BEVERLY – Amid the recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, Beverly resident Bari Michelman-Johnson posted a reading list on Facebook, recommending books to educate young children about racial equality. A teacher at both Chabad of Peabody and Temple Tiferet Shalom, she incorporates the concept of diversity into the curriculum, even for preschoolers. “We have multicultural books, dolls, all kinds of things we teach them, not just on Black lives, but on all races and all religions,” she said.
For Michelman-Johnson, 51, the matter is deeply personal. Her husband of 22 years, Wayne Johnson, 51, and her children, Halle, 20, and Cole, 18, are all part African-American.
Wayne Johnson grew up Catholic in Lynn. He officially converted to Judaism eight years ago after spending much of the past two decades practicing Judaism. The couple’s children, Halle and Cole, were raised to accept diversity and were pretty much oblivious to matters of race, said Johnson. “They never really had to deal with the African-American side of my family,” he said. “All my kids have ever known is the white side.”
When Halle and Cole were students at Epstein Hillel Academy, they were assigned a project tracing their family tree. “I showed them pictures and they were, like, ‘huh?,’ said Johnson. “And that’s when we had to explain that daddy’s half; this is my family. They never questioned it, but were like, ‘OK, that’s how it is.’ Although we never really had an issue, we had to address that yes, you guys are one-quarter African-American,” said Johnson.
However, Johnson remembers an earlier time, when Cole had completely blonde hair and very light skin. Sometimes he would get odd looks or be questioned while holding Cole’s hand or speaking to him in public. “One time, when Cole was canning [raising money outside a supermarket] for his hockey team, I told him to stop standing around and do his job. A white woman said something along the lines of ‘Who do you think you are, bossing him around?’” he recalls. “She just saw the color of his skin and me asking a white child to do his job.”
When alone, Johnson has often encountered subtle acts of racism. He describes being followed by salespeople when visiting high-end stores, such as jewelers and car dealerships. “I can tell when you go into a store and people think you don’t necessarily belong there. I have definitely been watched,” he said.
There have definitely been times when he alters his behavior to make others feel more comfortable. He describes attending a recent breakfast meeting in Boston to honor female business leaders with his petite, white female boss.
“A new female executive of one of my accounts was there and I wanted to meet her,” said Johnson, an account director with CenturyLink of Woburn. “My boss suggested I run across the room to introduce myself. I had to explain to her that a six-foot, 230-pound Black guy running through a room to approach a white woman wouldn’t make it two tables before somebody tackled me.”
“I know it’s wrong that I have to censor myself, but having grown up doing that, it’s just second nature now,” he said. “It’s just knowing that that’s the reality I live in. When I was younger, I was more angry about it, but now I’m more accepting of it.”
The couple supports the recent protests, but don’t believe they should ever get violent. “When they turn to riots and looting, that’s a bunch of selfish people doing it for themselves and destroying what people are trying to say peacefully,” said Johnson.
“Black people have been considered second-class citizens in this country since the time they were brought over, regardless of how smart they are and what level they achieve or what they’re capable of doing. The only time they’re looked at highly is when they get paid to play a sport or paid to be actors or musicians.”
Yet Johnson feels hopeful. “For the first time in my lifetime, the protests remind me of the early 1960s,” he said. “You’re seeing it more widespread, happening at the same time nationally, and you have high-level visibility from politicians. High-ranking individuals are paying attention and CEOs of companies are talking about it.”
Johnson mentioned a recent email to employees from his company’s chief executive officer. He wrote that there’s a difference between saying “I’m not racist” and being anti-racism. “You can say ‘I’m not racist,’ and that’s great, but when you say you’re anti-racism, you’re taking it to a whole new level. That’s when you’re trying to do what’s best for everybody and fix the system.”