By Rosalie Tirella
Life’s not always what you expect it to be. When my late mom lived in a seniors apartment complex in Worcester – happily, for 20+ years – I’d visit her and see this elderly couple walking the grounds. They were in their 80s. The husband leading the pair, walking deliberately with his cane, wearing a knit vest over his button-down shirt. His little wife, with her dark skirt down to her ankles, followed him – old-country subservient. They made a lovely Hallmark card-ready pair in the sunsets …
How wonderful! I used to say to myself. Husband and wife still together, still taking walks together in the mornings, at dusk. Later, when they disappeared from the complex, I found out that the old man had been beating his wife with his cane. The cane he took their walks with …
My friend and her husband live on the West Side of Worcester. Pretty neighborhood. Middle-class folks living in their own pretty Worcester homes. So it surprised me when she said: The nice old couple across the street. She went into a nursing home. Later he died. When family came to clean out their house, they found scores and scores of guns under the old people’s bed.
Not one gun. Not two or three but like 100. … Incongruent with their neighborhood image.
Another example: Worcester is just catching up to Boston and Hartford – cities with a racially diverse political class. On our city council and school committee – now we see brown faces and white faces. Black and brown city councilors and people of color on our school committee. A good thing: They make us see city issues from new, important perspectives. The forgotten are less forgotten. The racial prejudice in the city is taken down a notch or two.
Or is it? Will it be?
When I lived in Hartford, a Black city pretty much in the 1990s, the city council was all minority. Good people of color trying to lead one of the poorest cities in America. Their public schools were in state receivership. The only relatively safe neighborhood in the city, Forest Park, where I lived, was still plagued with shootings – and murders (one happened a few buildings down from my apartment complex). Professional Black middle class folks – teachers, social workers etc – followed the lead of white folks and left the city once they became successful. Many Black professionals moved to East Hartford, the cute town next door.
With all these compelling challenges, it was heartbreaking – and shocking – to read in the local newspaper during election season: Hartford political candidates mud slinging over the SHADES OF THEIR BLACKNESS. One political candidate of color – the one with the darker skin tone – was in the papers complaining that the political opponent with the lighter skin tone (also a person of color) was being racist. The lighter skinned candidate was being negative against this candidate’s darker skin tone, his shade of blackness.
Wow. I had never heard of this in Worcester. Mostly because our politicians were white. White Irish Catholic to be more specific. So, here Worcester is 30 years later and the white Irish ruling class is having to “adjust.” But to what??? Will we eventually, sooner rather than later, be reading stories like the Hartford one in our local rags?
Fast-forward to me working in a major Hartford socal service agency. All my fellow case managers – about 60 or so – are black and brown. Terrific, caring professionals, many with MSWs. I’m the only white city case manager there – maybe there are two more white cases managers. Maybe.
When we case managers did home visits in the projects we paired up. I am still wiping the tears away after the day we visited a home and the mom, beautiful but man-crazy, was in bed with her hunky beau and he answered the door in his briefs. Looking up towards the ceiling we told him we were making our scheduled home visit. He huffed and let us in their barren apartment. The young woman came out, confused looking, hair in post coital muss. She had forgotten about our visit. At the kitchen table I watched the cockroaches run all over her kitchen stove top. I turned away to look at her sweet little boy. He was three years old. The most beautiful boy I had ever seen!
Hi! I said, smiling.
He smiled back at me and was too cute, leading me to their refrigerator. He opened their refrigerator door – empty except for two little juice boxes. He took one of his little juice boxes and handed it to me. The perfect little host! Such a generous, good boy! I took the juice box, sat on one of the cubes of foam in the living room and thanked him. I pulled off the little plastic straw the juice box came with, stuck it in the hole and began sipping my snack. Of course, tears were streaming down my cheeks as I drank my juice.
Later, I was appalled when my fellow case manager, a terrific African American gal, young, with her MSW and her beautiful work outfits and her advocacy for all parents. I was shocked to hear her say: She’s a good mom!
I wouldn’t have written up the report her way at all! But the child seemed happy. He didn’t look malnourished, even though he probably was. They were a very young couple and maybe needed to be taught …
But I deferred to my colleague because I was white and didn’t want to be called racist.
Another family: this one headed by the grandmother, toothless, scrawny…a black woman from down South. The daughter of a share cropper. She couldn’t read or write. She could only sign her name … Yet, she was very gracious when we knocked on her door and made our home visit. Sitting at the kitchen table, we all talked. Her little grandson was running about, happy and cheerful. In the bedroom I saw his mom – just a kid – in bed, her head tilted against the head-board. She was a heroin addict and had just shot up. Most likely her son, the little boy, had seen her do this.
After the visit, in the car, driving away, I said to “Joan”: We have to pull that child out of that home! His mother is a junkie!
Joan looked at me and smiling shook her head no. She said: Grandma runs that house. She’d never let any harm come to that little boy. He’s her baby!
But the mother’s a heroin addict! I screamed.
Joan shook her head no. The grandmother kept everyone fed, clothed. Didn’t the little boy come to class every day? Dressed? Clean? Happy? We would be breaking up a family if we had the boy removed.
It would be racist. It would be culturally insensitive.
Yep. I knew I was licked. I stopped arguing. Took my concerns to our boss, the head social worker. She agreed with Joan.
I was being insensitive … maybe even racist.
So, Worcester, as we become a majority-minority city, things will become more equitable.
But they won’t always make sense.