By Christine Schaefer, Volunteer with Safe Families for Children-Greater Milwaukee
Are We on the Same Page?
Before I share my experiences, I want to share some basic information so that everyone is on the same page, starting with the definitions of institutional racism and white privilege.
Institutional Racism (aka systemic racism) is defined as “a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within a society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.” (per Wikipedia)
White Privilege is defined as “inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice.” (per Oxford Languages)
My Childhood Experiences
Now, let me share some of my experiences specific to racism. Some of this will be hard to read, but I believe it’s important to just call it like it is.
I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee – not in a suburb, but in the city of Milwaukee. I had no black friends or neighbors. I don’t recall there being any black children in my elementary school or church. I think there were 2 or 3 in my high school. That alone should be pretty telling. I remember hearing about the “north side” and how that was such a bad and dangerous place, but honestly I never really understood it because I’d never been there – never really gave it a second thought. Did I mention this was Milwaukee??
Fact: Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in our nation according to the latest census. This is largely due to the redlining that occurred years ago which basically forced the black population to live in one area (look this up if you aren’t familiar with it – sad, and will make sense of some things). Because of ongoing racial inequality, many of these families, even generations later, are still unable to work their way out of this area of town. This is an example of systemic racism. Is it getting better? Some would say yes. But better isn’t good enough.
Growing up I also remember a couple of very distinct things that were told to me. One was when there was a mixed race couple that moved in a couple of blocks away. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I do remember being told not to play with their kids. It doesn’t really matter where I heard this, what’s more important is that an adult said this to me, a child. I also remember my grandpa, who I adored by the way, making fun of MC Hammer and Michael Jackson when they’d be on his TV. These are things that stuck with me. This is how racism starts. I never intentionally thought ill of anyone of another color, but as a child I had already been taught: the northside is dangerous and that’s where all the black people live; mixed race couples don’t care about what their kids will go through, so you should stay away from them; black entertainers are not as worthy of our attention as white entertainers. As I got older I heard other messages along the way, still really never knowing anyone of color at this point. I “learned” things like, black people are lazy, welfare is for poor black families who keep having too many babies, black people have “weird names”. Again…I never consciously thought these things, but these are clear messages that I was taught by many people. Have you ever started a statement with “I’m not a racist, but….” If you have, you might want to examine that a little…a lot of what I was taught started like that…
Time to Reevaluate
Honestly, it really wasn’t until I started working that I started to interact with people in the black community. At this point I was married, had kids in an almost completely white public school, and was attending an almost 100% white church. Not on purpose – just geography. I’ve had several black patients throughout the years and I’ve found that they didn’t line up with what I’d been “taught.” I was learning a new narrative. Then I started working in home care. I entered into people’s homes. Some of these homes were on the north side of Milwaukee. Imagine my fear. I saw boarded windows and caution tape, and I thought…this is it…this is what everyone was talking about…But what I found was that my black patients were kind and protective of me. They were grateful when I showed them respect. This was a little surprising. Why would I not show them respect? I was willing to assist them to get services and equipment. They were shocked. That shock saddened me. And it opened my eyes. I started to realize that there is this group of people that is being judged by people who have never even met them. Why? Because of systemic racism. Why have I never experienced this? Because of white privilege. I didn’t do anything wrong by being born white. But because I’m white, I haven’t experienced this level of judgement.
One day, I went to see a patient in a known dangerous area of town. So bad that she told me to wait in the car and call her so she could unlock the door before I get out of my car. She wasn’t home yet, so I was waiting. While waiting, a man walked back and forth past my car…on both sides…looking at me the whole time. Super creepy. He finally left. Then another man walked by walking his dog – I think it was a boxer. He stopped a couple houses past my car and sat on the steps outside that house where a couple other guys met up with him. I watched in horror through my rear view mirror as they hit and kicked this dog…then they would pet him. Then they would start all over. I drove away crying and tried to contact the police – I’ve never been that scared.
All of these men were white, not black. And yet, growing up, it was the black men at the bus stops that I was “taught” to be afraid of. I remember thinking…huh…the irony…
Fast forward a few years…we started to take in kids through Safe Families. We learned things from all of the families we worked with, but we clearly learned the most from the “N” family. I think this is partly because they had such a close relationship with their mom, and I personally got to know her as well and we became friends. When the boys first came to live with us, Isaac was 6 and Nick was 10. I remember as we pulled onto our street, Nick (who had been pretty quiet for the ride) said, “Are black people allowed to live here?” I wasn’t expecting a question like that, but it was a genuine, honest question from a child. You believe systemic racism isn’t real? This 10 year old had already experienced it on some level. He later asked the same about our church and the kids’ high school. Why? There were no black people anywhere! A few at church, but that’s about it. Turn of fate – I took them to go meet mom at McDonald’s one day, on the north side. I walked in, and I was the only white person in the building. All of a sudden, my lack of white privilege in that moment was obvious. Everyone’s eyes were on me. Is this what they experienced every time they walked in a room with me? People saw me hug mom and saw the kids go to mom. Maybe it was my scrubs, but doubtful – the assumption was made that I was a caseworker. I mean, a white person would never voluntarily enter “their world” just because, right?
Earlier I mentioned the incident where my son, Noah, was in a gas station that was held up. We didn’t know that this had occurred yet as we were already at his cross country meet, where he was heading. A police officer had come to our house looking for Noah (turns out it was Jim’s cousin who recognized Noah from the security camera). My daughter was home with Nick and Isaac at the time. The doorbell rang and the boys ran to the door. They saw an officer and quickly hid behind furniture. My daughter later asked them why they did that. 6 year old Isaac answered, “Because white cops shoot little black boys.” This incident was almost 3 years ago to date – well before the recent incidents that have led to the current protests and riots. I talked to Hannah (their mom) later about this. She was shocked and told me that she never taught them that. She doesn’t look at officers that way. Hannah doesn’t look at blacks and whites this way. So how did this 6 and 10 year old learn this? You believe systemic racism doesn’t exist? These boys have lived it. You don’t believe white privilege exists? Would your kids hide if a police officer was at the door? (We later had an opportunity to introduce the boys to a couple of officers at a church event, and Isaac even got to sit in their car…hoping to be able to change their narrative.)
Speaking of Hannah, she is a single mom raising 2 boys by herself. She was raised in inner city Chicago and now lives in inner city Milwaukee. I have seen this woman fight addiction and fight for her kids to give them as much as she possibly can. She teaches them to love others. In the midst of the Milwaukee riots, I saw a post of her and the boys painting in a park. I like to use the word “scrappy” to describe her. If there is an obstacle, she figures out what is needed to overcome it. Why? Because she wants better for her boys. I’ve seen her love on neighbors and family members and give of herself when there is nothing left to give. I’ve seen her uncle stand between my daughter and I and a sketchy individual on the sidewalk, because when we are with them, we’re family. But I’ve also seen her tired and feeling defeated because the hills can be too big to even think about sometimes. Picture someone trying to crawl out of a deep pit. They get up a certain amount, and they fall down – not all the way, but enough to feel frustrated and wonder if the fight is still worth it. I’ve never had to fight for anything the way she has to fight for everything. This – this is white privilege. I can’t let myself feel guilty for it – I didn’t ask for it. But I can’t ignore that it exists, and I need to be willing to fight to make sure that this term is truly eradicated.
The boys would go to a day program at the boys and girls club, also on the north side. I remember them being surprised that they still got to go, because “it’s in the hood.” They didn’t think I’d take them. How do a 6 and 10 year old know what the “hood” is? One day I showed up to pick them up, and I noticed police cars and caution tape across the street. But I figured it couldn’t be anything too serious, the kids were out playing on the playground. I was wrong. There had been a shooting about 30 mins earlier. The suspect was not in custody yet. Did I mention that the kids were out playing? Can you imagine if this happened in suburbia? There would be a full lockdown. This was so commonplace, it was so surreal. If you lived in a world surrounded by the threat of danger, you would probably be on edge. Add to this insecurity with your money and job, possibly no means of transportation, not always knowing where your next meal will come from. Now add judgement and cruelty from the world around you simply because of where you live and the color of your skin. This is a dangerous combination waiting to explode. Now add a few overt incidents, caught on tape, of white police officers killing black citizens. Again, I don’t support riots and looting and violence, and I don’t believe that all police are bad (quite the opposite actually)…but I won’t pretend to have ever walked a day in the shoes of my black friends either.
Open My Eyes
I have a lot to learn, and I want to keep learning. I want to show love to my black brothers and sisters in a way that is helpful. I don’t want to be color blind – I want to love all of the beautiful colors that God has made, and I want to know about people’s backgrounds and history and culture. I love learning about simple things, like hair care and holiday food. But I also want to know about personal experiences so that I can be more sensitive and so that my eyes can continue to open further.