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Sisters Challenge Culture Of Silence About Racism In Their Hometown Of Southborough04:29
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Emily and Caroline Joyner. (Courtesy Caroline Joyner)
Emily and Caroline Joyner. (Courtesy Caroline Joyner)

Caroline and Emily Joyner say they're not activists or experts on combating systemic racism.

But they do know what it's like to grow up Black in a place like Southborough — a town 20 miles west of Boston that's more than 80% white and less than 2% Black, according to recent U.S. census estimates.

"I think I sort of made my Blackness smaller, growing up, just to sort of get by, as a way of survival. And that's something that I'm sort of getting closer to understanding and sort of unlearning," says Caroline, who’s now 27 years old and works as a performing arts publicist in Brooklyn.

Emily is two years older and is working on a doctorate in psychology at Boston College. "That white-centered perspective can get so internalized as a Black person who grows up there," she says. "It's like you learn, 'Yeah, I'm other.' "

"I think I sort of made my Blackness smaller, growing up, just to sort of get by, as a way of survival."

Caroline Joyner

The sisters are biracial, but Caroline says their lighter skin tones didn't shield them from white high school classmates using racial slurs around them and mocking their natural hairstyles — while also appropriating Black culture.

"I remember kids being like, 'Do you know how to teach me how to Dougie?' " Caroline recalls. "Like dance moves? And I was like, 'I don't know. I've grown up in the same environment as you.' Or this one girl was like 'Black Power, Caroline! Am I right?' or something like that where I was like, 'Wait, what?' "

And Emily says the environment in the classroom wasn’t much better as teachers avoided broader discussions about race.

"Seeing Black culture commodified and held up in that way, while also feeling ... like my own Blackness was shameful, different and embarrassing. And don't bring it up because it's rude, you know, was just such a lot of contradictions to hold."

The Joyners are processing these memories all over again this summer as America's reckoning on racial injustice continues after the killings of George Floyd and other Black people by police.

For the sisters, the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta this June especially hits home.

Devin Brosnan, one of the two Atlanta police officers involved in the deadly shooting of Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot, grew up in Southborough. Emily and Caroline say they rode the school bus with Brosnan as kids.

Emily (left) and Caroline (right) Joyner as children. (Courtesy Caroline Joyner)
Emily (left) and Caroline (right) Joyner as children. (Courtesy Caroline Joyner)

Three years ago, another of their old schoolmates, Matt Colligan, was spotted marching at the Unite the Right rally alongside white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Caroline says she sees a connection between these two incidents and the unconscious racism she and her sister experienced growing up.

"It was more just like, not to just personalize it around these two people and individualize the racism," she explains. "It was like, 'Oh, of course, they're a product of towns like this.' It wasn't surprising to us."

The Joyners' stories resonate with me because I lived them myself as a biracial Black boy in the white suburbs of Hobart, Indiana.

I still remember the humiliation of being called the n-word when I was 8 years old — and the terror I felt at age 17 when a Hobart police officer put his hand on his gun as he approached me in my own driveway one night.

Emily says people from Southborough took notice when the sisters wrote a blog post about their childhoods earlier this summer.

"White people I grew up with send me messages like, 'Oh, my gosh, your article really woke me up. It was such a gut punch,' " Emily says.

But Caroline says they aren't speaking out now to help people achieve some personal racial enlightenment. They want to target the systemic racism at the root of the problem.

"In order to dismantle that, you have to realize how you've been benefiting off this system and then actively try to dismantle it," she says. "Not just being like, 'Peace and love, unity.' What is my place in this and what am I doing to challenge it?"

The Joyners say Southborough isn't the only place in need of soul-searching about race.

They say it's time for every community to think about how they perpetuate those systems and unlearn them — just as we've had to.

This segment aired on August 5, 2020.

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