Ponderings on Race in Madison Today

Ah the wonders of returning to the “thirty square miles surrounded by reality!” Yes, that is what many know Madison as because it is a community unlike any other in the state of Wisconsin. Its hyper-political, ultra-educated, super-liberal personality makes it a strange juxtaposition to the grounded-ness of the surrounding counties in their simply seeking to work hard and live right style of being.

I was reminded of where I am by several interactions this week. One was on my bus ride to work. The driver had just stopped for three teenaged girls, but wasn’t opening the door. Instead, he was shouting at them to put on their masks, telling them he’d open the door when they were masked. Two already had their masks on, the third was putting hers on as she prepared to board. I saw no reason to shout or prevent them from boarding. It seemed their behavior was much like my own had been, still getting my mask on as the bus stopped. The difference was stark though. I’m a middle-aged white woman and they’re teenaged black girls.

I am impressed by these girls, despite the rude and cruel behavior of the driver they moved forward as they seem to each day. They get on the bus, find seats by a woman who I think works at their school, and start to share stories of their day with her. They’re good kids, well behaved, and take good care of each other. I find myself wondering how long they can withstand the expectation that they are something other than good kids? How long until they meet the driver’s expectations because they are told through such actions that they are supposed to be trouble makers or somehow less than?

I found myself too in a conversation about race with a group of white folks from a predominately white group this week. The discussion was about welcoming people of color into the organization. I appreciated the openness and honesty of the group talking. Despite not knowing each other well, or maybe because they didn’t know each other well they took some risks in what they were willing to say. The conversation was interesting and unusual. Instead of focusing on the evils of racism it centered more on the question of being with people of like experience. Asking why would the organization want to increase the number of people of color involved? Do we seek to engage more people of color simply to make ourselves feel better? What does that mean? What value do we bring to the relationship? What are we willing to change in order to share ownership? Are we willing to change?

The conversation was both valuable and ugly. While there were no words spoken in anger and everyone seemed to be taking pause to think deeply, processing ideas and feelings fully, being open to learning still the conversation brought such ideas to light that I could almost imagine the hoods. The questions, the ideas; asking if “they” might not just want to be in “their” own group, if “they” might not want to be with “us”, if “they” might want to have “their” own kinds of celebrations, music, and ceremonies, if “they” might somehow be different than “us.”

These are well educated people. Yet, the world created dividers and told them who the other was. It was so much like the bus driver and the girls. Expectations are set, regardless of reality. I can only hope that we can change ourselves and become like the school staff person on the bus who each morning greets the girls with a smile and a kind word, who sees who they really are.

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