Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On Being Black in Madison, Wisconsin.

There was absolutely nothing surprising to me about reading this Cap Times headline today: "No state worse than Wisconsin for black children, says new national study"  I love Wisconsin--my mom grew up in Clark County and I visited in the summers until finally moving here to attend Beloit College in 2009. Instead of graduating from college and going immediately back to graduate school, I decided to move to Madison and "find myself," or maybe something similar. I've been living in Madison since May, and on the near east side since August.  I have never lived or operated in a place that was more racist.

People are constantly making me aware that they are white and I am black. I look different. My hair is different. My body is different. I am so consciously aware of being black, all the time. Part of this might be my job--I cashier at a local grocery cooperative, where I stand in a small box and am gawked at by small white children for eight hours at a time. (For example: "Mommy! What's wrong with her hair? Why is it going straight up like that? It looks like broccoli!:")  I stand in my small box and watch as almost exclusively white people swarm around me, pushing each other to get to the organic juices. Sometimes, when I'm bored, I watch all the co-op customers until I see a black one. Sometimes that game lasts more than an hour, or until  I have a panic attack. Nobody I work with really understands these panic attacks, or any of my problems with race there, save for a few allies, but writing about it here would be unprofessional. All I know is that I am one of maybe three or four people at my job that are of African American descent at my job, and that that figure is way too low. I can't imagine this is a new problem--but it certainly isn't a problem that anybody is going to do something about, or else it would have been fixed before. 

My hair is probably a big part of why I stick out so much in Madison. I have a big afro, and the front part is bleached blonde. It looks awesome, and I am never not going to wear big hair so that I get less attention from white people. I'd rather stick out and make them notice me, make them uncomfortable. It's easy to ignore a problem like race in Madison--especially on the east side. From what I've gathered, being a progressive/liberal when it comes to Scott Walker and buying organic food and bringing your own canvas bags is enough. (If you ride your bike to work, then don't even worry about being overtly racist to me, because I didn't realize you were busy singlehandedly saving the planet. While you're at it, take the image of the Black Power fist and constrict it to the shape of the state of Wisconsin, we didn't need that any more anyways.) Don't even get me started on white people with dreadlocks. 

Actually, hair is a really big part of this for me. According to people I've met in Madison, my hair is basically magic. They don't understand how or why it grows so fast or so unruly or in weird directions. My hair mystifies white people. It mystifies them so much they think it's okay to touch it. It is not okay to touch my hair, or even to ask to touch it, or even to ask me questions about it as if I have some sort of black people voodoo magic in my scalp. If you've never been the minority, then you might not understand why this is so upsetting to me. When white people touch my hair, I feel like a weird animal in a cage. It doesn't connect us, it pushes us further apart. It is a privilege to not be othered. But my experience so far has made me realize that a lot of people in Madison are so blinded by their own privilege that they can't even begin to empathize or understand. A woman once asked to touch my hair, and when I told her no, she got angry at me. How dare I infer that her want to touch me was in some way racially motivated? But through my lens, this older white woman felt as though she had ownership enough over my body to touch my hair if she wanted. Nobody has ownership over my body but me. 

I'm not in Madison right now. I took almost a month off work and came home to Connecticut (not that part of Connecticut). My hometown is incredibly diverse. Its not perfect--I moved away for a reason--but being home for less than a week so far has already made me situation in Madison much clearer. I don't have the time or energy to teach every ignorant person in Madison how to properly interact with people of color. I don't know what to do about Madison, or how to change it for the better. Right now, I'm mostly just angry-and I can't be black and angry, or else that's all people will see. So that's what I'm going to be thinking about for the next few weeks in Connecticut: being  black in Madison. Because its going to keep being an unsafe place for black people to work, live and be educated until everybody stops ignoring that fact. I refuse to enable people's ignorance anymore.