We Can Squeeze Positive Racial Change From This Moment, if We Work for It

A better, more racially just Milwaukee must begin with us. Here’s how we can get to work.

America is having a moment. 

People across the United States have had enough and are standing up for justice in unprecedented numbers, giving voice to the frustration, grief and anger that generations of Black Americans have suffered at the hands of the systems of discrimination upon which this country was built. My hope is that this moment becomes a meaningful movement that at last has the momentum to create real change.  

The outrageous examples of violent racism we’ve seen recently come as American communities of color have been hardest hit by COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis. These events have been disastrous for Black Americans, especially in this city, where racial disparities and segregation are already so pronounced.  

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As a Black woman living in Milwaukee, I have experienced a range of emotions in response to our current reality. Though none of this is new, the heightened visibility around the unfair treatment of Black Americans, coupled with the emotion and uncertainty of the past few months, has put me and many I know in a tumultuous emotional state. Across the span of any given day, I am sad, angry and hopeful. Some days I am all of them, all at once.  

Mostly, though, I am concerned. I am concerned that we will waste this moment before us. That it, and with it the possibility for true transformation in our city and our country, will slip like sand through our fingers. That, after the posts and protests and hashtags and the new programs and initiatives and policy changes, things will essentially remain as they have always been – inherently and fundamentally unfair for people of color.  

To not waste this moment, we must lean into collective transformational change – a new way and a new commitment. Yes, we will need policy changes and reforms and new initiatives that address systemic racism. But if we are to truly transform our culture, those who are committed to changing our structures must be just as committed to changing from within. 

Illustration by D’Ara Nazaryan

Americans often seek quick fixes: workshops, research-based tools, talk about equity and inclusion. Some think a hashtag and a snazzy ad campaign will do the trick. But until individuals are ready to fully unpack the complex legacy of our nation’s 400 years of slavery, segregation and discrimination, until people are willing to take a deep, uncomfortable dive into themselves to understand how everyone carries notions of white supremacy and racial bias, we will continue to miss the mark.  

What personal transformation has looked like in my life more closely mirrors the pain and unrest playing out in our streets than the calm and contained dialogues I facilitate as a consultant working on issues of racial equity and inclusion. In fact, those precious moments when I have experienced true personal transformation have been forged from a tremendously uncomfortable and difficult process – one that looks less like me sitting in the lotus position in a field of lilies (which is what I always want it to look like) and far more like me balled up in a dark corner, silently weeping as I wrestle with the deepest and darkest parts of myself. Personal transformation also takes time, requiring not only the “big aha” gained from a new awareness but also a constant rededication to a new way of being in the world. 

I believe this is the deep, difficult, personal work that this summer’s historic moment and opportunity demand. Instead, what I have observed is an extraordinary number of people suddenly and visibly showing up around this work – on panels about diversity, in webinars touting the importance of equity and with “soul-bearing” social media posts talking rather unspecifically about how they can and should do better.  

What I have not seen or heard is anyone wrestling with the unacknowledged and deeply buried racism and bias that lives within them. I have not heard anyone trying to figure out how they change the fact that they feel nervous when a Black man gets on the elevator with them. Or talking about how they are struggling to get past the idea of Black women as angry. Or exploring and questioning why they get defensive over issues of race.  

The social media posts and panel discussions are great, but I have seen this movie before. The articles and hashtags fade away, and reforms and initiatives that were rushed to launch fizzle as new priorities emerge. Another pressing issue grabs our national attention, and we move onto something else.  

What’s more, even if the initiatives stick and the programs and policies stay in place, they are too often created by the same minds that created the initial problem. As Albert Einstein so brilliantly said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  

 

AT THE START OF 2019, I set off on a course to explore the idea of belonging. The project was born out of my own experience living as a transplant in one of the nation’s most segregated cities and my curiosity about how this impacts our ability to create a sense of belonging in our lives. By the end of the Belonging Project, I had completed 72 interviews.  

Through these deep conversations, I discovered that there are a lot of newly woke white folks who have questions and fears. The conversations revealed that it is emotionally difficult for some to come to terms with America’s racist history, how this impacts their community today and what their part is in all of it. There is resistance from white people who struggle to acknowledge privilege. The internal reckoning required to come to terms with our living history causes great discomfort. And when people choose to bury discomfort, it seeds resentment and resistance. 

The people I interviewed were concerned about “saying or doing the wrong thing.” They feared causing offense or even worse, being judged racist or prejudiced. One young lady I interviewed explained that the worst thing she could be called was a racist but admitted that she sometimes has racist thoughts and essentially made the choice not to explore them. Instead, she convinced herself she was not really racist, especially since she was dating a Black man. This is the unspoken, underground bias and racism that is buried deep within but permeates our entire culture. It is the root. And the root is where we must begin.  

I get that self-focused work is difficult. It is hard to take an honest look at oneself. Humans tend to avoid it altogether, preferring instead to let subconscious patterns developed during our childhood run our entire lives. The issue of race makes this work even more challenging and complex.  

So what to do? What does it look like for us to do what’s necessary to move toward transformation? What does it look like to really commit to changing our city and the world? 

I asked several African American leaders across the city to share their insights on a path forward. These are not quick fixes; they suggest a much slower path of self-reflection, vulnerability and practice. This path takes courage and intentionality and will require individuals to come back to their personal commitment again and again.  

EDUCATE
YOURSELF 

It is critically important that as a nation we develop a shared understanding about the role of race in shaping all American economic and social institutions. Most people have never really examined in any depth how our country’s very foundation was built (quite literally) on white supremacy nor the full impact of how this plays out today.  

RELATED: 9 Resources to Start Educating Yourself on Race in America

“Do the work of educating yourself,” says Markasa Tucker, director of the Milwaukee-based African-American Roundtable. “Recognize that you are new to this and you do not know it all. When you do that, you can walk alongside those who are already doing the work.”  

During one of my Belonging interviews, I spoke to a middle-aged white man who, quite earnestly, asked if I knew that the federal government intentionally prevented people of color from buying homes in certain neighborhoods. It was called redlining, he very concernedly finished. I smiled and nodded. Yes, I am familiar with this part of our history. But he, and I assume many others, are new to these truths.

Illustration by D’Ara Nazaryan
TAKE A LONG LOOK
IN THE MIRROR 

It is time to be honest, and it is time to start with you.  

“In order for this to be a moment for true transformation, you cannot skip past the individual journey,” says local community leader Danielle Bly. “If you skip the individual work, then we may have a collective effort in name only, where some are really trying to make change but others are still very resistant and don’t have a true connection to the work.”  

So start by asking yourself some hard questions: Have I been silent when others told a racist joke or expressed prejudice? Have I assumed things about people of color based on racial stereotypes? Have I felt afraid or uncomfortable around Black men? Where do I find myself getting defensive?  

If you are human, you have biases, opinions, perceptions and beliefs. If you are an American, some of those biases, opinions, perceptions and beliefs deal with race. It is here that the work must start.  

There will be feelings of shame and guilt as you do this work. You cannot let these feelings consume you – they are not helpful here. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change. And we all have the capacity to change.  

TELL THE TRUTH,
THEN ACT 

It is impossible to fix our problems if we do not acknowledge them. We must begin by telling the truth not only about ourselves but the world we’ve created.  

“The only way to get systemic change is to be brutally honest about our current condition,” says the Rev. Walter J. Lanier of Progressive Baptist Church. “We must admit this and we must admit we have failed. We have failed. Period. If we don’t start with that truth, then we will fall way short.”  

Once we acknowledge the depth of the problem and our contribution, we must act, says Reggie Moore, director of the city of Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention.  

“Being out and seeing the protests has been powerful. It has been amazing to see the diversity represented in one of the most segregated cities in the country,” says Moore. “But the work that needs to be done is the work with friends and family members, friends and family members that are law enforcement and health workers to help them see where their actions have caused harm. Simply not being an active racist is a very low bar. We need people to interrupt, intervene and disrupt racism – whether it be in the form of microaggressions or overtly racist acts. We need active anti-racists, not passive bystanders.”  

This part of the work lies in the places where you have relationships and influence. To be anti-racist we must be willing to intervene when someone shares a racist thought or propagates a stereotype, teach our children about the history of people of color in this country, and take a stand for what is right even when it’s not comfortable.  

PRACTICE  
IS  
ESSENTIAL 

Awareness and education create the initial mindset shift. “But awareness is not enough,” says Jasmine Johnson, founder of philanthropic marketing organization 29Eleven. “How are you going to course-correct? It is a choice people will have to make again and again in their everyday personal lives. 

“The only way to learn and develop a new habit is by practicing using your own daily experiences,” she adds. “Change is going to come from trying. … The pull to go back to your old ways will be strong, but eventually you will build a new habit that allows you to show up as a less biased, less racist person.” 

This is the thing: You will need to humble yourself. You will mess up. You absolutely will say and do the wrong thing sometimes and you will be embarrassed and perhaps even hurt. But you will be OK. I promise. And through these moments, you will learn and grow. But you have to have the courage to take the lesson, get back up and try again. And this is the thing about courage – “when you act with courage, even in a small way, it can impact another person in a big way,” says author MJ Sanders.  

RELATIONSHIPS  
MATTER 

I’ve reached the conclusion that the single best tool for cracking the code on race relations in this country is to develop authentic cross-racial relationships. Authentic is the key word here.  

The best racial equity and inclusion tools are in personal relationship building because we are transformed by personal experiences, not by strategies. Several people I interviewed for the Belonging Project shared that they became interested in issues of race, equity and inclusion after they experienced a deeply personal issue fueled by race.  

“Instead of believing what people tell you or believing what you see on the news, take the time and get to really know someone who is different from you,” says Eric Lucas, the young man who was famously spit on while peacefully protesting in Shorewood this June. “It will help diversify and expand your perspective.” 

“Relationship building goes beyond networking,” adds consultant Genyne Edwards. “It’s great to have a large network, but what we are talking about here is taking the time to build one-on-one relationships. To get to know someone. Really know them. The only way to begin to shift this is by starting to chip away at the segregation that plagues our city.”  

Having diverse relationships exposes you to other perspectives and makes you more empathetic and thoughtful. This will take effort, but we cannot go about living our lives the same way and expect our city to look and be different.  

 

IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP and show up. And as we move forward seeking to create a movement out of this historic moment, it is critical that we give each other grace. As we begin to look at ourselves, we must also make room for mistakes – our own and those of others. We need to build understanding and trust and work together to move through the complex feelings of frustration, anger, awkwardness and fear that often block progress and prevent us from seeing our shared humanity.  

Bottom line, this work is difficult. But I believe it is the work of our lifetime. It will require all of us to wrestle with our individual and collective demons, then come back together again and again to authentically and collaboratively create real and lasting change.  

DOMINIQUE SAMARI IS A PARTNER AT P3 DEVELOPMENT GROUP. 


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s August issue

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