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.



89 comments:

  1. I love this, Sasha. This is a huge area of concern that our community (and more specifically, our co-operative) need to improve. It's a problem that we should be brainstorming answers to.

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    2. I agree that what Sasha wrote is both sad and true. However it should be noted that Sasha’s experience doesn't represent us all and more importantly IMO, sends the wrong message if we are ever going to change for the better.

      Respectfully, I both love and hate blog post like this. Being Black in Madison isn’t the same for all of us, but what Sasha wrote is true regardless.

      There is soo much I want to write in response to this blog. I want to share what being Black in Madison means to me, why I refuse to pull my kids out what is arguably one of the worst public schools in Madison and so-so much more … however I am going to go against character and keep it short.

      Sasha wrote,
      "I refuse to enable people's ignorance anymore."
      This is exactly what Sasha and all of us *need* to do. The following section perfectly illustrates the points I will make,

      Sasha wrote,
      “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. ”
      Note: There is a LOT going on here, one of the most important relates to gender, which sadly I am not going to address here. The follow focuses on race and what I see as a way to create positive change.

      I highly recommend that you all read, “The Elephant in the Living Room That No One Wants to Talk About” by Greg Tanaka; it is only 15 pages long and well worth your time. For me, the quick and direct take away message from Tanaka’s paper was,

      To truly address racisms we ALL need to emphasize for each other, allow mistakes to happen and let go of our anger.

      *This is to anyone who has felt tokenized or otherwise been treated like the ‘other’.*
      We need to allow people, like the White woman in Sasha’s quote, to make mistakes like this. I know it is unfair and requires us to be better people than we should have to be, but IMO it is the best way to stomp out ignorance. Through my lens, this White woman rarely, if ever, has had an opportunity to touch a Black woman’s hair.

      *The whole reason racism exist is because people like this White woman lack experience with Black people!*

      How are we ever going to reduce ignorance if we don’t allow people to make mistakes? Whether you allow a person to touch your hair or not is not the point. The point is that afterwards you should empathize with the other person and show them that you are just another person, and not just a representative of a whatever.

      *This is for everyone else*
      Being a part of the majority can also be hard. If you read Tanaka’s paper, you can learn how being a part of the majority has its own crosses-to-bear and that to deal with ignorance we are going to need something besides anger to make a positive change.

      In the end, retreating and merely being anger will only keep racism alive in the form of biases, and those biases will continue on for centuries to come unless we change our approach to situations like Sasha shared with us.

      - Clem Samson-Samuel

      Tanaka, G. (2009). The Elephant in the Living Room That No One Wants to Talk About: Why U.S. Anthropologists Are Unable to Acknowledge the End of Culture Anthropology & Education Quarterly Volume 40, Issue 1, pages 82–95, March 2009

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    3. If you live in Madison Clem - I hope someday to sit over coffee and talk with you. You are wise and mature in your perspective.

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    4. Thanks for the article recommendation. At first I had a hard time finding it, but all Wisconsinites can get it through the EbscoHost subscription our state provides. Here's a link: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,cpid&custid=s7324964&db=ehh&AN=37208537&site=ehost-live&scope=site

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  2. Well said, Sasha. I am one of the few black people that spends my last few pennies at that over priced co-op to get my kids clean food. I use to work there as well and not only felt alienated by the mostly white customers, but also the staff as well. Thanks for making this blog.

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    1. I don't know for sure... but I am white and get the same feeling when I go there. I assumed that was because the place is filled with mostly self important, self centered people and socially ill at ease types.
      But maybe they somehow they know that I only date black women, have a mixed daughter and have poor black friends who live in Madisons hoods?
      Yeah - that MUST be it.

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    2. You need to listen to what Sasha is saying...the problem isn't Madison people in the co-op...it's Madison people. Full-stop.

      There's a culture of magical Madison exceptionalism that prevents Madison progressives from confronting their own privilege and truly empathizing with people dissimilar from them. When they encounter such people, the interaction becomes about that difference. It's weird and tokenizing and very shallow.

      The worst is when they try to signal that they're "down" or whatever, like saying they "...have poor black friends who live in Madison's hoods."

      Dude, people of all ethnicities and means are people, not collectibles...

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  3. Thank you Sasha! As being a Black person that was born and raised in Madison, this is all to familiar to me. Please don't feel sorry for me. My parents made it a point for my brother and I to know other places besides Madison and for us to know that people in other places are not like Madison. Thank God! I've become tired as well when it comes to educating some White people because they claim to be liberal and Madison is so diverse. The stats speak for themselves. I am worried and concerned for Blacks and people of color because Madison is in denial of what they think they know and not willing to acknowledge that they need to be proactive to address some of the issues you mentioned.
    Thank you once again for sharing!

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  4. 1. Thank you.
    2. It is neither within your ability nor is it your responsibility to change Madison; your work is self-care and self-preservation, whatever that looks like.
    3. Read those Baldwin books you took along; James wrestled with well-intentioned white liberalism and seems to have found a way to respect the humanity of the white liberal while maintaining a no-bullshit policy.
    4. "I decline all offers to petition motherfuckers for my humanity." -Ta-Nehisi Coates
    5. The Co-op could and should do better.
    6. Numbered lists are awesome.
    7. Thank you.

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  5. I guess you have to be there. It's hard to see the racism she's saying exists save a child with a comment that, while not appropriate, reflects the innocence of youth more than it does racism. No, the racism was formed in the ears of the listener. In phsychologic terms it's called reflecting . You're the racist.... You count the number of black folks employed and YOU decide the numbers aren't appropriate ? Black folks don't shop where you work because.....of racism?? Maybe they don't like the food . Clearly there is a bigot here and it's the writer. Politically correct nope. Correct ? Si!!! ,

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    1. The author is entirely qualified to have an opinion on what number of Black folks would constitute a large enough demographic percentage of her coworkers. I'm a white woman, one of the author's coworkers, and I happen to agree with her assessment. She and I are there for a large portion of our daily lives; our data is extensive and our conclusion-- that Black folks are underrepresented in our workplace as employees as well as patrons-- is the result of ongoing critical discussion.

      Beyond that, I'm not sure what experiences have led you to speculate that Black people don't like healthy, organic food just like any other group of people.

      On top of what Sasha wrote, you can see from the comments here that she is not alone in her experience. That fact might give you pause and lead you to consider whether your hypothetical causes of distaste for healthy food are more likely than the idea that a grocery co-op and its patrons reflect the racist character of the society in which it/they functions.

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    2. Did you really read that entire blog post with its long list of issues, pick out one comment by a child, and spin that into calling Sasha a racist? Have you ever, for one second, considered getting over your privileged self and actually listening to the pain of another human being who is speaking honestly about her experience? Of course YOU don't see racism around you, because you're obviously not affected by it. I'm reminded of the person standing at the head of a flight of stairs proclaiming that he doesn't need to worry about wheelchair access because "those people" don't come in here anyway. I could list 20 reasons why there are so few black customers at the co-op, and racism in Madison would account for 19 of them. How about asking her what she meant rather than calling her names? How about engaging in a dialogue instead of trying to shame her? How about spending a nano-second considering your own white privilege?

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    3. So she - because she is black- can declare the words of a child racist - but if Jason points out how stupid that is he is suffering from privilege?
      While I agree that racism probably does play a part in the lack of people of color shopping at the co op , it is the $$$ disparity that causes it. I hope that the 20th reason on your list is that black people ARE FREE TO SHOP WHEREVER THEY WANT.

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  6. Sasha, thank you for your honest sharing. I'm a white person who just moved back to Madison from New Jersey. The shock of re-entering the sea of white was huge, but so was my relief to be home (read: friends/family/driving-without-a-map/knowing-where-to-find-kale/having a job after months of unemployment). Thank you for being angry, proud, sad, confused, willing to take care of yourself. Thank you for telling white people they can't touch your hair! I'm filled with sadness and shame for participating in Madison's racism. As a friend said about a situation I encountered, "Just because he's in emotional and social kindergarden doesn't mean you need to be his kindergarden teacher." So even though a lot of us here aren't even in 4-K yet, I'm grateful for your willingness to risk sharing. [Also I have lots of anger at Jason Smith's comments from 6:38 this morning. This is part of why Wisconsin has SOOO far to go. I apologize on behalf of his better self.]

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    1. Don't sweat Jason's comments. I know him. He's a super-good guy who through no fault of his own grew up in the most extreme version of white privilege. Like a lot of sweet people who later in life start to catch a whiff of just how privileged they were, he first has to pass through a period of defensive denial before coming to peace with it. Also, I suspect he's listened to a little AM radio.

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  7. Thanks for this piece. I can relate to your rage. I grew up in that exact neighborhood, and I'm of mixed race. The good news is that most communities aren't as self-centered and hypocritical as Madison's near East side (I had to move away to figure it out) More good news? Those same folks who are so trancendently clueless will continue to stay that way. And this frees you to never give a shit about them or their ilk again. Good luck to you, and I hope you find real community down the path.

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    1. LMAO !!!
      Congrats on getting out of the neighborhood and having the intelligence to see it for what is comprised of !!!

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  8. Someone posted this on Facebook, and I was happy to see this. Then, I read the description of your 'fro, and I knew exactly who wrote this. I'm the Black woman who constantly compliments you on your afro. It is awesome, and I'm still jealous.

    I also agree with what you said. I currently have a white co-worker is keeps asking to see my hair (I keep it covered), and I am very reluctant because I'm sure if I wear my hair down, she'll attempt to touch it.

    Being in Madison is a culture shock for me. I was born and raised in Detroit and lived there up until a year and 3 months ago. Detroit is 80% Black. Madison is nearly 80% White. I don't feel like I fit here, and I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb here. There's also the problem that a lot of folks here know nothing about Black culture, so there isn't really many people I relate to here. So, I do plan to move out as soon as possible. Madison is a nice city, but it's not the place for me.

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  9. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience, Sasha.

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  10. your article is awesome. i especially love the comment about white people in dreadlocks. i hope i am not contributing to your feelings, my being a white shopper at the coop. i honestly have no idea if i am racist or not. as a parent, i worry about it a lot--right now i am worried i am saying the wrong thing. i try to teach my kids that all people are different & come in different shapes, sizes, colors, etc. sometimes i think that my worrying about it actually creates a type of racism. maybe i am the problem. i hope not because i really do want the world to be a place of diversity & love & hope, but i think that world--if possible--is a long ways a way. i hope writing this brings you more peace & less anguish.

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    1. We all have some prejudice in us - ALL OF US. I also don't like white people in dreads. OK to say if I am white but not if I am black?
      And about your worrying ... if anything you are the victim of the movement to not just play the race card, but throw a whole deck out there !!!
      Just because white people are VERY ignorant about racial differences - they are dismissed as such and made to feel guilty like unfortunately- you are.
      It's about power. And sadly, cultural sensitivity is a one way street for the time being.
      That you took the time to comment and what you try to teach your kids suggests your heart is in the right place and u r good people.

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  12. Sasha, I think we know each other. I'm the sista with the short 'fro who's always at the co-op and gives you the "nod" or we chat once in a while. Girrrl, I feel everything in the article. Every.thang. Peace! I'm turning in my freedom papers after a decade here. I can't do it anymore. Back to the city.

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  13. Thanks for this, Sasha. As a mixed-race girl who grew up in the Land of the Tea-Partiers, I moved to Madison hoping to be immersed in a more diverse, progressive landscape--and was disappointed by what I found on that front. Don't get me wrong; I've lived here for nearly nine years, am happier than I was in my home town, and have had extraordinary opportunities here. However, the way in which people of color are figured as either "self-destructive," "victims," "rare success stories," or "exotics" is exacerbating the problem and drawing too thick a line around this picture.

    Yes, there are huge disparities regarding race in Dane county that need to be addressed--now. Yes, there is an ignorance to one's own close-mindedness that comes from being from a place of privilege, as many of the shoppers you mention may be. Just know that it's not all of us. I grew up in a racist town, where my Puerto Rican father was considered a "Black man," and my Wisconsin-native mother was stigmatized for marrying him. It seems we haven't come that far, but if people who are discriminated against can channel that anger into something productive, we'll be well on our way. Thanks again, Sasha. Hope you get some healing back home.

    P.S. You know what my favorite thing to say is when people touch my hair? ...."Oh, thanks, it's SUPER dirty." :)

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  14. Sasha, I'm so glad you had time to reflect on this and share your words with us. Remember when we were cashiering next to each other and that woman insisted we could be sisters (because we were the only two non-white women there)? Sure you have a large afro, and my hair is quite curly when let loose, but I don't really see the resemblance between a Black woman and a Persian woman...that's just me though. I'm glad we questioned her and hopefully made her understand how NOT ok her comment was. Even the best place to work in Madison still has a ways to go apparently.

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  15. Great read!! Thank you for sharing. As a white male I understand the fact that I will never understand what it's like to be a person of color. That's not to say I won't ever understand what it's like to be a minority as I technically am a minority in California. But even being in a minority will never convey the same meaning as it does for a minority of color because even in a minority I'm in a minority that has been the majority for the entirety of American history & still holds almost all the power.

    I lived in Oakland for a little over 2 years and actually decided to move there because I wanted the chance to at least live in and among the people of Oakland. I resided in Eastern Oakland in the area nicknamed the Murder District. Before moving to Oakland I thought I had an idea of what life was like and while I knew I didn't understand the struggle I thought I at least knew what it was. I moved out of Oakland for a job and I think the one thing that living in Oakland did for me (and I think it's a good thing) was not what I thought it would be. I had no clue what the struggle is/was and I never fully will. Living in Oakland didn't allow me to understand the struggle like I thought it would... It just reinforced and drove home the point that no matter what I go through I NEVER will understand and I think that's the most important thing that we can learn. Living in Oakland definitely helped increase my ability to actually see the problems and feel closer to that group which I do not belong to.

    Thank you again for sharing this, I'm sure it was a difficult topic to touch on but you did it very well.

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    1. Please quote the part of Sasha's essay where she said-- specifically-- "White people are bad."

      This essay is about Sasha's experience in her workplace, not about the moral character of White Madison.

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  17. Thanks so much for your honesty! The question is - what can I do to protect my mixed-race grand kids from the blind tyranny of which you speak? I live down the street from your work place and my grand kids live around the corner. I am scared for them all the time - is the only answer for them to move away from Madison?

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    1. Yes.

      Move them to a place with better [charter] schools where people won't always be trying to touch their hair.

      Every black or mixed-raced friend of mine who grew up in Madison resents the culture there for being so blindly steeped in white privilege.

      Flee!

      Take them to a community with larger numbers of middle-class people of color and in greater proximity to a real city.

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    1. So cool of you to write this. Willy Street shoppers like to think of themselves as enlightened folk, but many of them have no real experience with diversity. A lot of white people in Madison are afraid to even go to South Madison. This is a big problem in Madison where communities of color are incredibly marginalized.

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  19. What's wrong with white people with dreadlocks? White people have worn dreadlocks since prehistoric times. Spartan warriors wore dreadlocks. I know you asked people not to get you started, but please, start. Since you don't like people telling you what to do with your hair or body, why should you tell anyone else what to do with theirs?

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    1. Google will take you far in satisfying your curiosity. Let me point you in a few directions.

      Specifically, I encourage you to research the cultural and racial context in which dreadlocks (note: not matted or twisted hair by any other name) arose in former slave colonies, post-imperialism, as well as the afrocentric nature of Rastafari. Furthermore, look into the current American racial context of hair and the very narrow range of what constitutes acceptable hair among Black Americans. Then, cross-reference that matter of American society policing Black bodies and in particular hairstyle, and compare and contrast it with the degree of ease White folks can adopt similar hairstyle and be praised while Black folks are not. If you have trouble finding information on the racialized status of hair among Black Americans, try the term "good hair" and consider what constitutes "good".

      After you've read all of that you're still free to decide how you'd like to wear your hair, same as you were free to do so before. (No one was ever telling you what you can and can't do in the first place.) But regardless of your decision, you'll have the answer to your question.

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    2. I get the impression Sasha isn't saying white people shouldn't or can't have dreadlocks - she's saying that, in her experience, white people in Madison with dreadlocks tend to be the most annoying in the way that they think their hair gives them license to tokenize her even more and act overly familiar in their misguided approximation if how they think black people interrelate. I've seen something like that before. It's creepy and super-inauthentic.

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  20. In an ideal world, this wouldn't matter but everyone else here seems to be sharing their race and social qualifiers, so here it goes: I'm a white male with a black wife. I'm from Wood County (right next to Clark), she's from Milwaukee County, and we've lived in Madison for 5 years.

    Let me say that - I believe that every individual experiences race in his or her own context and that I do think it's unfortunate that you (and others) feel uncomfortable in Madison. With that said, I'm also having real trouble understanding how your overt racism argument fits into the broader discussion of race in Madison.

    I'm not saying that overt racism doesn't exist in Madison, but to argue and imply that it is pervasive simply doesn't square with our experience in this city.

    Does Madison have its fair share of holier-than-thou, self-righteous, white liberals? You bet! It's even annoying for white people who haven't gone full-granola. But, are they overtly racist? Hardly....

    Does Madison have a problem with systemic and institutional racism? It sure does, and that is where the real problem lies.

    Maybe it's just because we lived in Milwaukee for four yeas before moving to Madison, but it seems an awful lot like you are projecting a small sample size of real, or perceived racial slights onto an entire community. I think a legitimate argument about the type of racism that exists in Madison is buried somewhere in your essay, but somehow it is lost in the way you make your argument. You bash white people with dreadlocks, single out kids who almost certainly have no concept that what they are saying could be perceived as a racial slight, and you automatically assume certain people are privileged.

    To me, the reality is that people of all races are a whole lot more complex than we sometimes like to admit to ourselves. When we get angry about real or perceived slights, it becomes nice and convenient to paint a subset of people with a broad brush and then extrapolate that to the community as a whole. In my opinion (and it seems like you admit this much to yourself at the end of your essay), the angry, me-against-the-world approach does a disservice to the conversation about the systemic racial problems this city and state are facing.

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    1. VERY well put forever
      We need to come together instead of have angry divisiveness.
      You comment about having a black wife reminded me of something kinda funny and somewhat relevant to this discussion.
      I noticed I was getting "the look" from a fair number of black guys when I would be out and holding hands with my black girlfriend. Sometimes there would be under the breath comments. (forgot to mention I'm white)
      My best friend is a black guy who is a comedic genius who grew up in a Detroit hood responded to my question "WTF is up with the Brothas eyeballing me and running their mouth when I'm with my girl"?
      " Silly cracka - equality means white people don't get to keep all dat stupid racial sH!t to themselves nomo"
      I laughed my azz off at the time. But after thinking about it more it made me sad.
      The same cognitive failures that allowed for many white people to exist in a prejudiced, economically and racially disparate America ( can we stop with the 'Madison is so different' crap please) and now being embraced by many people of color.
      And the same cognitive failure will yield the same results.

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    2. There are few places in AMERICA with more messed-up race relations than Milwaukee.

      Compared to Milwaukee, Madison is a haven of enlightenment and racial nirvana.

      Compared to many other, more cosmopolitan places in America, Madison is totally backwards.

      It's great you've found Madison to be an improvement over Milwaukee, but I invite you to look more closely and visit bigger places.

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  21. I see you all the time at the co-op, and I'm very happy to read this piece. Not happy that it needed to written but happy that so much of your experience is my experience, and now I know I'm not crazy. I sometimes have to stop myself from running over to other black people and saying hello. Thank you for being you.

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    1. So if 2 people with schizophrenia hear the same voices - does that mean they are not crazy?
      But I go a little out of my way to say hi or smile to black folks.
      Why? Because I like black people in general. I especially love and black grandmas. Their souls are rich because they have ENDURED. When you think about our country's history and think about being black and a woman ... I hope for a Grandmas of African Decent Day. True American heroines in my book.

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  22. "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."

    White people with blonde/red hair who go to countries where there are no blondes/redheads also receive similar treatment -- it's not racism, it's curiosity due to seeing something one isn't accustomed to. Obviously, it's not OK for someone to randomly touch a blonde person's hair anymore than it is to touch your hair, but I don't think you should take offense if someone asks to do so. There's a good chance that it's simply benign curiosity.

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    1. What your comment doesn't address or include is the American racial context of natural Black hair. There is a particular history of Black bodies being viewed as accessible to the White populace in this country, a legacy which dehumanized Black bodies and reduced human beings to sideshow attractions. The context of violating personal space to satisfy curiosity by touching a Black American woman's hair is volumes beyond simple unfamiliarity with a hair color.

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    2. I don't disagree that there is a history of dehumanizing or ridiculing black people on the basis of their physical characteristics -- it's no coincidence that one of the most technically profound U.S. films of all-time, "The Jazz Singer," prominently features black face.

      I also don't discount the possibility of that legacy continuing and influencing the actions of some white people, especially those who are older. It comes as no surprise to me that Sasha mentions an older white woman taking offense when Sasha denied her request to touch her hair.

      But despite all of that, I think it's important to recognize that this behavior does dominant American society as it did in the past. As the years go by we are increasingly removed from the period of our history in which black people were actively discriminated against and lampooned. It does persist, but in a significantly reduced form.

      Bearing that in mind, I think a request made today from a white person to touch a black person's hair is more likely to be due to curiosity than racism.

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    3. "does *not* dominate American society..." -- what a great place to miss a key word.

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    4. The trend may be toward a society where that sort of violation is unheard of. Regardless: we live now, not in that hypothetical future.

      A Black woman has testified, here and now, that the attention and intrusions toward her hair are a regular occurrence, constitute a pattern, and makes her deeply uncomfortable.

      Do we believe her testimony?

      Why or why not?

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    5. What, exactly, is the desired appropriate response from white people? What is it that they do not understand?

      And, at what point is it reasonable to expect other people to have some understanding of their own about the white person's perspective? Why are 'your' assumptions about white people acceptable, while their assumptions about you are not?

      Delete
    6. I'm White (in case that wasn't clear already) and I've thought a lot about the question of the appropriate response.

      What I've come up with:
      -Start by admitting we don't know everything.
      -Listen when someone tells you their experience. Trust them.
      -Make use of the countless resources online, in print, in the community (we live in a college town after all) to educate ourselves.
      -Admit that we might, maybe even probably, have made mistakes and that we'd like to do better.
      -Get over the idea that racism is a thing you are and is instead a thing you do. It's a learned behavior and can be unlearned with some work. (and even then you'll still make mistakes.)
      -Get beyond guilt and don't expect people of color to hold your hand as you do it

      Delete
    7. The author of this blog needs to take your advice as well.

      Delete
    8. jrpeter5--

      I can't speak for Sasha, whose piece was brilliant & accurate about living in Madison as a poc, but I can come from a similar perspective. Second to being raised in Filipino culture, growing up in Madison I was largely immersed in what the White culture there is. Can I say that I had the same experiences as them, or have their perspective? Not at all, but I do believe I understand them. It is reasonable to assume that someone who grows up around a certain demographic can understand them.

      I agree largely with Dylan's resolutions with one exception: the college is not going to be a good resource for learning about poc experiences. It's just not. When I was eleven, I vowed never to attend UW-Madison after the incident where a Black student was Photoshopped without permission into a White crowd. The college is just as bad off as the town is. Instead of education through school, educating oneself through work (doing paid or volunteer work with different kinds of people) might be more effective.

      One thing that I always wanted White people to do growing up was to just stop talking so much about the poc experience and let us tell it for ourselves, -if we are so inclined-. Like Sasha, I always felt growing up very aware of my race. If I mentioned to someone I wrote poetry, they'd ask me who my favorite Pinoy poets are, or what poems I have written about being Pinoy. Things like that. I was always "Erica the Asian kid" and never "Erica who writes poetry" or "Erica who likes punk music" or "Erica who works on bikes." My identity was not my own.

      Delete
  23. Only in Madison will you find over-indulged people who have an audience for these type of self-indulgant blogs. Sasha, girl, you don't see enough Black people, so move somewhere else where there are more. Or move out of and stop working in the absolutely whitest part of Madison so you don't have to count Black folk to keep yourself from being bored senseless. You sound so petty with your whining. Seriously, move on, you will be happier elsewhere and you won't stand out and you will no longer be unique and you won't be bothered by those evil curious White people any longer.

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  24. Let me sum up what I read here:

    1) If you don't know if you're racist, you're clearly a racist person.
    2) Apparently, noticing somebody with hair different than their own also makes somebody a racist.
    3) When some people of a particular race do not "understand black culture," it is correct to lump all people of that race into one group, and then call them racists. Lucky for you, in doing so you are exempt from being a hypocrite, despite doing the very thing you're complaining about, because minorities cannot be called hypocrites, due to slavery or oppression something whatever.

    Holy cow, it's 2014. Move along.

    I am a 6'5" white male who lived in Beijing for awhile. Literally every time I went to a public place, random people would come up and want to take their picture with me. They would say "NBA? NBA!" Therefore, everybody in Beijing is racist.

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    Replies
    1. YOU GOT IT !!!
      You may now proceed to the "You should feel guilty for being born white" seminar.

      Delete
  25. Let me add, while it is easy to be quick to criticize, I applaud Sasha for publishing her thoughts, observations, and feelings. That is no small feat.

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  26. If you want proof of racism in Madison, read this comment field. Good God, (some) people.

    On a side note - Sasha - thanks for writing this. Glad to have met you a few times through the checkout line, poet to poet.

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  27. I have not yet read the comments to your post, but I wanted to say, first. Thanks for writing this. I am so glad you are here in Madison, and in my neighborhood. When we moved to Madison, there was an obvious downside: little diversity. I want my neighbors to be all kinds of people - all kinds of appearances, and behaviors, and thoughts and backgrounds, and incomes. I hope to have a chance to meet you and to keep the discussion going. This town is really interesting with a lot of potential, but it is definitely sheltered and a bubble, and I hope to be here for the culture shift. I'm sorry that people are so rude to you.

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  29. OK. Started reading some of the comments. Don't move away. Come back to Madison, please. When people don't live an experience, they really don't know what it is like. Just because you wrote this does not mean, I assume, that you assume all people you meet here are racist. This is hard stuff, and people are nervous and fearful and entrenched in their own worlds. How can we expect each other--Sasha or me or the rest--to meet the others in a more common place if how we choose to talk to one another is with resistance?

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  30. I met my wife in Madison while she was getting her PhD. I am from Madison and am white and she is from the East Coast and is black.

    We've both lived much of our lives on either coast.

    It was pretty shocking to see Madison through her eyes. She experienced many of the same things Sasha has, including strangers touching her hair (often without permission) and constantly being called upon to serve as a semi-official spokesperson for all African-Americans everywhere.

    Madison is such a small-minded, deluded, self-congratulatory bubble. It's the progressive equivalent of some backwater in the South.

    It's not open to the world, non-doctrinaire thought, or the future. I fear for Madison's future.

    : (

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  31. I just got educated about the historical implications of a black person being asked if you can touch their hair. It had never occurred to me that they would associate that in any way with their ancestors having been slaves and possessions of white people.

    This is definitely a topic that needs to be part of our collective education. Yes, I learned about slavery and that white slaveowners treated their slaves like property. I just never linked the concept of "can I touch your hair" with that history. Coming from family without slave owners as ancestors, I only know about them through history books and the movie Roots, and that was a most certainly white-washing of the story.

    Maybe, I assumed that since I was asking, it was okay. Maybe, it's because whenever someone (usually white boys) in my circle of family and friends got a buzz cut, everyone wanted to feel their hair or head, too. Some started charging a quarter for the privilege.

    In any event, I see a way forward that I did not before. Unfortunately, it does require my black friends and acquaintances to educate me. Too late for school to help me. So, please if I make such an insensitive and unwelcome comment or request, don't wait to blog about it, try to give me some constructive feedback in the moment. I promise to accept an answer of "no." If that's all you care to share.

    But, if you can direct me to some resources (have a book title at the ready or better yet cards with your blog's URL).

    Actually, just keep writing Sasha and you will help change Madison for the better.

    I do mean this sincerely and I hope to learn more about how you experience Madison by following your blog because I believe your sharing will help the process and maybe even give you some relief from the racism you experience.

    -Deb

    P.s. I am not the one who asked to touch your hair, I just understand the request. And, it is out of curiosity with no malicious intent. So, please forgive me and others as we try to get to a new level of understanding each other.

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  32. Hi, Sasha. I'm sorry you had an unhappy experience here. I've wondered what it's like to be black in Madison, surrounded by so many self-satisfied white people. I do like Madison, but it's not perfect.

    I hope your sharing this helps everyone be a little more aware of how we treat each other. (Personally I've always been amazed at how unfriendly some co-op shoppers are to the cashiers!) If you come back, I wish you the best of luck. Or even if you don't!

    Peace,
    Jeff

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  33. This is the problem with white liberals everywhere. Not just Madison. It's just amplified in Madison because this is a white liberal city.

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  34. I wish I could meet you. The racism in Madison is so oppressive, the segregation makes me want to vomit. Makes me lonely, and I'm not the "minority." I'm a white woman from California who's lived in Hawaii (the majority, still, but a 33% instead of 90% majority), and in six other states before I moved to Madison. I can't stand this about Madison! I've never been around such racial hatred before and it's so painful ... I know I'm not the victim of it but I'm chopped apart from part of the society I live in, the people I came here to be neighbors with.

    I couldn't see it before I moved here, when I was just visiting, because I couldn't conceive of such a thing--couldn't see when I didn't know what to look for. I've seen racism before, but never like this--it blindsided me. Surely Mormons in Utah, where I spent the 12 years before I moved to Madison, would have been more racist? No--bad, but nothing like this.

    I'm trying to make things change, and find myself working with other middle-aged-white-people who talk and talk and talk ... that's about it. Trying to increase diversity in the career I've been working in, but coworkes not only don't help, they try to cover up the statistics I've gathered that show how incredibly worse the "minorities" are treated.

    I'd like to meet you, Sasha. I can't assume that you need a white 40 year-old woman as a friend, but I do need friends who aren't it's-only-talk white people. I figure it doesn't hurt to ask. (Except it sure as hell is wrong to ask to touch your hair, holy shit!)
    ~Kathlean

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  35. "People (in CT) have been kinder (since Sandy Hook), more polite, more patient--my learned Midwest nice hasn't seemed so out of place."
    --Your Dec. 23rd 2012 article

    "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."
    --This article, Apr. 2nd 2014

    Your words seem... impatient.

    People purchase food and household non-durables within close proximity to their home.

    Here a link to some comparison 2010 Census data: http://i.imgur.com/ZlSTN11.png

    Summary:
    Madison, overall self-reported racial background as 'white': ~79%
    Census Tract 19 (The Near East Side/Willy Street): ~90%

    Combine that with a record setting Winter:
    http://www.aos.wisc.edu/~sco/clim-watch/index.html#Bulletins

    Summary:
    50-100 year records for average cold, below normal daily temperatures, below zero days, and hours of extreme wind chill temperatures (below -20 degrees F) were common throughout Wisconsin.

    Is it really a surprise that you could literally go hours without seeing anyone non-white?

    Low internal population that is 'non-white' and reduced population mobility due to a rash of harsh weather; perhaps you found yourself at a nexus that was just as circumstantial as it was substantive.

    Look, I'm not here sugar coating anything about ethnic makeup or blame racism on the weather. Painting societal critiques is crucial to artistic success, but perhaps you are using too broad of strokes.

    How much will Spring in Madison mitigate the intensity of your assessment? Only time will tell.

    -wisthmus


    Plus, poking Madison for being a racial dystopia?
    That's basically clickbate.

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  36. Ah, such universal human traits, to be curious, to stare at all things and persons unique and beautiful. It can be uncomfortable to be different and it can be lonely as hell to feel like the "other." You find yourself attracting attention due to the rarity of your features. Does it mean that your a victim of racism? In this case, it is impossible to tease apart racism from the kind of treatment any person on earth gets when they are the one who stands out, since you are black and those around you are white and we have the institutional history that we have in this country. But I wish we could all trade bodies for just a moment so we can see how much of the same treatment we'd get even if we looked radically different.

    I'm not to say whether or not you've been the victim of racism. But these things I know for sure:
    -Kids and old white ladies say dumb shit to everyone all the time, not just you and not just at the co-op.
    -People of all colors and genders and body types get the treatment you describe no matter what they look like when they are the one who stand out. Does being in a different place without a history of slavery and institutional racism mean their situation is not racism while yours is? Perhaps. But please be aware that you are not alone in how you are treated as "other."
    -You can view the staring as offensive, but it's hard not to stare at people who are unique and beautiful (and/or have "awesome" hair, which by definition is something to be astounded by). Also ask yourself, who do you find yourself staring at and why?

    Regarding touching the hair: Not cool. Not cool at all. Obviously it was someone who didn't understand how this would resonate with a person of color. Many people don't realize we don't yet live in a post-racial world, and ignorance does not excuse that woman for being out of line with a stranger. But --BUT, I say-- at least you were asked. Sometimes, because of my stature, I am touched or even picked up without being asked. A friend of mine has had his crotch grabbed (among other violations) while traveling in Asia, obviously without being asked. I can give you countless other examples of inappropriate behavior by strangers on grounds other than race, but you may tell me they are all besides the point and you may be right.

    One last thing: Please note that smack dab in the middle of this co-op neighborhood that is 90% white, we find O'Keeffe Middle School with a student body that is "only" 54% white. Furthermore, whites compose less than 50% of the student body in 37 of the 54 schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District. How can this be in lilly white Madison? Non-whites by and large live on the periphery in Madison. In my opinion Wisconsin's segregation issues far outweigh its issues of blatant racism.

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  37. There are lots of things that Madison/Wisconsin liberals are guilty of but co-opting the Black Power fist for the Wisconsin solidarity fist is not one of them. The raised fist symbol has a long history dating back to the Assyrians. In more recent times it was used by the Industrial Workers of the World 100 years ago and by numerous other worker/socialist/revolutionary groups to symbolize unity and resistance to oppression. It became a powerful symbol for the Black Power movement of the 1960s because it has always been a powerful symbol.

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  38. A few factual errors in your piece:
    The Black Panthers didn't originate the raised fist graphic used in the anti-Walker protests. It was developed by Mexican printmakers about 100 years ago. I imagine the Black Panthers approproated it from them.

    Also, I am one of those white people who knows that Eston Hemmings Jefferson is buried in Madison. Did you know his sons John and Beverly are buried there also? What could it mean that I know that and you don't? Does that make you more of a racist than I? Of course not, but these are trivial matters that seek to divide us.
    You sound like a very unhappy person who seems to resent the very presence of white people who don't respond/don't respond to your race exactly as you'd like. I would say that you are young, but that might get taken as another insult from another white person. Believe me, I am not your enemy.

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  39. So...I am a white man living in madison. I go to college here, I frequently bike to school, I buy organic things and attempt to buy local products when possible, I like beer, I blah blah blah. I could potentially be one of the racist white people you feel surrounding you if i ever walk into the co-op. my question is, how do i go about changing the "vibes" i give you. How does someone become less racist if they don't realize they are being racist? Do i just need to pick up and move to a place where I am the minority? will that help? I have been the minority before in many situations, I never felt this way, so angry at those around me. I am not saying your feelings are unwarranted, I just want to know what I am supposed to do to singlehandedly change the racism you feel? I was recently accused of being racist by a black man. I was on the shuttle bus for truax, he was sitting on the inside and I on the aisle. When we were disembarking I waited for those in front & across from me to get off before I made the move to get off. He said as i was waiting, "you gonna get off" I said, "yea i'm just waiting my turn". this set him off and once we entered the downtown campus building he started accusing me of being racist. Being white this hit me really hard because that is the last thing I want to be, whether intentional or unintentional I never want to give off that vibe. i cannot erase what has happened in the past, but I do intend to stop feeling so guilty for assholes mistakes. I am not an asshole. Help me out will ya? what is your advice? you mentioned you don't want to waste your time guiding ignorant white folk to proper ways of treating people of color, but maybe someone else in this thread will take the time to finish what you started.

    thank you,

    MK

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  40. You're expecting others to understand your circumstance without attempting to understand theirs. Who's really being ignorant?? The fact is, Madison is not the most diverse place and many people, for whatever it's worth, just don't have exposure to people who are not "like them". Attitudes like yours only discourage the curiosity which could bridge diversity gaps. Do you have to let people pet your head? No. But do you have to take it personally to the point of "panic attacks"? No. I'm not saying the lack of diversity is desirable or right, but it is the fact at this point in time and needs to be taken into account when explaining people's behaviors. You are missing an opportunity to teach others that despite our differences we are all human; frankly the tone of your essay couldn't make you seem less so.

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    Replies
    1. that's a pretty racist comment there. just because she's different doesn't mean she has to be your educator in all things African American.

      Delete
  41. Thank you Sasha, for your post. It clearly is getting a conversation going, at least in the comments. I agree that there is a lot of failure of understanding, and I've heard too many comments start with "I'm not racist, but..." Racism, like sexism, has taken on new forms, subtler, and maybe more insidious. I don't know what it's like to be black. But I try to understand. And I have had some at least sort of analogous experiences, in other countries where I as a white woman, was a minority. People also touched me, my skin, my hair, without asking. I know it doesn't carry the same history as it does for black women in America, but I know it freaked me out and disturbed me deeply. I guess what I'm trying to say, is that while it's not possible to ever completely understand someone else's experience, it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. So for sharing your experience, in a way that helped me understand it better, I want to thank you.

    As a second point, I have this to pose as a question, and I realize it reveals perhaps a kind of ignorance of my own: I have, on occasions been around white people saying ridiculous and terrible racist things. Sometimes in the presence of black friends, sometimes not. I try, especially in the situations when I'm alone with someone saying racist crap, to call them on it, and say something along the lines of "that's racist, and it's not ok". I've also been in situations with black friends, who seemed to be willing to, or wanting to let a racist comment pass, and I feel torn. I don't want to speak for someone else, which might seem like an implication that they can't speak for themselves, but I also feel like I should say something. If a friend or acquaintance wants to let a racist comment pass, and keep the conversation going on a light, friendly or non-confrontational note, is it my job to support that? I have asked this of same question of some friends of various race/ethnic backgrounds, most of whom seem to be of the opinion that because I'm white, I can't understand what it means to be the victim of racism, and therefore I can't speak with authority about what is racist, and I should keep my mouth shut. Do you agree?

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    Replies
    1. I too am white, and have never experienced racism, but I don't think having never experienced it personally means you can't shut down your friends when you know what they're saying is wrong. Perhaps they have never had the experience yet of someone pointing out to them that their statements are racist (as I assume you have had, which has opened you up to gathering information and trying to understand this issue that has nothing to do with your race in particular). Whether your statement "that's racist, and it's wrong," is justified or not in the opinion of a POC, it lets your friends know that you're not okay with hearing or beig part of a conversation in which those things are being said. Either they will sensor themselves more carefully when you are around, or perhaps it will open a new dialog and you will be able to start a new path of education in another person's world.

      Delete
  42. Thanks for this post. I think maybe some of the most insular and unexamined institutional/repressed racism can happen in so-called politically progressive cities. I grew up in Green Bay during a time when African Americans were so few, I didn't meet anyone personally until I was about 14 years old. I am very thankful for my education and exposure to larger, diverse cities which allowed me to start the path of understanding my privilege and the larger historical, sociological, and political context of my life. Discussions like these are so key. There is a big difference between white guilt and trying to fully understand the context of our lives and selves.

    Most of you have probably read it, but I just want share a book that blew me away when I read it- it's definitely a book that can be reread because of the many layers of emotion, inspiration, and insight.

    http://web.archive.org/web/20081004090243/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DubSoul.html

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  43. slightly off topic, but I found this blog post really important: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2014/04/the-failure-of-desegregation.html

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  44. I came here from the related isthmus article and I guess I didn't realize until you pointed it out that there ARE NO black people on the east side. I used to live on the west side and half the neighbors in my apartment complex were black, and the other half were Latino. There was one other white family. I miss the diversity.
    Should I ever see you out in the world, I would (probably silently) applaud your railing against white hair with your afro, but never ask to touch. I try to be sensitive, and not color blind (because that's just ignoring the issue) but I know that sometimes I miss the mark. I once made the comment to a black man that I hadn't realized it was MLK day, and the moment it was out of my mouth I thought to myself, "Wow, white privilege much?" I can justify it to myself that all Monday-celebrated national holidays pass me by mostly unnoticed because I always had Monday off from work anyway, but it doesn't help. even years later I still feel like a dick about it.
    Please keep talking about this. please keep pointing out when people are racist dicks. we need to hear it.

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    Replies
    1. So you didn't realize it was MLK day, and that makes you a terrible person? And it's an example of white privilege? What a ridiculous sentiment. Has it occurred to you that there are potentially many non-white and non-black people who might not be aware of MLK day or miss it when it happens? If an Indian forgets about it is it an example of "Indian privilege"? Of course not, but this is exactly the kind of silly conclusions one inevitably draws if you myopically think of the U.S. racial existence as being a black-white binary.

      Furthermore, your "crime" was hardly one at all. Any reasonable person knows that there are times when days fly by or other concerns in life distract from holidays or notable occasions -- it doesn't mean you are privileged or do not respect what MLK did.

      You speak of "white privilege," but really your words illustrate an extreme case of "white guilt."

      Delete
  45. I just started teaching at Beloit College in the spring, and my students all told me I had to read this post from you. They were right. And YOU are right, about structural racism in Madison and about the abetting role that progressivism plays in sustaining it.

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  46. I spent most of my childhood from 1997 to 2011 in Madison. While I can't say I had the same exact experiences as you did by any means, because I am Pinoy and not Black, there's a definite unity to what people of color experience in Dane County and it's aggravating.

    Do I think there's a move to close racial disparities in Madison? Absolutely. Do I think it's working? Not at all, and it's because the narrative is largely White-driven. I almost feel like the agenda has two goals: one, tokenize poc so that we can make White people from there feel good about having such a diverse range of colleagues, without actually allowing us to define our own narratives; and, two, whitewash us so we do the exact same things that Madison's upper-middle class White elite tend to do.

    Here's why I say this: I was, growing up, asked a lot to talk about my ethnic heritage. Like probably more than I can really come up with material to do so. But the narrative was never in my hands. It was always "You must be disadvantaged for not being white." My ethnicity is not a disadvantage--a challenge, at times, but not a disadvantage.

    So as a Madison expat who went through the same thing up there I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm sorry this happened. It really sucks. I am ironically much happier in Backwardsville, Indiana. There's less bike routes and that's a bummer but hey at least I don't have to indulge anyone's savior complex just because they took a bike route.

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  47. For what it's worth, I'm another white person who wishes Madison could do better. I think there's a lot of well-meaning but naive people in Madison who need to be called out and educated. I realize it's not your job or your obligation to do this, but I hope you will continue to speak out. Without this constructive communication, we'll all stay in our ignorant little bubble, continuing to wonder why non-white people don't want to live in our little paradise. I grew up in Texas and was surprised at how little diversity there is in Madison (let alone the small towns of Wisconsin!) and I honestly think a healthy share of the problem really is just ignorance and a lack of contact with and information about people of other races and how different their experiences are from the privileged white. That being said, we in the majority do have an obligation to do better, to know better. I really appreciate your blog and hope by sharing it with others I can be some small part of a solution. Please tell us more so we can keep learning and growing.

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  50. We Love You Sasha... Thank You for speaking your truth from your perspective and giving power to your voice among the mundane yet the quietly loud turbulence that is happening here. Please when you return come by to talk we started a #IamBeautiful campaign to talk about the Beauty stories of Women of Color like yourself to empower our self confidence, our voice and our perspective which is validated, powerful truth so that women so quiet in their turbulence, struggle and triumphs can fill the room, shout to mountain tops, and flood valleys with their beautiful rainbows of color and waves, rows and twists mainfested in the voice lifted by sister like you. Please Tell Your Beauty Story @ www.tinyurl.com/tellurbeauty on our Youtube page
    #IamBeautiful #YouareBeautiful

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  51. I'm confused because I lived in Madison for over 7 years now and have seen black people all over downtown, clubs, restaurants and I never see people astonished over seeing a black person. Also just because a city doesn't have a mix of color doesn't make it racist if so this can easily be turned around EX:If I moved to a all black neighborhood should I say that town/city is racist towards white people? It sounds to me that the author feels uncomfortable and not the people in Madison. A couple of bad experiences shouldn't let you judge a group of people.

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  53. I am a recent madison implant and I feel exactly the same way. Is there a collective here for young, black professionals? If not, we should get together and talk about starting one. Email me ambercwalker@gmail.con

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