This piece is part of a series here at MKE Moms Blog entitled C.A.R.E. We want to initiate conversations about racial equality (CARE) and to call people into the discussion around social justice in our Milwaukee community and beyond. By having these conversations, even if they are uncomfortable at times, we hope to challenge ourselves and our readers. We will support this dialogue with new perspectives, resources and ways to get involved. We are in this together and ultimately, we want to provide connections: Mom to Mom. And we believe in the power of stories to create these connections.
I brought my mini-van to a stop at the red light on the corner of North Ave and N 35th St, lowering the volume on the radio a few notches as it went to a commercial break. It was mid-afternoon. When my eyes returned to the road, I felt a sudden twinge in my stomach that I couldn’t quite explain.
Without fully understanding why, I reached over and locked my doors.
But let’s back up a bit, shall we?
My husband came home from work several years ago with the announcement that his company was transferring his position from their plant in Sauk County down to the headquarters in the Milwaukee area. When the initial surprise wore off, I began to grieve picking up and leaving the life we had worked so hard to build in that neighborhood. We were living in our first house, we had a fabulous group of friends and we had three kids under the age of four who were already driving us crazy, but in the best way. I didn’t want to move. And most certainly didn’t want to move to Milwaukee.
The images that popped into my head were a strange brew of baseball games, breweries, confusing highway overpasses and violence. I grew up with Madison as my local “big city” and I spend 4 years attending the University of Wisconsin knowing that you don’t go past the Badger Rd intersection on South Park Street. I worked at a barbecue joint my sophomore year and every server on staff would roll their eyes and scowl a bit when they would see an 8-top in their section that was clearly only going to order a bucket of rib tips and then not leave an actual tip. I wish I could chalk as this up to being young and stupid, but I can’t. I was a grown mama when I found myself in a conversation with some new well-meaning friends in our new neighborhood who told us that as long as we didn’t go too far down North Ave, we’d be just fine.
There was a time when we were driving home from a family vacation and we missed our exit on the interstate so the GPS re-routed us to I-43 North and had us exit on Hampton Ave. We needed gas so we stopped at the first station we saw, the BP on Hampton. My husband got out of the van and while he filled up the tank, I messed around with my iPhone and my 3 boys behind me happily played games on tablets that had been our saving grace on that road trip.
That twinge in my stomach struck. I suddenly looked around us and felt anxious. I got this sense that we were a target, sitting there in our minivan with our devices out and my purse between my feet. I quickly told my husband to get his butt back in the van and we got out of there quickly, heading west on Hampton and I don’t think I took a deep breath until Brookfield.
This entire time, I would have been appalled at the mere suggestion that I struggled with racism. But as it turns out, I did.
It’s only been in the last several months, after my finger went to that button to lock my doors on the corner of North and 35th, that I started to stop and get honest about what was really going on in my heart. Why was I locking my door? What was I afraid of? How was it possible I had never noticed this in myself before?
Could it be that the twinge in my stomach WAS in fact trying to warn me of danger, but the perpetrator was actually me?
It finally hit me that the privilege I had enjoyed my entire life, based only on the color of my skin, had given me the luxury of never having to face the ugly part of me that made unfair assumptions about others, ignored offensive jokes, and locked the doors in “certain neighborhoods.”
So where do we go from here?
As they often say, admitting there is a problem is the first step. Given the current political climate, recent events in our city and the incredible resources we have at our fingertips in this area, now is the perfect time to get real about race and be willing to enter into tough conversations, especially the ones that might force us to take a good hard look in the mirror and see some things looking back at us we may not like. This is a slow and painful process, something that forces you to look at the world differently, think differently and see people in a whole new way.
There are also a few practical first steps I’ve found to be very helpful:
- Join a Team. I reached out to people in my sphere of influence who could tenderly, patiently and honestly help me identify the areas where I struggle and graciously show me the other side I might be missing. Everyone needs a truth-speaker.
- Admitting it. As hard as it is to say or type out the words — I struggle with racial equality prejudices — it is crucially important. It’s only when we name the problem that we can start learning how to solve it.
- Feel uncomfortable. That twinge in my stomach felt uncomfortable and I experienced the same feeling the first time I had an honest conversation about this issue. When you come from a position of privilege, it’s easier to remain comfortable. But I’m more interested in being more mindful than remaining comfortable.
- Get informed. Read, discuss, learn and explore more about cultures who are different than you. The key is to listen to their stories from their perspective, not through the lens you are used to. Hear their voices. We’ve got a few resources below that would be a good place to start.
- Take a history lesson. Racism isn’t something new and it certainly wasn’t “fixed” decades ago. It’s not a question of whether it is in one person and not another. It’s not just about avoiding certain words. It’s highly possible that we don’t even know what we don’t know, at least that was true in my case. Learning more of the history of how we got here can be very helpful. Again, see below.
- Be patient. There is no Band-Aid for this. No easy fix, no antidote or magic wand to wave to make everyone love one another and all prejudice and conflict go away. Oh, if it were only that easy. Instead, I find myself picturing someone in front of a priceless piece of art that has fallen into disrepair. It’s torn in places, faded, and injured. To restore it will take countless hours of attention and care, but what eventually emerges is the masterpiece that was there all along.
- Speak slowly. This is where I get hesitant and a bit nervous. See, I believe in the power of words. I think they are the most powerful force humans have in our arsenal because they can give life and take it away. They can build up and tear down. What starts with just a tiny spark can grow into an inferno and whispered words become screams of pain. Should we speak up when we are faced with injustice? Of course. What I suggest is that we respect our words for the weapons they are and understand that we all of need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. In these conversations about racial equality especially, listening is of the utmost importance. I am very good at being overly eager to speak and will often not fully consider my words before I spout them out. I’m working on asking myself, “Am I saying this because it needs to be said or because I want to say it?”
So, this is me being bold enough to raise my hand, stand next to my desk and say it out loud that I’ve got some work to do. I’m not going to say everything right every time. I will learn as I go. Every time I recognize the bias I have the best I can do is question why that is and work every time it comes to fill it with truth. I’m trying and I’m learning. My hope is that as a parent, I can raise my children to understand their world better than I did so they can grow up seeing the difference and dignity in everyone they encounter, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly.
- The Root
- America Divided Series
- Zinn Education Project
- Netflix Documentary – 13th
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness