Stop Staring

Being African American in the Milwaukee area means encountering “the stare” in some of the city and region’s less diverse areas.

Sitting in Gee’s Clippers, a barbershop and cultural pillar located on Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd., I’m reminded of how important these institutions have been to black communities across the country. Not only have African American barbers and beauticians played key roles in fashion trends, they have been prime social spaces for over a century. Some of my fondest memories are directly tied to time spent hanging with friends, and talking a lot of trash, while waiting to get a fresh haircut. Barbershops and beauty parlors have also provided economic opportunities for the many entrepreneurs who have charted their economic independence by serving their communities’ basic needs for self-identified beauty.

Raised in Indianapolis, Ind., I was lucky to grow up under the influence of Madame C.J. Walker’s business empire, which set a standard for black hair care practices and grooming products throughout the 20th century. Madame Walker was the nation’s first female millionaire. In fact, I saw Star Wars at the historic Madame Walker Theater.

Watching my son fall asleep in the chair and viewing the care and sensitivity with which his barber applies his craft for my child reinforces my conviction that despite whatever social ills plague the community in which Gee’s is nestled, my son is safe.

After my son’s Afro is neatly coiffed, I head back to my East Side home, which is walking distance from my employer, UWM. There, I face another set of familiar cultural practices, ones that are not as germane to my existence as my time spent in the barbershop. I know I will inevitably face a long established cultural practice – the stare.

Many African Americans are familiar with the stare. When I venture into less diverse parts of Milwaukee – a city with such rigid patterns of racial segregation – the stares abound. Even though I am a neighbor and responsible community member, I face these stares regularly while going about my days on the East Side. And if I happen to venture into the very nearby Shorewood, or to ‘Tosa, Whitefish Bay, or Brookfield, the stares increase exponentially.

I will frame it as a question, but it’s really not one at all.

White people, can you please stop staring at me?

Studies have shown that whites prefer a racial residential pattern overwhelmingly white, 80 percent white to 20 percent black. Urban neighborhoods across the country witnessed massive white flight throughout the middle decades of the 20th century, particularly due to a growing black presence. Yet, whatever governs such individual attitudes and behaviors that promote these rigid racial patterns, I ask that you please stop staring.

Here are 7 reasons – lessons really – that I hope encourage the staring to stop.

  1. Staring, for any reason, is simply rude. Show some civility.
  2. As a dad, I take my son everywhere. I mean, everywhere. And no man with a 7-year-old is a threat to you or your safety. Once I see you staring, especially in the direction of my child, you have become the threatening person. The laws of natural rights therefore govern the consequences and outcomes.
  3. Most often, senior white men offer the stare – the glare, more accurately. Just so you gentlemen know, as much as this may be a disappointment to you, these stares are hardly intimidating. And staring is not a right you’ve earned as a function of age and racial privilege. It’s still offensive.
  4. If you are a middle-aged white woman or older, a dismissive, lengthy, side-eyed glare or drawn-out rolling of the eyes is equally offensive.
  5. If you are under the age of 45 and are still shocked at the presence of African Americans, you need to live somewhere other than Wisconsin for a stretch. Living elsewhere will highlight the rich cultural complexities that make our nation great, and you might finally be able to reflect on the stunted racial attitudes of this state and region.
  6. For all others who stare, Governor Walker’s abysmal presidential bid is proof positive that the state and region’s racial politics are too absurdly backward even for most conservatives.
  7. Staring is a direct attack on my human dignity. In an odd twist, the stares and glares are reminders that you refuse to see my full humanity, even while you look directly at me. Make no mistake, I belong. I was born with every right to be, from a power higher than the conditioning that propels the stares and glares. And, since 1868, I’ve had the right to go anywhere I damn well please.

As the barber finishes up with my son’s ‘fro, I part with an important historical fact that has long been the case with black barbers: white patrons are certainly welcomed, even in one of the most hallowed institutions in the black community.



Dr. Robert S. Smith is an Associate Professor of History at UWM, Director of the Cultures & Communities Program, and was recently appointed Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Inclusion & Engagement. He is the author of "Race, Labor and Civil Rights: Griggs v. Duke Power and the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity. "