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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Cultural representations of Madison reinforce racial disparities
Who belongs and who does not
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Credit:Lia Spaulding

We all came to Madison for jobs at UW and found each other through our activism and volunteer work at WORT, Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, Wisconsin Books to Prisoners and Groundwork. Just a little over a year ago, we started getting together to talk about the social landscape of our adopted town and to share our observations about the activism that grew out of the protests against Gov. Scott Walker.

By the October 2013 release of the Race to Equity Report, we had been meeting for about two months. We found the report's conclusions -- Dane County has some of the most extreme racial disparities in the country -- disturbing, but not surprising.

The initial explanations for these disparities have focused on the lack of job skills among African Americans, bias among white residents, flawed service delivery by public institutions (including the police and school district) and indifference on the part of the business community.

What have not been discussed are the cultural representations of Madison that work to reinforce the structure of inequity. This is a problem because all debates about policy improvements are shadowed by the basic question of who makes up Madison. The places and events that are often portrayed as defining Madison include the Dane County Farmers' Market, Camp Randall on football Saturdays and the Memorial Union Terrace, and these iconic places and events still have a heavily white presence. Once fixed in pictures and promotional materials, these spaces become the dominant representations of Madison as a whole. If taken literally, the images represent who belongs and who does not.

Perhaps that's why, in a notorious example from more than a decade ago, the UW digitally placed an African American student into a crowd shot of white students that was used on the cover of a UW-Madison admission booklet. Someone on campus evidently thought it needed to artificially "diversify" the look of the student body. Pictures matter.

Perception vs. reality

The most detailed example of a white-oriented representation of Madison can be found in Mad Town, a graphic by local artist Lia Spaulding, who composed it according to characterizations gathered informally from city residents. Available as a poster, the "map" is an outline of the isthmus with superimposed labels corresponding to different parts of the central city. It walks a line on the funny side of stereotyping.

Most of the image's detailed information revolves around campus, the Capitol Square and the near east side. The Capitol is noted for its "art fair," "farmers' market" and "political protests." The Williamson-Marquette neighborhood is slugged "vegans," "downward dogs" and "hippies."

But the approach is much more institutional in the neighborhoods where the majority of people of color live. Madison's south and north sides are identified by landmarks or seasonal festivals. The south-central sector -- where 50% of residents are people of color, according to 2010 Census data -- is labeled "hospitals," "runners & scenic route," "mass brat consumption" (for the annual bratwurst fest) and "Christmas lights" (for the holiday light festival in Olin Park). "Duck Blind" (the field where the Madison Mallards play), "airport" and "Weinerville" (the Oscar Mayer factory) represent the north side.

The label "R.I.P. Otis Redding 1967" over a spread of Lake Monona pays tribute to a black artist who at the time of his accidental death was crossing over into the white consumer market. But there is no other reference to a distinctly African American element or to anything specifically Latino or Hmong, for that matter.

To many migrants and people of color, Mad Town easily reads as incomplete. In just one example, Bayview Townhouse, a long-established racially mixed community of low-income families in central Madison, is not mentioned. For years Bayview has been a site for creative organizing across ethnic lines, and it is fair to say that it distinguishes Madison. But the Triangle area is overwritten with the words "hospitals" and "student slums." The southwest and far east sides, containing many racially diverse working-class areas as well as clusters of affordable housing, are excluded entirely, evidently belonging to Madison but not to Mad Town.

Coincidentally, the image circulated widely on social media when conversations about racial disparities heated up this fall. In comments and postings, most people embraced the depiction as a loving portrait of our town. Few saw the irony in the gap between perception and reality.

Equal footing

For an example of how Madison might be visualized differently, without a retread of the city's identity as a radical '60s campus, funky '70s town, '80s center for political correctness or the union-friendly locavore reputation we have now, consider Michael Duffy's Madison Underground.

Cribbing from well-known subway maps to refashion Madison as a rapid-transit city, the illustration depicts a system covering the breadth of town, from Elver Park to the airport.

It is a whimsical picture of what Madison could be with the proper investments and vision: a city that functions well for all its residents and not just those residing on the overserved isthmus. Stylistically, Madison Underground puts us into conversation with the great cities of the world -- ridiculous on its face, but functioning to enlarge myopic Madison perspectives while humbling our achievements.

Importantly, it is an image that puts the far reaches of town on equal footing with the central city. Madison Underground speaks to the possibility of an infrastructure that equalizes all people for the price of a Metro fare. Perhaps this is a direction our collective mental pictures need to go in before we can truly realize the progressive values for which our city is known.

Privilege and exclusivity

We recognize that Madison's egalitarianism is founded on relative material prosperity and high levels of education. These are advantages mostly enjoyed by white people who have had the opportunity and the preparation.

As a multiracial collection of intellectuals who operate in these worlds of privilege and exclusivity, we exist in that space of tension. We adore Madison for its progressive achievements and wish to contribute to the long histories of justice work and sustainability projects based here.

At the same time, we find the divide between values and actuality painfully obvious. As long as many white middle- and upper-class residents -- the people for whom the dream of hard work, creative initiative and civic engagement still works -- see racism and inequality as issues belonging to parts of town that don't matter, the more difficult the disparities will be to resolve.

To address the structural racism in our city and beyond, people in Madison must build a picture that includes communities of color as part of the city's full character and future.


Karma Chávez is an assistant professor of rhetoric, politics and culture at UW-Madison and is the author of Queer Migration Politics. Brigitte Fielder is an assistant professor of comparative literature and folklore studies at UW-Madison. Colin Gillis is a lecturer in English at UW-Madison and a student at Madison College. Dan S. Wang is a writer and artist. They arrived in Madison between 2007 and 2012 and now collaborate on a blog, Madison Mutual Drift.

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