By Emma McDermott | Illustration by Xixi Qin
My hometown, Wilmette, Ill., has a population of just over 27,000 and sits comfortably on Chicago’s north shore. It’s where the Emanuel brothers grew up, where Rainn Wilson, who plays Dwight Schrute on “The Office,” lived during his high school years, and where Tom Ricketts, owner and face of the Chicago Cubs, lives. There’s no question that this town is home to some incredibly influential and successful people. But, among all of them, there are only two houses, town wide, that display Black Lives Matter signs. Both are the homes of Colorado College students.
There is, no doubt, a disturbing lack of diversity in Wilmette to which many of my peers in high school were blind. This is probably because Wilmette is an extremely insulated place. According to Data USA, there are over 22,000 white residents (81.1%) and just 130 black or African American residents (0.475%), while the rest of the population is made up of Asian, Latinx and Native American residents.
Racism is almost never discussed in Wilmette. When there are racist incidents, there is a kind of tacit knowledge that it is something to be swept under the rug. There were at least three times within the past four years, that I can remember, where racial slurs were written on the walls of New Trier High School, the public high school I attended, and the administration kept it quiet. It is only because of a wonderful security guard with whom I worked on this issue that I learned about such hate speech and subsequent cover-ups.
Wilmette is a breeding ground for racism, the kind that shows itself subtly with quick comments and stares that last a second too long, and I find myself convinced that it is sewn into the people even if they don’t realize it. I am lucky enough to be the older sister to a brother and sister adopted from Ethiopia, and this has given me a more complex interpretation of Wilmette life.
I was at an end-of-the-year get-together last year when a classmate of mine approached me because our nine-year-old brothers were on the same soccer team. Every kid on this third-grade team was rowdy, energetic, and occasionally troublesome, but my peer started telling me about how “crazy the little black kid is.” I was obviously furious for several reasons, the first being that he was insulting my brother. But I was also deeply upset by his characterization and blatant othering of the only child of color on the team, especially when every other player was equally if not more disruptive. It is micro-aggressions like this, that happen in a room full of white people and in a place where racism is tolerated, that plague Wilmette.
When I go into public with my siblings, I can feel the racism, even if I can’t always give a concrete example of it –– and this is partly why it’s so hard to explain to white people what they are doing wrong, because many have never been on the receiving end of it. There is a certain look, a certain suspicion and perplexity that hangs in the air when I’m with my siblings but is absent when I’m alone. My peer would have never made that comment had he known who my brother was or had a black or African American person been witness to our conversation. He was horrified when I informed him of who I was because he realized he had trashed-talked my brother to my face, but there was no sense of apology for racial profiling. I know that deep inside, there was a reason he singled out my brother, and he felt comfortable enough to express his true thoughts to another white person he knew very little of.
I don’t believe that my peer is a bad person at heart or that he meant to be racist. Yes, he was racist in his assessment of a third-grade boys park district soccer team, but I attribute this vice to his surroundings and learned indifference to racism. This is, of course, inherently racist, but I do not suspect malice in my classmate. The embarrassing scarcity of Black Lives Matter signs in Wilmette is another example of this learned indifference or, in terms familiar to CC, non-racism. Nobody is ever willing to look inwards and examine their own biases, never mind stand up for the fair, dignified treatment of fellow human beings. That’s just not something people in Wilmette do.