We moved to Milwaukee, WI, in 1974. The Milwaukee Public School System implemented an integration plan in the fall of 1976 when I was starting first grade.
I don’t recall much of first grade. We were renting an apartment and I walked to the local school. It was only a few blocks away.
My memories of integration are from second grade. By then my mother bought a house in a different neighborhood and I changed schools. We lived two blocks from a school, but our street was part of the integration plan. My brother, sister and I walked to a school that was about 10 blocks away. Greenfield Elementary School.
There were kids bussed into Greenfield Elementary School. As I child I assumed they were the integration kids – the black ones. That may not have been the full reality. I didn’t know the racial makeup of the neighborhood. Mine was all white. I have no memories of playing with black friends outside of school. There were no play dates. I played with the kids on my block.
When I would relate the experience to people one of the details that I shared was that I was one of only 4 or 5 white kids in the class. I’m not what caused that distortion. I have memories of playing Superman with one other white kid. All my other playground memories are of running around and playing tag with the black kids. My classroom memories are similar.
The most shocking thing that happened that year was when one of the boys swore at the teacher. They left the room and she washed his mouth out with soap. That’s what we were told anyway.
I have no negative memories of integration. I didn’t like the long walk to school knowing there was a school two blocks away from where we lived. I knew the school was integrated, but I had attended kindergarten and 1st grade with black kids so that wasn’t new to me. Children are aware of societal stressors no matter how much parents try to shield them. I knew the school was integrated and I knew it had a negative connotation. Negative just wasn’t my experience.
My mother put together photo albums for each us after my grandmother died. It had class pictures from my 1st and 2nd-grade classes. The pictures surprised me. They did not align with my memories. My memories contained a lie.
In my 1st-grade picture, there are a few black and brown children in my class. The teacher was black. I don’t have any specific memories of that school other than I used to take a long bus ride home from the sitter’s house. I don’t even remember how I got to the sitter’s house.
Research provided the historical timing of integration in the Milwaukee Public School System. I was not aware of integration in 1st grade. My memories in 2nd grade are connected to the walking distance, but I don’t think that is a complete picture. I don’t think that alone would have created the distortion in my memories.
Kids pick up things even when we don’t intend them to know. The information is incomplete because we don’t talk to them directly and answer their questions. They are left to fill in the details according to the patterns they observe.
I knew integration was bad because that’s the sense the adults around me gave me. There had to be a lot of anxiety associated with it. People don’t like change and will fight it when it is forced on them. Lack of control breeds anxiety and fear. Children can sense that and internalize it.
Racism and white supremacy created the need for integration. Black residents weren’t able to buy or rent outside of certain areas of the city. School districts were drawn along those same lines. It is a common theme in cities throughout the north. Systemic segregation without Jim Crow is still segregation. White people did that and that’s racism.
Every time I hear someone say they are not racist I hear a lie. A lie just like in my memories. It’s a distortion of the truth. Not calling another human being the n-word and being friends with a black person are not a “get out of racism free” cards.
I’m racist. I can’t avoid the network of privileges that are afforded to me. That network is built on white supremacy. We are all a part of a system that continues to perpetuate false narratives using coded language based on racist ideals.
Owning racism is different from acting deliberately racist toward another human being. I work to be aware of the ways in which white supremacy is perpetuated. I work to be vocal in situations where it arises. I have begun to recognize in new ways how I perpetuate it. I frequently fail and am silent. I’m learning to find a voice here in my writing. Preparation is key to confronting racism and white supremacy in the moment.
Effective change comes not just from a desire to change. Change is an action. Learning is required and provides the tools needed to bring a feeling of control back to the situation. I cannot control racism and white supremacy. What I can do is learn better skills to identify and address situations in the moment. I cannot control whether I change someone’s perspective, but I can give them another perspective in the hopes that they understand.
Where I have the biggest sphere of influence is with my children. I don’t want them to be at the midpoint of their lives and reaching this place. I want them at this place when they first become adults. I want their journey to go further and have a greater impact than mine.
I don’t know that I believe in the mountaintop. It seems to be a mythical goal to me. I’m choosing to focus on the journey and picking a path with the destination in mind.