treated like that.”
No, they don’t.
In a statement and apology as carefully curated as one of the museum’s exhibits, MFA officials said, “We deeply regret any interactions the class had that led to this outcome and are committed to being a place where all people trust that they will feel safe and treated with respect.” Not once were the words “racist” or “racism” used, though evocations of black people with watermelons have been a racist trope in this country since the end of the Civil War.
When I spoke Thursday to Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s chief of learning and community engagement, she was more direct in her condemnation of what happened to these students.
“The most important data is the fact that we had children leave this museum and adults feeling disrespected because of the color of their skin. That is fundamentally not OK,” she said. “I also know this is not a once-in-a-moment occurrence. People have expressed over time — and I’m from Boston, I grew up here — that the museum is a challenging place to be in the lightest sense of terms, and an unwelcoming place for people of color in the most direct terms. These two things are very true and very real.”
I can’t begin to fathom how profoundly damaged an adult has to be to inflict such face-to-face hate on a group of children — and yes, I know this isn’t uncommon. Still, I recognize the diabolical intentions and history behind it. It’s to make these children’s world smaller, a place of boundaries both seen and unseen that they’ll learn not to cross.
This is the harsh lesson all black and brown children learn, and it’s how our armor begins to take shape. Through centuries, the message is always direct: “We want you to know that you don’t belong here. You are not welcome.” When people of color enter traditionally white spaces, that restrictive tradition can be forcefully thrown in our faces.
For some of these kids, this may be a terrible new feeling; for others, it’s an unwelcome refrain. Racism isn’t shrugged off. It embeds under the skin.
As abundant as air and as dense as lead, racism is the weight we carry in our bones, in our souls. It is traumatic and tyrannical, always nudging us to remember what we should and shouldn’t do. At its worst, it compels us to self-segregate, to do it to ourselves before it can be done to us. And we tick off the places we won’t go — certain ballparks, restaurants, theaters, symphony halls, hospitals, and stores. And museums.
Of course, it’s not just Boston. It’s not just the MFA. It’s not even the inglorious man in the White House. This nation is so bound by white supremacy, even students of color on a class trip aren’t safe from its nasty tentacles.
Museum officials have apologized and have been in contact with school officials. An internal investigation into the incident is ongoing. The MFA will triage any fallout or backlash, and will eventually move on. It won’t be as easy for those students or their teachers.
For years, these children and their teachers will bear memories of what should have been a joyous class trip like a scar. And it will always weep and sting like a fresh wound.
Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.