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Difficult dialogue: When it comes to race, social media can complicate the conversation

  • Panelists Brenda Lett (left to right), Lewis Feldstein, Bruce Mallory, Eddie Edwards and moderator James McKim participate in a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Anthony Poore makes a comment during a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Panelist Bruce Mallory speaks during a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Moderator James McKim speaks during a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Panelist Eddie Edwards speaks during a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Audience members, including Laura Miller (center), listen to panelists speak during a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Panelist Brenda Lett speaks during a forum following a screening of “I Am Not Your Negro” at Red River Theatres in Concord on Wednesday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Panelist Lewis Feldstein speaks during a forum following a screening of "I Am Not Your Negro" at Red River Theatres in Concord on Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Steven Newton-Delgado (right) talks about his reaction to the experience his family had at Speer's Fine Jewelry in Concord from his home in Hopkinton on Dec. 29. The family feels Newton-Delgado and his brother were racially profiled. Elizabeth Frantz photos / Monitor staff

  • Mark Newton talks about an experience his family had Speer's Fine Jewelry in Concord from his home in Hopkinton on Dec. 29, 2017. The family feels their two sons were racially profiled. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Steven Newton-Delgado talks about his reaction to the experience his family had at Speer's Fine Jewelry in Concord from his home in Hopkinton on Dec. 29, 2017. The family feels Newton-Delgado and his brother were racially profiled. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Mark Newton talks about an experience his family had Speer's Fine Jewelry in Concord from his home in Hopkinton on Dec. 29, 2017. The family feels their two sons were racially profiled. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Sam Delgado talks about an experience his family had Speer's Fine Jewelry in Concord from his home in Hopkinton on Dec. 29, 2017. The family feels their two sons were racially profiled. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Emily Houghton of Henniker stands for a photo at New England College in Henniker on Friday, Dec. 15,2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • New England College in Henniker, Dec. 15,2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Emily Houghton pulls up a screen shot of her request to re-join the "Henniker NH" Facebook group on her laptop from her home in Henniker on Friday, Dec. 15,2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Emily Houghton looks for the “Henniker NH” Facebook group on her laptop from her home in Henniker on Dec. 15.



Monitor staff
Monday, January 15, 2018

Michele Holt-Shannon is no stranger to viral Facebook threads about race.

Holt-Shannon, the co-director of an interactive civics initiative at UNH called New Hampshire Listens, said it’s common to notice an online discussion taking place in the wake of an incident involving race, often far before or alongside discussions a community has face-to-face.

But unlike a moderated town hall or a listening session, which New Hampshire Listens specializes in, the online arena has little, if any, ground rules. And sometimes, the discussion can grow volatile, quickly.

“It’s happening much more often that, whenever there’s a controversy, whether it’s to build a new school or whatever, that there’s a social media life of that controversy that has to be talked about and considered,” Holt-Shannon said. “One of the things that’s rough is trying to create that face-to-face time, to pull energy from the fast-moving, wild West that is social media, so people can humanize each other again.”

Recently, the communities of Concord and Henniker have had to wrestle the problem first hand.

In Concord, a family with two adopted black sons say they were accused of casing a local jeweler’s store on the city’s Main Street. And in Henniker, a local woman asked the moderators of a community Facebook group to crack down on what she thought were racist comments about New England College students – and got kicked out herself.

Though the incidents differ, they have a common thread: They each generated a conversation that has forced residents to examine biases within their own communities.

Day after Christmas

Like many families, the Newton-Delgado family likes to walk along Concord’s Main Street during the holiday season.

Mark Newton, along with his two sons, Kevin and Steven, and his brother, Thomas Newton, were doing just that the day after Christmas. A frequent stop is Speer’s Fine Jewelry, partially because Thom Newton is a pocket watch collector and likes to talk shop with the store’s owner, Joseph Speer.

For about 20 minutes, the Hopkinton family says they walked around the store, talking with the owner and employees; Kevin, the older sibling, was Snapchatting to his friends photos of some Rolex watches he admired. They left the store, and headed to the League of N.H. Craftsmen storefront, within eyeshot of Speer’s.

The family said Kevin and Steven, who are black, were in front of their father and uncle, who are white, when they exited the store 20 minutes later. That was when they ran into Speer on the sidewalk.

According to the family, Speer then pointed at Kevin and Steven and accused them of casing his store before walking away.

Steven, 14, said he was taken aback. “I just said I was sorry and it won’t happen again,” he said. “I felt it was necessary to him to know I felt sorry. If that’s what it seemed like I was doing, I wanted to apologize and have everyone be in good spirits.”

Mark Newton said he couldn’t let the incident slide, and went back to Speer’s. The discussion didn’t go well; at one point, he says he told Speer that he had racially profiled his sons.

They say Speer denied the charge. “They told us, ‘We don’t see color ... you don’t know what we have to go through,’ ” Newton said.

The statement felt like “being kicked in the groin,” Newton said.

Newton said he feels the incident could have been avoided, had Speer said something to the boys while they were in the store or asked them to not photograph items.

“It could have been a learning experience for everyone,” he said.

Newton took to social media to speak about the incident. His Facebook post spread rapidly.

Speer denied any racial profiling through his attorney, Robert Stein of Concord. He did not respond to an additional request for an interview.

Newton said he shared the incident on social media because he didn’t want someone else to have a negative experience at the store.

The responses have been mainly positive or sympathetic, Newton said.

Steven said the post even reached his peers, who he felt responded “at an adult level.”

“I think some of them were more mad than me,” he said.

But the family was still reeling from the incident, which they said felt out of character in Concord, where they normally feel welcome.

“I’m furious with the whole situation,” Sam Delgado, Newton’s husband, said. “The whole situation makes our world much harder to live in. ... There always seems to be different standards for different people.”

Conversations about race aren’t uncommon in the family, Newton said. Prior to a school trip to Washington, D.C., Newton said while most parents were telling their children to listen to the teacher, they were telling them to not wear sweatshirts and to be polite to the police.

“In Concord, it didn’t feel like we had to have that conversation,” Newton said.

This isn’t the first time Steven said he’s been confronted with racism; he recalled two instances where he had to end a relationship because a girl’s family didn’t approve of them dating.

He said he’s determined to not let it get to him.

“I’m not going to let it ruin my life,” Steven said. “If people want to be that way, that’s their problem.”

Strong words in Henniker

In Henniker, a time-honored tradition – grousing about local college kids – has taken on racial overtones as New England College becomes increasingly diverse. The college has been aggressively recruiting first-generation and minority students. In the fall of 2015, 35 percent of its students were black or Hispanic.

“They are entitled, act like ghetto punks, have poor grammar and need to go back to where they came from,” one woman wrote on a Facebook community page.

“I get plenty of white kids who tip like crap too – but it’s almost always the minorities who don’t,” she added in another post.

In an interview, Sarah Ann LeBoeuf, the woman who made the online comments, said she’s “concerned that we’re bringing kids from the inner city to our small town. And they cause a lot of problems.” She declined to elaborate on what “inner city” might mean.

“I’m not going to say what I really feel because I don’t think that you’re going to portray me in a positive light,” she said.

Another resident, Emily Houghton, flagged LeBoeuf’s comments with the administrators of the group, which includes over 1,000 members, and asked them to address them. Instead, they kicked Houghton out.

She said she was surprised by the comments she read online, which didn’t align with what she’d seen and heard around town.

“I feel like the Facebook page really makes people braver,” she said.

Houghton said she’d like to see the conversation move off-line. But so far, it hasn’t.

“I was like: let’s set something up. But everyone shut it down,” she said.

One family, different views

Caroletta Alicea said second-guessing whether someone is being racist is part of being black.

Some incidents, like a recent trip to McDonald’s where her service was subpar, are hard to call. Others – like when her older grandson was pulled over in Concord and told to first keep his hands on the steering wheel, then told to get out of the car, all because the temporary plates on his new Jeep had washed off in the car wash – are less ambiguous.

When Alicea, a black state rep from Boscawen, was alerted to the Newton post by a friend, she found herself conflicted. Her family has been shopping at Speer’s for years, she said, and has never had any problems.

“I wasn’t there, so I can’t pass judgment on their experience,” she said.

But her daughter, Stephanie Alicea, saw the same post, and felt differently.

“I’m not usually surprised when those things happen,” she said. “You try to be positive about things and assume people aren’t profiling. It’s disappointing.”

The Aliceas are no strangers to racism. Last year, Caroletta Alicea, a member of the Merrimack Valley school board, asked for an assembly about race relations within the schools during the summer. When the school’s administrators were unable to pull something together before the start of the school year, her grandson, 16-year-old Merrimack Valley junior Samuel Alicea, decided to begin kneeling during the national anthem at his team’s football games to bring attention to the issue of police brutality. Both actions were meant to start a conversation about race in their community.

The Aliceas did start the conversation they wanted, but not before Samuel said he began to feel isolated and threatened at school and the Aliceas’s car windshields were shot with pellets.

When she learned of the incident at Speer’s, Stephanie Alicea found herself participating in the conversation again. But, frustrated by parallels she saw when she had online conversations about her son’s action, it wasn’t long before she disengaged.

“There was a lot of explaining people’s actions away,” she said.

Comments such as “if you don’t like it, leave” or ones that dismiss a person’s experience, are frustrating to Alicea. She said it often seems like people aren’t interested in opening themselves up to conversations that might challenge their view of the world.

“In general, a lot of what I see happening is this assumption that it’s 2018 or 2017, and that kind of stuff doesn’t happen here,” she said.

Barriers and pathways to conversations

Caroletta Alicea said it’s not just a lack of interest that stifles conversations about race – it’s fear.

“I think people are really uncomfortable with talking about race,” she said. “And with the new politics, I think people have been given permission to not even want to know about differences or change their opinions about people. There’s so much negativity.”

Bruce Mallory, co-director of N.H. Listens, said that discomfort can be traced back to two barriers that can make conversations about race difficult in New Hampshire: a lack of experience with people of color, and not knowing what words to use to talk about race.

The state is overwhelmingly white, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. About 94 percent of the state’s population is white, 3.5 percent is Hispanic or Latino, 2.7 percent are Asian, and 1.7 percent identifies as two or more races. About 1.5 percent are black.

James McKim, who does anti-racism work through the Goffstown Episcopal church, said the state’s lack of diversity makes the racism that does occur even more invisible to the white majority. People from New Hampshire often assume there just isn’t a problem here.

“The way it manifests itself is that predominantly people that come from somewhere else get involved in the work,” he said.

Two racially-charged incidents in the state occurred in September that grabbed headlines. In one, a 9-year-old biracial boy from Claremont was injured in an alleged lynching attempt. In another, a boy in the Oyster River School District from a biracial family was bullied with racist language by another student on the bus. The classmate accused in the assault told the boy that “white are over blacks,” the family told media outlets.

Both incidents were marked by fast-moving, and sometimes nasty, online conversations, Mallory said. And in each case, N.H. Listens facilitated conversations in the communities. Vilmarie Sanchez-Rothkegel, deputy director of N.H. Listens, said attendance at the events was high, partially due to the online conversation.

“I feel like social media forces the face-to-face,” Sanchez-Rothkegel said. “I think people were so disturbed by what they saw on social media that it activated a larger conversation.”

McKim said there is, among many, this feeling that there’s been a retrenchment in progress made on racial issues. But that backslide has also come with a renewed urgency to name problems and talk about them.

“There’s much more dialogue about not just the issue of race, but the issue of power,” he said. “There’s much more discussion about that then there was two years ago.”

McKim said it’s conversations between people who see the world differently – respectful, civil dialogues – that really offer the opportunity for change.

“What works is going into that conversation with an approach to learn about that person,” he said.

Rogers Johnson, the president of the Seacoast NAACP, said he’s optimistic. Johnson was also recently appointed to chair the governor’s newly-minted Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion.

“You know what the real progress is? That we’re having the conversation,” he said.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews. Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321, or at lduffort@cmonitor.com.)