Close to one hundred people crowded into Amvets Post No. 70 to listen to anonymous accounts of what it is like to be a person of color in Woods Hole and Falmouth. The event, “Stories of Race in Woods Hole: Listening as Allyship,” was sponsored by the Woods Hole Diversity Advisory Committee.
A makeshift stage at the front of the room offered a living-room-like arrangement with two chairs, a table, a lamp, and a bookcase. The two chairs were empty for most of the event. In order to preserve anonymity of the people sharing their stories, the audience listened to audio recordings of interviews, played over large speakers in the room. WCAI reporter Sarah Mizes-Tan had collected the audio over the course of about ten months.
Before pressing play, Ms. Mizes-Tan and Onjale Scott-Price, a member of the Woods Hole Diversity Advisory Committee, laid down ground rules for the listening event.
“I do want white people in this audience to realize that the stories that you hear today are not going to be easy for you to hear and they are probably going to make you feel uncomfortable. That is the point,” Ms. Mizes-Tan said. The goal was to provide a space for people of color to share their stories, Ms. Mizes-Tan explained.
They asked for silence in between stories and encouraged members of the audience to refrain from asking questions.
“Feel the way you feel,” Ms. Scott-Price said. “Part of the process of being an ally is listening.” She requested that if people recognized the voices or stories featured in the audio recording, that they would not reveal the speaker’s identity.
Below are a selection of quotes from the audio recordings. Punctuation and ellipses were added for clarity.
* * *
“The thing is, look, if we had to call out every single thing white people did that was racist on a daily basis, I wouldn’t function. I wouldn’t live.
“What does it even mean to look at a black person and say ‘In Woods Hole, I never would have known you were black until I saw you, because I heard you talk.’ What does that mean?
“There are plenty of white racists in Cape Cod. I’ve met plenty of them. It might have been you. You never know. There’s this idea that in Cape Cod and Woods Hole that, because they know the right words to say or they know what they’re not supposed to do, then that’s enough. That’s not enough. That’s not enough. You saying hello to me when I walk into your store even though you follow me around your store is not enough. That’s racist. You looking at me and having conversations with me about how not racist you are is racist. Because you want a pat on the back. You want accolades for just being a decent person. How about you go decently tell other white people how not to be racist. Okay? Please do that.”
* * *
“I think, when you’re a person of color on Cape Cod you’re never allowed to forget that... you are a person of color. I think that ... when you are mainstream, let’s say white in this case, you are who you are. You’re Tom, Dick or Harry. You’re Mary Jo or whatever. But if you’re a person of color you always are ‘the Asian kid’, especially when you are a minority... You are a representative of a whole.”
“I was looking lost in BJ’s and, you know it’s a huge warehouse store so I’m always looking lost in BJ’s, and this woman who was trying to be kind asked me whether I spoke English and whether I was lost. I really wanted to say something rude to her but I also know she was an older woman who was trying to be kind and I never know quite what to do sometimes... Oh, it really irritated me because she never would have presumed someone who was white with blonde hair... wouldn’t speak English.”
* * *
“Racism isn’t just like the KKK or people hating other people because of their race or refusing someone service at a restaurant even. It’s like getting misinterpreted or dismissed or people of color being told they’re too sensitive or fragile and these small indignities of people of color trying to speak up in these tiny ways.”
* * *
“I went to a store in Woods Hole where I handed the cash into the cashier’s hand. She counted out my change and then I put my hand out for her to put the change back in my hand and she put the change on the counter, next to my hand. There’s no reason... What’s wrong with my hand? You don’t want to touch my hand? I don’t understand that.
“There’s so many instances where you’re walking down the street... people either stare or they don’t look you in the eye. I’m at counters ordering things and the cashiers, the baristas, do not look me in my eye. They do not smile when they’re talking to me. I know it’s because of what I look like because I travel with other people who are white and they get looked in the eye and they get smiled at. You can’t tell me that these things are not racially motivated.
“It’s one thing to have a town that’s predominately white. It’s a completely different conversation when the predominately white people in that town are making you feel like they don’t want you there, like they think of you as ‘less than.’
“When you have a town that’s predominately white and you’re the only person experiencing these things, it can also make you feel like you’re going crazy. Like I know I’m not crazy. I’m aware that I’m a person of color but I’ve never been made more aware of my blackness or my otherness than when I was living in Woods Hole. Every single day I was reminded of that fact that I’m black... I couldn’t walk down the street and get a cup of coffee without being reminded of the fact that I don’t look like everybody else in that town and that’s a really sucky feeling. Nobody wants to stay in that.”
* * *
The thing I tell people when they ask about specific instances, because I don’t like to share specific things, especially with white people... like the thing is they will often judge it and be like ‘well that’s not that bad’ or ‘I don’t think that’s racist.’ It’s like, I don’t have time for that. I don’t need your validation or even your thoughts on that. But what I tell people is that I’ve heard the n-word out of the mouths of white people here. More here than in the rest of my life put together. I’ve heard it more in those five and a half years... and it’s not necessarily people calling me it but... where there’s a will there’s a way. People will find a way to say it. In the year 2000-anything the fact that you don’t know that you shouldn’t be [saying that]...because that’s what they’ll say sometimes, like ‘oh I didn’t know.’ Like really?
“In the summer of 2016 two black men had been shot. Two unarmed innocent black men had been killed by police in one week and I had a co-worker that posted, like some kind of ‘all lives matter’ thing and I had another co-worker that liked it and another co-worker that commented ‘amen’, which is offensive on many levels. And I realized, I think at that point I was just like, if you don’t understand why people are saying black lives matter at this point, you don’t want to understand. It’s very clear. So it’s like, you know, I can’t sacrifice myself for the cause. I’m not here to be a martyr. So I’ve done as much good as I can in Falmouth while I’ve been here and now it’s time for me to move to me and my well-being.”
* * *
“When summer goes it’s just five black people in the high school... in almost every class I’m the only black person in my classroom. Many young kids my age have an idea of what it is to be black, I feel like. It’s, you know, the rappers... with big chains and stuff. And like acting a certain way is what black is to them. A lot of kids in the high school try to take that on and be that. They expect me to be flattered or me to, you know, welcome that and joke with that and, you know be a part of that and I can’t do that, not just because I feel disrespected. I can’t do that because if I was to act a certain way, the way that they’re acting, I would get perceived differently by my teachers. I would be stereotyped automatically. I can’t talk a certain way. I can’t say certain things.”
* * *
“I was the third person in line and someone came in and let the first two people ahead of me go and she was talking with the second person and then cut in front of me... and just thought nothing of it. And the person was in her eighties and I’m thinking, you know ‘is this really worth the battle to bring up?’ She was well aware. I was standing right there. She was engaging with me.”
* * *
Ms. Scott-Price shared her own story, after the last audio recording played.
“I’ve been coming to Woods Hole for many years. In the fall my partner came up here to do an internship through a university with a partnership with NOAA. The university required that he find housing, and they would pay for it. Sounds easy right? So we scoured through the WHOI website and Craigslist...and we found a place... We spoke with this woman on the phone several times... My husband talked to her probably a total of two maybe three hours on the phone, just kind of getting to know each other. We were coming up in September, right after Labor Day, but during the summer we were coming up for a Juneteenth event. So we said ‘hey while we’re in town, can we come see the place?’ And she said ‘Yeah, no problem. The current tenants are moving out in August so you’ll have to excuse the place. It’s full of boxes. Just be careful when you come in.’ We get there, she greets us, we see the place...There’s only a couple of suitcases out. Everything else is boxed up. We tour the place. Everything sounds great... A couple of days later she sends us an email and says ‘I’m so sorry, my current tenants have decided to stay and since they were such wonderful tenants, I’m going to have to let them stay and I can’t rent to you.’ So we enjoy the weekend, we go back home. We get back on the listserv and the same home, for the same price, for the same dates, is listed. We have since seen this woman in the grocery store... and she did all but fall over herself to run away from us,” Ms. Scott-Price said.
She added that she had relayed this story to her realtor while she was in the process of purchasing a home in Falmouth last summer. The man inspecting her house as part of the home-buying process overheard her story. He insisted that there was something more to it, Ms. Scott-Price said. Ms. Scott-Price’s realtor argued with him. “She argued with him pretty hard. I tell that story because that is a great form of allyship. It is exhausting to have these fights... in that moment she took her privilege and she took over that for us,” Ms. Scott-Price said.
She shared another example. After a meeting in town hall, a woman approached Ms. Scott-Price and explained that she had black friends, loved Obama, and did not ‘see color’. “Being color-blind is not a good thing. It’s almost like telling someone with a disability, ‘I don’t see your disability,’ even though that’s a part of who you are,” Ms. Scott-Price said.
“If you want to be an ally to a person of color, just talk to them like a normal person,” Ms. Scott-Price added.
* * *
Ms. Mizes-Tan said that people rarely believe she is a reporter for WCAI. They insist she is a college student working on a project or an intern for the station. “Any time there is any other Asian woman in any vicinity of WCAI, I am immediately mixed up with them. It’s shameless. It’s funny and it’s also disgusting. I’ve been here for a year and a half and a lot of these Asian women don’t even necessarily look like me. It’s just a laziness,” Ms. Mizes-Tan said.
* * *
Ms. Scott-Price and Ms. Mizes-Tan hope to host another listening event in the future. The audio recordings will be posted on an updated version of the Woods Hole Diversity Advisory Committee website when they finish overhauling the web design, she said.
“I think it’s important for us to tell these stories about our experiences in Falmouth and Woods Hole because as mentioned in some of these stories, people don’t think that there’s discrimination and racism here. We’re here to tell you that there is,” Ms. Scott-Price said.
“Call out racism,” she added. “Use your privilege for us that don’t have it.”