I recently posted a short essay to my personal blog about my everyday life in Madison as a young black woman. I wrote that Madison is the most racist place I have ever lived. I do not see very many black people on the east side. White women grab at my naturally styled hair. A man asked me once how I would be celebrating Black History Month. I love living in Madison but I do not always feel comfortable here.
The idea that Madison is a city with massive structural racism may not be so obvious to you if you live in it as part of the majority. The idea might make you uncomfortable. It might make you angry or scoff or roll your eyes. Instead of doing those things, take one minute to consider that it's not an exaggeration. Take one minute to consider that somebody else's point of view might be valid and that maybe black people deserve to be a little sensitive about race. Race is a part of my daily life because I'm black. If you don't think about race every day, then you're lucky. It's a lot easier that way. But if you want Madison to be a more inclusive place, then it's not going to be easy.
First, admit to yourself that you have probably said something to somebody that they interpreted as racist. It doesn't mean that you are a racist. But if you think that you have no prejudices about people because of their race, or that you're too good of a person to have ever said anything racist, you're wrong.
If you ask to touch my hair, I'm not going to assume you're part of the KKK. But I am going to assume that you don't know that black women are just now starting to wear their hair natural again after centuries of treating it to make it look more white, or that black women have had the least amount of control over their own bodies, historically. In other words, you don't know that we're a little touchy about the things on our bodies we can finally control. Maybe you don't know that because nobody ever told you. Maybe nobody ever told you because Madison is so segregated that it's never been relevant to you before. If you want Madison to change, things like that have to be relevant to you now.
Right now, that blog post I wrote has almost 5,500 views. People in Madison are ready to talk about race. It isn't fun, but it is necessary. Madison has to prove itself as liberal and progressive right here and right now. We can control how we behave every day. This doesn't mean just being nicer to black people, or ignoring our differences as human beings. It means being absolutely outraged that Wisconsin is the worst state in the union for black children to grow up, even though your children are white. It means, for example, going to Forest Hill Cemetery, where one of President Thomas Jefferson's half-black sons, Eston Hemings, is buried. Ask yourself why he isn't buried at Monticello, and then ask yourself why his presence in Madison isn't something you already knew about.
Seeing racism now isn't as easy as it was back then. We are past slavery and Jim Crow, but we cannot forget our history. Those horrible times are part of American history, and Madison is part of America. We have to keep talking about race or else it makes it easier for people to get away with racism. I shared my experience because I couldn't just smile and be polite anymore.
Racism is inherent in people's disbelief that there is inequality in Madison. It is possible to be progressive and ethical and still have racist tendencies. You cannot get rid of those racist tendencies by ignoring them. It might make you vulnerable and it might make you feel bad about yourself for a little while, but once you see the racism here for yourself, you won't be able to ignore it anymore.
Sasha Debevec-McKenney blogs at sashawrote.blogspot.com.