Tag: racism

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.

Thoughts on Making Schools Safe

While sitting in the laundromat earlier today waiting for my clothes to dry, I was paging through the news on my phone. I saw an article from WPR that said Wisconsin schools are calling the police on students at nearly twice the national rate. Kids with disabilities, Latinx, Black, and Native students are the victims of most of the calls with Native kids at the top of the list closely followed by Blacks. The article made me ask again what it is that I love so much about my home state, maybe it’s my love of wanting to make things better.

While calling the cops on these kids might simply mean a referral for a child in crisis or a warning for some teenage action like yelling at teacher and aren’t by any means all arrests, it’s still hugely problematic that kids with disabilities and BIPOC youth are being referred to law enforcement at twice the rate as the overall student population and Native kids are three times as likely to be referred as white kids. It’s 2021 and we’re still operating as if it’s against the law in Wisconsin to have brown skin or to have a disability! Come on folks we can do better than this!

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do think there are a few things that put together are worth considering.

  1. Take cops out of our schools. I’m not going to say that police are bad. I am saying that they have a role and that role is to uphold the law. By having them in schools that presumes that the law is not being upheld or is in danger of not being upheld. It tells kids that our expectation is that they will behave as criminals and that their space isn’t safe. Kids getting the message every day that they are criminals in an unsafe environment are more likely to act as criminals in an unsafe space.
  2. Support the support systems. A few generations ago black and brown children were stolen from their families to be sold in slavery or handed over to the boarding schools. Still, family systems remained and adjusted to care for these children. These family systems are under great stress as the dominant white culture continues to steal their children away through foster care, prison, drugs, and other tools. It’s important to recognize that families don’t look the same, nor should they, across all cultural groups. We need to see these systems and simply stop threatening them and stealing their children.
  3. Care for the educators. This is a simple one that we’ve all heard many times. Our teachers and school staff need the physical resources, time, and classroom support to do their jobs. They also need to be compensated for the work that they do. That’s it.
  4. Honor the bodies and spirits of our children. We are all impacted by what we take in. Our kids today are taking in a lot of junk. They’re fed junk on their plates in the form of processed foods filled with sugars and chemicals. They’re fed junk on the screens of their phones and computers all day long. They fed junk in stories about themselves as they’re forced to digest the history of the powerful that doesn’t represent them. All junk. How can we expect anything other than anger and frustration? Feed them goodness. Feed them good food. Feed them the stories of their own peoples. Tell them their histories of strength and courage. Feed them beauty. Give them the opportunity to run and play and explore the world or just the backyard. Feed their souls. Let them stretch their creative selves and find other ways of being beyond angry.
  5. Look at ourselves. These kids weren’t born angry or trouble makers. They were born cute and cuddly, adorable and sweet. We made them who they are. It is us who need to deal with our stuff. It is us who need to look at ourselves each day and ask ourselves how our actions are impacting the world. It is us who need to act.

An All White Town

I grew up in rural Wisconsin in the 1970’s and 80’s in an all white town, except that it wasn’t, all white that is.

I don’t know exactly when I realized that little bit of information. I just know that even today I hear about rural communities being “all white” and I wonder.  I know that was the story of the area that I grew up.  That’s how we, at least we who identified as white, spoke.  “Those people” whoever “those people” were lived somewhere else, maybe in Chicago or Milwaukee or up north on the reservations, but certainly not in our area.

While I was busy living in that White Town fantasy world, some of my friends were living the reality of being bi-racial, Latino, or Asian in a community that didn’t, and probably still doesn’t really recognize them for who they are.  Instead, it asks that they pretend to be White or better yet, just be invisible or don’t be.

Well, these days I hang my hat in west central Minnesota.  I’m still in a small town and I work with small towns around the state.  Our rural communities are changing.  The White population is slowly shrinking and the population of people of Color is growing.  It’s going to continue that way into the foreseeable future.  It wasn’t ok for us to expect people of Color to pretend to be White or to try to be invisible or to just not be thirty years ago.  It’s absolutely unacceptable today.

Do we want rural communities to survive?  If we do, then we need to take a look at ourselves and ask some questions.

  • Am I seeing everyone who lives here for who they are or am I asking them to reflect me?
  • What am I doing to honor the experience and gifts that People of Color bring to the table?
  • How am I perpetuating racist systems and how am I tearing them down in my every day?
  • Who do I welcome and how?
  • What do I want my community to look like in twenty years? What will it take to get there?

I am sure there are many more questions to consider, but these give us a starting point.  The key thing is that the fantasy White Town has always been a nightmare for some and is becoming a nightmare for all.  If we want the nightmare to end, we need to look racism in the eye and tell it no more.

Why the Violence and What’s the Role of the White Ally?

April 27th, 2015

I’m a white anti-racist activist with more than two decades long commitment to nonviolence.  Let’s just lay that out there to start with.  Back in my early days I was studying Gandhi, Dr. King, Buddhism, Hinduism, and various Christian traditions, along with being influenced by many elders in the struggles that I was involved in at the time.  I’m still committed to nonviolence.  The simplest reason is strategic.  The folks we’re fighting, those who are in power, have a bigger arsenal.  If we become violent they have greater discretion to use it.  Our strength lies in not giving them the o.k. to attack.

Therein lies the big question; what happens when the powers that be have already decided they have the o.k. to attack?

I started this entry by noting that I’m a white anti-racist activist.  That white piece is important here.  I think it’s important that those of us who are allies ask ourselves how our whiteness impacts our perceptions of what nonviolence means, our understanding of its history, our willingness to make the commitment, and our expectations of our fellow activists in communities of Color.

In recent months there’s been a story replaying across the U.S. Communities of Color, especially Black activists having been fighting back specifically against police brutality and more broadly against racist systems.  In many renditions of this story there are some incidents of disruption of the day to day and occasionally violence, though that tends to be sporadic.  The mainstream press likes to grab onto it and make it into news.

What happens in these stories is that white liberals, including many good activists who have claimed to care about racism for years, get upset because of what they see to be violent actions and disruptive behaviors.  They want peaceful protest.  They want actions to be directed toward a clear target and to follow the rules and regulations set forth.  They’d feel much more comfortable with a permitted rally or march.  They definitely get angry when things get out of control, when they can’t see the strategy, and when actions they deem to be violent happen.

Part of what made the Civil Rights Movement a success were those who were both committed to nonviolence and ready to defend themselves and those around them with a weapon if necessary.  We forget that.  We forget the disruptions that the were caused by the actions of those who struggled for freedom.  We forget that the gains beyond those told about in a page or two in a history book some February day in some classroom somewhere that took lifetimes and lives to achieve.

The struggles going on in our communities are like that.  Mainstream media is giving us that one line quip about a 500+ year story.  Just like that history book they’ve missed almost everything and told us only what they wanted us to hear.  We have to ask ourselves is it violence when people are acting against generations of genocide (cultural and physical)? Is it violence when people are acting against centuries of economic oppression in its multiple forms from physical slavery to being denied equal education, pay, and access to work? Is it violence when people are acting against prison, housing, healthcare, and education systems that all work against them?  Or is it simply self defense?

My fellow white anti-racist allies, I have to challenge us.  It’s time for us to step up.  We must take our role as allies seriously and step out into our communities of privilege to create change, to educate, and to eliminate the systems of oppression.  Many of us are doing the work in some way, a few of us live it with our hearts each day.  Now’s the time for all of us to do that.  Peace can’t happen until we take our role so that our brothers and sisters don’t have to defend themselves.

Peace,
amy

Thoughts on How to Be a White Ally in the Struggle

December 6th, 2014

I hear some of my fellow white activists struggling to find a way to be allies in this latest chapter in the ongoing struggle for justice for Black people and, I believe, all People of Color. This is a difficult puzzle for a group of people who have for many generations held the scepter of power, to consider not wielding it. I am writing the following not a final thought for myself or anyone else, but as my own process of thinking things through. I welcome any People of Color who might read it to tell me if I am off track or continuing to carry out my privilege in my words. I welcome other anti-racist allies to consider how these thoughts might fit or not fit your own practice and to share your thoughts as well. Here’s what I’m thinking about how to best be an ally in the struggle for justice for Black people and all People of Color. I recognize that the story is far from a perfect analogy, but I hope that it works.

Imagine yourself and a friend. That friend grew up in an abusive situation (society). They didn’t choose that situation. It was simply the one that they were born into. When you were younger you didn’t realize the nature of your friend’s situation. At some point you realized you weren’t allowed to go to that person’s house and slowly you learned other unwritten rules. As you both grew older you both grew stronger and wiser as well. Your friend stretched their wings in small ways at first, gaining little freedoms here and there. Now, they’ve come to the point that they’ve decided to confront their abuser. What do you do?

Do you say follow me I’ll figure out a plan to deal with this? Do you tell them to stop? Do you tell them to behave and it will be o.k.?

No, I think you say I love you. I respect your decision and stand behind you. Now what do you want from me to help you make it happen? Then you listen, do what you are able, mourn the losses, and rejoice when the struggle is won.

Musings After Fergusen

November 25th, 2014
We’ve all been listening to the stories about Ferguson. There are many conversations out there about what happened, what’s happening now, how we’ve gotten to this place, and why.  In my owner corner of the world I’m fairly insulated personally from the protests directly given that I now live in a rural area of northern Minnesota, but not from the realities of racism or from the conversation.  And, my heart still travels with all my friends who hit the streets in cities around the country with the message; Black lives matter.

I was looking at Facebook today, skimming messages, seeing a lot of sadness from my politically liberal, progressive, and radical friends about the decision in the case and more broadly around how it has been considered a reflection of how Blacks are demonized in the U.S. Then I saw a message that troubled me more.  It was from someone who I care about deeply and who generally doesn’t share my politically ideologies.  It was a picture of an African American police office (I think it was an actor, but I couldn’t remember the show) with the message “Instead of saying ‘fuck the police’ How about you stop breaking the fucking law.”

It troubled me more because I know this woman to be a loving mom with beautiful, smart kids, a caring person who is very involved in her community and church.  She’s someone who is thoughtful, politically engaged, and wants the best for the little ones that she is raising as well as herself and her husband, friends, and family.   Politically a conservative yes, but not so different from me or anyone else I know in her underlying human needs and wants, and someone who I love as family.

I had to decide what to do.  Should I ignore this post that bugged me and keep tension out of the family or do my job as an anti-racist activist and say something.  There was no choice there never is.  I made a comment.  I started it with letting her know that I love and respect her then went into just acknowledging that my experience and the first hand accounts I’ve heard in my years of work tell me that the systems (police, schools, healthcare, etc) treat People of Color whether they be African American, Latino, Native American, or any other group differently than they treat White folks and that there are no “bad guys” unless society pushes people into that behavior.  I opted not to get into how behaviors are looked at differently depending on who you are.  It was just a brief facebook post and I thought that would get too confusing for a first naming.  I did, however, suggest reading Howard Zinn’s  People’s History of the United States.  I don’t know, maybe she will.  She is a person who likes to learn and think.

As for me,  I continue to think about what brought me to this place.

Thinking about the stereotypes associated too often with African Americans; criminals, uneducated, low income, addicts, unwed moms, etc. reminded me of when my eyes were first being pried open as a student at UW-Stevens Point.  I think it was during the time that I was SOURCE director and working to ensure that the Black Student Union get a fair trial with the Student Government Association regarding some small issues with a member of the BSU who had been accused of taking some money at an event.  I understood that race was a huge factor in this case and that it would be difficult for the all Black group to get a fair hearing from nearly all white government.  I went to several mentors for advice.  It was somewhere in here that I learned about the struggles that Dr. Andrea Turner had finding housing when she’d first moved to town in the 1990’s.  The Affirmative Action Director for the University was having to deal with racist landlords!  What the heck!  She left Stevens Point after only a few years.

Another Point story for me was a diorama in Andy Gokee’s office.  Andy works in the Native American Center there.  The diorama was one he made with his daughter when she was in elementary school.  Her teacher was teaching the kids something about Native Americans and was having the kids make Indian teepees.  The Gokee family has a long and proud history in what is now Wisconsin and their tribe, the Anishanabe didn’t live in teepees.  Andy took his anger and funneled it into teaching and made a beautiful piece of work with his daughter that shows more accurately how her ancestors lived.

From there I go to the road,  I keep coming back to that Protect the Earth Walk from Red Cliff to Madison.  We walked to draw attention to the seventh generation amendment, the environment, social justice, and to ask people what they wanted for the seventh generation.  I still see it.  Walking down the road, Frank, Walt, and I and there’s an older man, a white man across the road looking at us.  We cross to go talk with him.  Frank who is white and middle aged starts up the conversation.  Walt who is unmistakably Native is standing next to him and I’m a step or two off to the side.  Frank explains what we’re doing and asks him his thoughts.  The older man responds as if Walt and I aren’t even there with a tirade about those “goddamn Indians and those goddamn Indian casinos.”  I realize he has the ability to choose not to see us.

There it is.  There’s privilege.  Those of us with privilege get to decide what to see, who to see, what to do with what we see.  Those without privilege had better see everything or they will be beaten and killed by whatever they miss in that one moment that they miss it.

I was hoping that I would come out of this free writing exercise with some great insight on moving forward.  I’m not sure that I have.  I only know that the toughest folks to confront are the ones you love and those are the ones you must confront. Do so lovingly.  And, that a whole lot of stuff has brought me here,  I am honored to have been given the gifts of these experiences though many have made me sad.  I am and continue to be amazed by the strength of those I have grown to know.

Keep on keeping on.