What can Madison do about its race problem? Address its privilege problem.

Dane County is the most racist place I've ever lived.  

That's a statement I've made many times since I moved here in 2000, having lived in and visited various cities big and small around the country. It's a statement I made honestly, if somewhat hyperbolically, long before I knew that, quantifiably, quantitatively, Dane County isn't just the most racist place I've ever lived, it's one of the most racist places I could possibly live in America.  I used to think it was racist just based on my own experience, but if you don't like anecdotal evidence, please consider these indisputable facts:

Everything you need to know
in one staggering report.
  • Wisconsin has the highest incarceration rates for black males in the U.S.  Those rates are highest in Dane County.
  • Wisconsin has the highest achievement gaps between black and white students in the US.  Those rates are highest in Dane County.  
  • The 2013 Race to Equity study details the full extent of the racial disparities in Dane County, and you can download the full study to read for yourself. The findings are shocking. In category after category (poverty rates, graduation rates, reading proficiency, arrest rates, etc) we find that African-Americans fare worse than whites by HUGE margins in Dane County, and that these margins exceed both the state and the national averages in almost every instance.  
The facts are staggering, clear, open, and painful. We are well aware of them.  We write and think about them all the time. And we are doing a lot to try to address these problems. This work cannot be undervalued or dismissed.  But because they are painfully at odds with Dane County's reputation - and vision of itself - as a progressive and welcoming community that values civil rights, equality and equity, they are facts that we have a difficult time addressing and understanding.

In a recent article for The Cap Times, Rev. Alex Gee wrote plainly about the problem facing our community.  I wish I could force every resident of the state to read it.  Rev. Gee doesn't just make a compelling case for the ways in which Dane County is failing its African-American community, he points us to the root of the problem, and his justified anger:
I am not upset because Madison has issues; I am upset at how Madison skates on many of these issues. I hesitate a bit out of concern my close white friends may misread my anger as being directed at all white people. My anger is with systems, ignorance, insensitivity, prejudiced views and not with individuals. [...] Madison cannot measure its own progress on race relations. We need to sit at a table with disenfranchised people to get a painful but accurate read on our city from their experiences. 
Rev. Gee points us directly to the heart of the problem and toward a solution that demands connecting with those who are adversely affected by longstanding policies and attitudes that are entrenched and often unnoticed, or misunderstood, or ignored.  But experiences of racism aren't just the realm of those who are disenfranchised.  If we opened our eyes a little wider, we could learn to see how privilege enables disparity in big and small ways.

Here are some examples of the everyday things that force me to make the unpopular statement above.  This list is barely the greatest hits; I could go on all day. 

  • PROBLEM: Friends of color who are educated, skilled, multilingual, affable, qualified, wonderful, etc, have a very difficult time finding full-time, living wage jobs, and an even harder time finding any work at all outside the service/labor industry here. Once employed, racist attitudes, microagressions, and even harassment are astonishingly common in the workplace and promotion is difficult.  PRIVILEGE: I myself have never been unemployed or had trouble finding work in Dane County and have in fact been forced to work multiple jobs while my husband-of-color cannot find work and has struggled to find decent employment since we moved here.  While I've certainly had my share of experiences with male privileges and class/status privileges in the workplace, I have never felt "suspect" or profiled in the way my friends of color continue to feel at their jobs. And I've always felt comfortable going to my supervisors with problems, something many people of color don't even consider. 
  • PROBLEM: Friends of color are regularly pulled over for random "violations" and profiled by the police. PRIVILEGE: I myself have been pulled over zero times since I moved here. And it's not for lack of speeding.
  • PROBLEM: The parties and playdates to which my kids (who are very fair-skinned) are invited very  infrequently include their classmates of color - especially their African-American friends.  There is a regular habit of inviting only "a few friends" and not the entire class to birthday parties around here.  PRIVILEGE: While this is ostensibly and very reasonably done for financial reasons, those "few friends" are almost always all or most of the white students in the class. 
  • PROBLEM: Our communities are revoltingly, shockingly, depressingly segregated. PRIVILEGE: Many of my white friends are not even fully aware of how segregated our communities are, or how poorly served these communities of color are, because they never visit those communities.  If they do have African-American friends, those friends tend to belong to the minority population of Dane County African-Americans who do not live in those communities either.
  • THE PRIVILEGE PROBLEM:  Dane County is overwhelmingly progressive, which I love. And in Dane County, as elsewhere, even "conservatives" tend to think of themselves as progressive on the question of race. People see themselves as "colorblind" even when they see "the system" as institutionalizing racism. But as soon as you start talking about race, they start talking about poverty and tend to be very tone-deaf to the larger problem of racism and how white privilege works in Dane County to perpetuate inequities.  And having never seen evidence of it themselves, they are also very resistant to the possibility that the police, in particular, have institutionalized racist practices, which makes it difficult for them to address the more quantitative realities that absolutely must be addressed if we're going to do anything to change any of this.  In short, privilege is the problem.  And we aren't going to get anywhere until we accept that and move on.

Andrew David Thayler wrote a wonderful piece "On being an ally and being called out on your privilege" (READ THE WHOLE THING!) that brilliantly sums up the problem of privilege:

Privilege – within any given community, whether formal or ad hoc, social or professional, members will express varying levels of privilege. Some people will be playing the game on easy mode, others will be struggling with subtle and overtly oppressive societal and institutional structures. If you are a person of privilege who recognizes the reality of this imbalance and strives to make your community a more accessible and welcoming place to those who aren’t as privileged, you might identify yourself as an ally.

You are wrong.

Being an ally is not something you are, it’s something you do. “Ally” is not an identity, it is a set of behaviors that help acknowledge and promote underprivileged members of your community. But you have privileges that they do not and not all of your words and actions will fall under the banner of “being an ally”. Even if you consider yourself well-versed in your understanding of oppression and privilege, you will, eventually do or say something that reveals your privilege and is offensive, insensitive, or callous, if not outright cruel. The whole point of privilege is that it’s largely invisible to those who have it — including you. If you have colleagues that respect you, if people in the broader community value the work you do, if you are recognized as an important voice, people will call you out on your privilege.

How you respond to that criticism makes the difference between self-identifying as an ally, and actually being an ally.
Thayer argues that there's only one appropriate response when someone calls you out on your privilege:  
Fix the problem. Thank them. Move forward.
I absolutely love this way of thinking about privilege.  And Thayler's essay is a must-read for all good-hearted, well-meaning, progressive people who think of themselves as "allies" and sincerely wish to be the change.

I think this piece is especially relevant for people in Dane County, where racism isn't overt, but it's insidious and real, and where privilege - and the fear, as Rev. Gee pointed out - of being called "racist" is a more grave concern to many people than the need to fix the problem.  This is privilege.  Talking about "the problem" without feeling obligated to - or responsible for - fixing it.
"The problem" that needs to be fixed is as must our problem with privilege as anything else.

Privilege (class privilege, male privilege, white privilege, status privilege, beauty privilege, size privilege, age privilege) is not something you need to apologize for, or get defensive about.  WE didn't create the reality that makes these privileges possible.  We were born into it,  just like everyone else. But we do benefit from it.  All the time.  And we perpetuate it when we ignore (or, worse, deny) those benefits.  Only by learning to recognize it when it reveals itself can we learn to recognize how and why it needs to be eliminated if we really want to do the work that needs to be done to earn the title of "ally." 

I think part of Madison's (Dane County's, Wisconsin's, America's) problem with race is that so many people who are smart and informed and who take this problem seriously DO very sincerely think of themselves as allies but haven't learned to recognize the ways that not fully acknowledging their privilege perpetuates an unfair system.  We can all learn a lot by learning to be grateful - instead of defensive - when we're called out on this.  And we can use that to move forward. Which, as everyone knows, is the favorite way to move in Wisconsin.

Fix the problem. Thank them. Move forward.

[language alert on the Louis CK video, but so worth watching,
once you clear the room of little ears and those of delicate sensibility]

Update: 1/13/2014.  Just read this and highly recommend: "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person."  A helpful piece on how race and class both matter, in very different ways, to the ways we experience the world. 

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your article Ms Dubois Bourenane. Very well organized and specific. Of course I am now going to write about what I disagree with.

    First, while most of these problems are subtle and systematic, the police pulling people of color over at a higher rate is not. This is so high on the list so often! The Madison Police need to answer this accusation. We need to look at the policies and procedures that cause this and change them. Perhaps the department could set up a specific complaint procedure for people who feel stopped wrongfully.

    My second point of disagreement is with the assertion that many white people don't know how segregated our neighborhoods are. My experience is that most white people know exactly where these areas are, their racial makeup generally and how poorly they are served. I live in one of these areas and used to work adjacent to it. I would hear comments about how sketchy, dangerous or unsafe my neighborhood is. I would hear regularly that it should be avoided. They may not realize they are speaking in code, but they know what is going on. What I think they fail to understand is that there isn't really a neighborhood in Madison that is truly dangerous. But to my fellow people of privilege, to my white brothers and sisters: What do you expect to happen when you avoid a neighborhood and tell everyone you know to avoid it? How are you going to be part of the solution if where you work, where you live, where you worship and where your kids go to school are all filled with people who like just like you?

    My problem for years with Madison being talked about as such a liberal place is this. There seems to be a liberalism here without feet. It is a liberalism that is discussed in the ivory towers of academia but God forbid a Walgreens be built in my neighborhood. There is a sense of being progressive as long as that progress doesn't adversely affect my property value. We only elect Democrats so we are liberal, but the solutions better not affect my job security or the power of my union.

    It is high time we look in the mirror. Aspiring to lead is great. But calling others to follow you down the yellow-brick road when you are truly lost is wrong, offensive and embarrassing. We need to own our shortcomings. "He who confesses his sin will be forgiven. He who claims to be without sin is a liar and in darkness".