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The white perspective: Why Marian Fredal devotes herself to fighting racism

Credit:Sharon Vanorny

On a recent day in my Facebook feed, a photo rolled up of three preschoolers -- two black, one white -- gleefully hugging. The caption read, "No one is born racist." Shortly after, someone posted an article by a black woman offended when white people want to touch her hair. A few minutes later, a third FB friend reposted a Capital Times article with the headline "No State Worse Than Wisconsin for Black Children, Says New National Study."

That the friends who posted are all white, progressive and living in Madison says something about the growing awareness among folks in this group of our city's longstanding racial disparities. Also reflected in these postings is the anxiety many well-meaning white people feel when thinking about our role in the mechanisms of racism and what exactly we should be doing about it.

Essays like Alex Gee's "Justified Anger," which appeared last December in The Capital Times, and Sasha Debevec McKenney's pointed Isthmus challenge to white liberals make it clear that where race is concerned, people of color see an entirely different picture from whites.

Marian Fredal, a white Madisonian who has devoted a large part of her life to anti-racism work, is not surprised that, aside from overt acts of hatred, well-intentioned whites have difficulty seeing racism.

"Race is just confusing from the beginning," she says.

For white people, she believes, the confusion begins as children, when we notice the [race] separation and wonder why no one ever talks about it. "If you didn't grow up with people of color around you, chances are your family never talked about race in any real way."

We might have heard racist talk or platitudes about treating all people the same, but our questions never got answered. "If we even dared to ask them," she adds.

Fredal teaches anti-racism workshops primarily with Call to Action, an organization of Catholics who work to inspire social justice activism and reform within the church. Her tone is upbeat and sympathetic as she shares her experience tackling what has become one of the thorniest issues in our city and country.

"Racism affects white people profoundly and personally," she says. "Though we don't always know it." When Fredal does workshops about race, "every white person in the room has a story."

She tells the story of a 75-year-old man who broke into sobs as he shared that he and his parents had given a party for his high school baseball team, inviting everyone except for the black boy who'd played with them.

"Sixty years later and this memory can make him sob," she says. "That's as personal as it gets. It's a deep hurt for us all to see others treated badly."

'Having the world right'

Marian Fredal grew up in Warren, an all-white suburb of Detroit. She was 12 at the time of the 1967 Detroit riots. After years of systematic police brutality and unfair housing practices aimed at keeping African Americans segregated in the inner cities, over 100 U.S. cities saw rioting. Detroit's were among the worst. Forty-three people died and nearly 1,200 were injured.

At that age, Fredal didn't understand the causes of the Detroit riot, but it was on the news every day. She remembers fear in the air at school and among her neighbors. She remembers her mother, a devout Catholic who cared deeply about the social justice teachings of her faith, wagging her finger at their parish priest after Mass.

"She was angry at him for not talking about black people when he spoke about caring for our neighbors," she says. "My mother believed that having the world right was important to everyone."

It was when Fredal heard a neighbor ask why the rioters were so "savage" as to burn down their own neighborhoods that she had a moment of awakening. "I remember thinking that something bad must be happening to them, or they wouldn't be doing this." She decided to find out what that was.

Fredal looked first for answers within her faith and in the Catholic press about race relations in the U.S. With her family she watched the news every night, through the '60s turmoil that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. During the Nixon years, when Warren and the white communities around it were openly fighting HUD's attempts to enforce the Fair Housing Act, "the tension around race was constant and profound."

Even as she began to understand something about the history of African Americans in this country, Fredal still had no idea what she herself could do about the inequities. By the time she left home for college, she felt small and not up to the task of figuring out how to make change.

"I felt a tremendous amount of grief about how badly people were treated," she says. "I just knew it was something I couldn't ignore."

Fredal worked in Detroit as a physical therapist for a year after getting her degree at the University of Michigan. She came to Madison soon after her then-fiancé started graduate school at the UW. In 1984, after obtaining a master's degree in vocational rehabilitation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she began working as a case manager with PACT, the nationally renowned pilot program for the community treatment of people with long-term mental illness.

She returned to the work of physical therapy in 1997, taking a job at Central Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled, where she continues to work today. In 2007 she completed a doctoral program in Leadership for the Advancement of Learning and Service at Cardinal Stritch University, writing her dissertation on a Catholic diocese's initiative to end racism.

Desegregating a life

As YWCA racial justice director Colleen Butler noted at the April 24 event "Together/Apart: Talking Across the Racial Divide," whites in Madison can live without noticing or interacting with people of color. "You have to be intentional here if you want to have relationships with people different from you," she said.

Fredal asserts something very similar about her first steps "to desegregate" her life. She had been living in Madison long enough to feel uncomfortable with the separation between whites and people of color. She didn't have a grand plan at that point, but had been reading everything she could get her hands on about the history of race relations. After reading "The Realistic Way to Eliminate Racism," an article (PDF) by Harvey Jackins, a lifelong social justice activist and founder of the Re-Evaluation Counseling movement, she was ready to do some things differently.

She started by taking note of where there were people of color in her life. Then after a time, she began to find reasons to talk to and get to know them. She began going to church at St. James, a neighborhood parish that supported an elementary school with a diverse student population. She volunteered on the campaign of an African American woman running for local political office.

"I was very nervous," Fredal remembers. "I thought none of these people would want to be friends with me." To fight the nervousness, she kept reminding herself that "I wasn't doing this for them. This was me going after the world I wanted."

She recalls the anxiety she felt, preparing to call a potential new friend, a woman of color she had met through her job at PACT. They had been chatting for several weeks about their mutual interests, and Fredal wanted to call to make a movie date.

"I was so sure she was going to reject me," she says, "I kept picking up the receiver and putting it back down again."

When Fredal finally forced herself to call, the woman not only accepted the movie invitation, but also talked to her on the phone for three hours.

"It dawned on me that maybe this making-friends thing could work," she says.

Already a member of Call to Action, Fredal started putting in proposals for workshops and breakout sessions on race at the national conference, which has a yearly attendance of over 2,500. At that time the Call to Action board was all white, and there were others who, like Fredal, wanted racial justice to take a larger role on the conference schedule.

"It really improved when we helped to get some people of color elected to the board," she says.

Now as part of Call to Action's diverse Anti-Racism Team, Fredal helps teach anti-racism workshops at Call to Action chapters across the country, as well as at several small colleges and institutions. The participants are mainly white, which she thinks is just fine.

"People of color tend to already know how racism works," she says, adding that there is benefit for white people to be challenging racism with each other.

Guilt and shame

Fredal sees the workshops in part as a place to allow white people to have the conversations they were never allowed to have with their families, a place to look at the guilt and shame they've accumulated around racial injustice.

In the workshops, most often weekend-long, the mechanisms of oppression are brought to light through the use of role-play scenarios, often drawn from the life experience of Fredal's African American workshop co-leader, Myra Brown.

It's one thing to talk about the mechanisms of oppression, Fredal says, but playing out everyday scenes like a struggle at the workplace over having a black angel on the Christmas tree brings home exactly how we behave and how it affects people.

Participants are also shown a video, "Mirrors of Privilege," in which a number of white people -- including Peggy McIntosh, the scholar and activist who coined the terms "male privilege" and "white privilege" -- talk about their early experiences around race. It never fails, Fredal says, to get people sharing, often with great emotion, their own experiences with racism, and to come to the conclusion that "racism is something that hurts us all."

Recently I asked the YWCA's Colleen Butler why it is so difficult for well-meaning white people to see the racism here.

"In Madison, white people can grow up and live their lives not knowing all the things people of color experience day to day," she says. "To acknowledge that their world might be different from the world white people experience, and that the American Dream may not be achievable for everyone, challenges our sense of self."

Myra Brown, a lay associate pastor of Spiritus Christi Church in Rochester, N.Y., and a member of Call to Action's anti-racism team, has been a frequent workshop co-leader with Fredal. An African American woman who has for many years been a prominent anti-racism activist in her home city, Brown asserts that one of the most important ways white people can work on healing their racism is to understand their own history. White people, she says, rarely think about the fact that most of their ancestors came to this country because of religious or economic oppression.

"Most white people have never taken the time to fully unpack that history," she says, "or been adequately challenged to take that on."

Brown says that Fredal has taken that challenge, and, as a result, "the people of color [on the Call to Action anti-racism team] fight over getting to co-lead workshops with Marian." Part of that is the respect she shows her co-leaders.

Fredal, Brown says, "is a great ally to people of color. She gets that with white people we often have to downplay our abilities or let the white person take over." She adds that Fredal has learned how "to make room for a person of color to lead."

'More real, less numb'

Fredal encourages white people making the decision to diversify their lives to seek the support of other whites involved in the same endeavor. She recommends the YWCA's racial justice workshops as a fine place to start.

She also recommends workshops led by members of Groundwork, a mostly white anti-racist collective that formed in 2004. Their workshops include an excellent examination of the history of institutional racism and resistance to it, as well as opportunities to reflect on one's own experiences.

"You will have feelings," Fredal says about the work of looking at our own racism. "Don't be afraid of them." Talking to others about feelings might be hard, she admits, "but it's the best thing you can do."

And somebody, at some point and despite your best efforts, will probably call you a racist. Fredal tells the story of a black friend, someone she met at church, who was at that time a graduate student in philosophy at the UW.

"When she took a job in New York I helped her move her stuff. Shortly after her move, we were both scheduled to go to a conference in Albuquerque." Fredal's friend was there with her new boss and coworkers. "She invited me to dinner with her large group. I met everyone, and they were great. I was friendly and funny, and made an effort to connect with them. I was pleased with the interactions."

The friend later pulled Fredal aside and told her that she had taken over the party conversation and that it was racist. "She said my efforts to 'shine' with her coworkers made it harder for her to do so, and it took the spotlight, so to speak, away from her."

Fredal was devastated. She couldn't fully comprehend what she had done that was racist. She talked about the experience and her feelings with others and finally found what she thinks is the kernel of truth in her friend's accusation -- that even if her motive was only to be friendly, it probably often feels to people of color as if white people are taking over. She realized that whites are rarely concerned with how much space they take up in a room or a conversation.

"I've learned to try not to take the spotlight in social situations."

And, Fredal says, she and her friend have a great relationship now, though they are not able to see each other as often as they'd like.

There are big rewards for doing this work. "The relationships I've made have changed my life immeasurably for the better," she says. "I feel more connected, more real and less numb."

Fredal may still sometimes act in racist ways, she says. "But having it pointed out doesn't devastate me anymore."

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