Battling Whitewashing in Smalltown, USA

I grew up in New Glarus, Wisconsin.  A small town in southern Wisconsin with a population of a little over 2,000.  If I had remained in New Glarus, my graduating class would have been barely larger than 50, and the diversity was myself, my brothers, and a few adopted children of color.

I always was happy growing up, but there was also a part of me that never truly felt like I belonged there.  My best friend was blonde and blue-eyed, and most of my classmates were white as well.  I remember in fourth grade we did a unit called Country School.  We were given new names and ages.  Myself, and the only other foreign girl, Rachel, were paired together as twin sisters.  A bit suspicious putting two token minorities together, just sayin’.

I don’t feel there was ever a specific moment when I knew that I was being treated badly, but looking back I can picture moments that I wish I could have done differently.  Because growing up as mixed ethnicities means those questions of “What are you?” and “Are you adopted?” Don’t seem offensive until you ask yourself, why do you think that? My mom and I don’t look alike, but what place is it for teachers or other students to ask that.  It’s not polite, but it happened frequently with no consequence.

My younger brother was subjected to racism that resulted in him being labeled as a angry child.  My older brother wasn’t able to get advanced studies, and was basically learning from a book by himself in the corner.  I was unfortunately being subjected to a toxic friendship that was leading me down an unhealthy path.  My parents had had enough, so we moved.

When we did move, we ended up in a bigger district, but there was still a lot of racist bullshit. The school was straight up divided by ethnicity.  The black kids sat together, the Hmong kids sat together, the Spanish speaking kids sat together (they were from different countries, but got along), and the white kids sat together, though divided by social group.  It was very common for all of the “ethnic kids” to get shit on by the administration and teachers who “couldn’t handle them.” White kids acting out would get a slap on the wrist, and black kids would be sent to the office for the smallest infraction.

If they weren’t “problem students” they were instead treated as token minorities.  I was asked about Islam, a religion my father practices, not me. I was called a terrorist. My friend Adrienne was pulled from class to be shot in promotional material for the school so it would look more diverse. My friend Claire, also mixed, would be called racist slurs, and people would touch her hair without permission.

The worst was the racist jokes. Never in my years of school in Nowhere, Wisconsin, did they discuss how to handle racist jokes.  My only response was to laugh uncomfortably. Idiotic children take your silence, or fake laughter, as an okay to keep going and laugh at your expense. “Oh she didn’t say anything, so it must be okay!” It’s bullshit, when you don’t have the tools to fight for yourself, of course you’ll sit silently by.  It wasn’t until college that how to react was even discussed.

What sort of fucking education did these teachers have? Terrible ones. Most teachers in the state of Wisconsin, went to school in Wisconsin.  This means that the racism ingrained in them from a young age comes back out to bite their future students in the ass.  I wish I could have told my teachers to go back to school, take a class on the micro-aggressions you articulate every single day that break down your students desire to learn and be in school.  When someone doesn’t feel safe or welcome in school, why would they want to learn and participate and be excited about education? There is literally no excuse to disregard students because of the color of their skin, but I witnessed it time and time again.

Wisconsin is one of the worst states for black students. The racial disparity makes it so this state has the lowest graduation rate of black students. And it’s no fucking surprise given the bullshit they’re forced to deal with on a daily basis.  Claire and I were lucky enough to only be mixed, we can pass ourselves off as whatever we pleased to avoid unpleasant conversation.  But being black in the state of Wisconsin is like having a bunch of stereotypes stamped on your forehead.  I was taught to constantly police myself and my behavior, and I know all my POC did the same.  Our passion is misconstrued as anger, our anger misconstrued as violence, and our whole being is shrouded in stereotypes.

I made it my job to not fall within that fucking stereotypical bullshit.  I was friends with everyone and anyone, because being mixed meant I couldn’t hang with just one group because I felt like an outsider.  My personality was far from pleasant as this time in my life.  I tended to act more aggressive and angry to keep people at a distance. I ended up making my own group of friends who were a mix of generally good people who didn’t make me feel like garbage for being myself, and I was able to mellow out by senior year of high school.  As a POC you constantly are on guard and have a protective layer to your personality.

I think that’s what hurt the most being mixed and growing up in an all white community, I could never be white and I couldn’t be myself.  I felt that if I tried to extend myself into what I wanted to be, that I would be shot down and be isolated even more.  There was no one like me, and my only option was to fake it. I wasn’t proud of my heritage, and I wanted nothing more than to be fair skinned and have blue eyes. You want nothing more to fit in, but no matter how hard you try you’re still stuck on the outside looking in.  I know that all of my friends of color had similar experiences because of our ethnicities, and it’s not okay to be trained to police ourselves to be safe in our schools and our lives.  When being white gives you the privilege of feeling safe everywhere and anywhere.

When I go to the airport, I don’t say a fucking word.  I keep my mouth shut, keep my head down and act polite and friendly.  My last name is a dead giveaway of my background.  When in public I know my friends have learned to speak more softly, and avoid getting too rowdy as to avoid getting kicked out. My silence is my protection, and also my failure to fight against cultural bias.

I was lucky in high school, but lucked out even more in college where I was able to find the most phenomenal group of humans I could have ever wanted.  We were diverse and loving and accepting of every heritage, sexuality, language, and gender.  There was nothing that stopped us from loving each other and being a community that is still close to my heart today.

It shouldn’t take students of color their entire fucking lives to find friends who accept them.  We should be able to feel that we are safe and able to learn without being called out in class as the messiah of knowledge on our culture, or have to hear racist jokes that are deemed okay because we laughed uncomfortably.  So if you’re white and asking yourself what you can do to help? Be a better fucking person by treating every single person like a decent human being.

Don’t ask about where we’re from, or if we eat rice with chopsticks because that’s what the movies told you.  Accept that we are all individual entities that do not follow one strict set of guidelines and deserve the same respect of our individuality that everyone else does.  The color of our skin and the heritage of our families is a part of us, but does not define us.

If you are a POC, share with me some of the hardships you faced growing up.

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