This weekend I was part of a series of literary events. Many of the attendees happened to know that I have a book coming out soon about race and racism in Milwaukee.
“Why are you interested in this?” three people asked me at the event on Friday night.
“Why are you interested in this?” another person asked me at the event on Saturday.
I have to admit, these questions (or this same question repeated several times, rather) caught me by surprise. My first instinct was an answer like, “Why are you interested in cancer?” or, “Why are you interested in nuclear proliferation?”
The message I first heard in their questions was, “Racism doesn’t affect you.” And my near-answers reflect my feeling that, no matter your skin color or racial or ethnic background, racism affects all of us. Just like the threat of cancer or nuclear war affects all humans, in a racist society, no one is untouched by racism. Although black and brown people bear the brunt of the damage caused by racism, everyone is hurt by the moral corruption and civil-institutional rot it represents. Shouldn’t we be inherently interested? This is why the question puzzled me.
But maybe that’s not what they were asking. I tried to hear their question in a different way. Maybe they were asking, “What is your personal connection to racism in Milwaukee?” I answered that.
I talked about moving to Milwaukee in 1991 and being blown away by the racial divisions. There was one racially integrated neighborhood that I knew of (and where I chose to live), but the segregation was so extreme that I often joked that if I knew your address, I knew your skin color. It wasn’t a very funny joke.
As a Mexican-Irish-Filipino American, it was a challenge for me to find my “team” in Milwaukee’s sharply divided racial lineup, although both public and private conversations made it pretty clear I should try hard to “pick” a “side.” Milwaukee’s lines were (and are) most starkly drawn between black and white. The mess of us in the middle — the Asian Americans, the Middle Easterners, the Native Americans, the Latinos, the mixed-race people, the not black/not white — had to find our own way through that minefield. Where did we “belong”?
In my nearly quarter century in Milwaukee, I didn’t choose a “side” or a “team.” I was too brown for some people and too white for others, giving me an uncomfortable but valuable ringside view of the city’s black/white racial dynamics.
I worked on issues of interest to me, particularly schools, workers’ rights, and the environment, always trying to see that work through a racial justice lens, always asking, “What’s the history behind the current situation? Who wrote the rules? Who benefits? Who’s being hurt?”
I helped raise a diverse bunch of kids, some I gave birth to and some I didn’t, and I got to see up close the impacts of Milwaukee’s racial divides on them. I spent a lot of time advocating at the state capitol for the black and brown children whom the mostly white rest of Wisconsin would rather forget.
All that is to say, I have an intimate understanding of how racism affects the people of Milwaukee. But that’s actually not the point of the book. The point is this: The United States has a serious race problem. It affects all of us, in every city, in every home, granting capricious benefit to some and inflicting grievous injuries to others. A societal force as powerful as that should be of interest to all of us.
The other point of the book is: We have the power to change our society. If you are interested in contributing to the race conversations that Milwaukee and the nation need to have, please consider a donation to my Meet Me Halfway book tour to the 10 Most Segregated Cities in the U.S. Find out more at the Indiegogo website (http://igg.me/at/Meet-Me-Halfway). A $30 contribution gets you a signed copy of the book and other great perks are available.