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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

I Was A Teenage Oreo, And I Still Believe In Change

I attended a predominately white school in a predominately white neighborhood commonly referred to as "White Folks Bay," a play on the actual name of Whitefish Bay. It's not an exaggeration, either, based on statistics that show in 2015, Whitefish Bay was 87.5% white (per City-Data.com). In this village of just a tad over 14,000 people, 199 identify as black. To say racism was a problem there is an understatement. Tonight, however, I joined a group that is looking for a solution.

The second school I attended in Whitefish Bay (WFB, for short) was Richards Elementary School. I was there from second grade through eighth grade, and some of the coolest people I have known in my life were people that attended that school. Life was not necessarily perfect, but I remember thinking, even back then, that I was really lucky to attend that school. However, hindsight is always 20/20 and I realized some microaggressions that occurred then, but would be frowned upon now.

In fourth grade, my teacher gave us all an assignment. The assignment was to figure out what part of Europe your ancestors were from and do some research on that country. According to that teacher, we all had ancestors from Europe. I hadn't thought about the possibility of being from Europe, because as a black kid, I recognized my ancestors as people from Mississippi and nothing else. My family wasn't huge on ancestry back then, because we had real issues to be concerned with and the past was the past. Anyway, I went home that night and talked to my Aunt Dorothy, (who most would still consider our family historian), and asked her what country our family was from in Europe. She said, "England, or Ireland, I don't remember which one. But we're from one of those." The look on my face said it all, utter and complete shock. I chose Ireland, but I found out later in life we're definitely from England and possibly from Ireland. Looking back on that assignment, however, I wonder to this day what made that teacher think that it was okay to tell every kid in that class that they had to research their European ancestry, when it's not even something we always recognize or celebrate.

In fifth grade, one of my classmates made fun of my last name. My last name is Blalock, so it's not a stretch to say Blacklock. She said Blacklock and laughed. Was this girl racist? No. She thought she was telling a joke. I didn't laugh, but I understood what she did in the hopes of getting a laugh. I also think because of the lack of diversity in the neighborhood, no one was there to explain to her why what she said was wrong. I was ten, and I know anything I would have said to her at the time would not get through to her.

Other things happened, with people of all races and from students and teachers alike. There was the teacher who talked about sounding like Tonto, the teacher who asked me to write a rap song about Romeo and Juliet, students who reminded me that as a black person I should be cooler (apparently I was the first black nerd at WFB High School, which I wish I was smart enough to really be considered a nerd). The insults about me being an oreo (I was black on the outside and white on the inside), the teacher who asked me why did all black people hate Elvis, the list goes on and on. Through it all, though, I still believed. I thought there would eventually come a day where I didn't hear about people complaining that they had to attend a Black History program, because it wasn't like we learned much about black people back then anyway.

Well, unbeknownst to me, racism in "The Bay" is still a problem. I thought things would change within the past 25+ years since I graduated, but that was not the case. Imagine my surprise when, a little over six months ago, a young man who wrote for the school newspaper asked me about my experiences at Bay. I thought surely things had changed after the incident with the basketball coach who took a kid home after practice 20 years ago, but he was humiliated by Whitefish Bay cops. Or another time, where a different coach drove his team home through Shorewood and was pulled over by several cop cars in front of Whitefish Bay Dominican High School, with guns drawn. On the other side, there is the misconception that everyone in that area is racist, because a few bad apples rotten the bunch.

That brings us to tonight. I've known Melissa (Tupesis) Santa Cruz since I was in second grade. I told her, a few months ago, that my favorite memory of her was how she was willing to light our Bunsen Burner in 8th grade science because I was afraid of matches at the time. Well, Melissa left Bay a long time ago, but she returned, and we've been able to reconnect. When Melissa, and her partner in crime Elissa (no they didn't plan that) contacted me to let me know they were starting an anti-racism group to combat these issues in Whitefish Bay, I was ready to meet that night! According to 24/7 Wall Street, the greater Milwaukee metropolitan area is the 11th most segregated city in the US as of September 2016. That is actually an improvement, because we were consistently in first place for that for years. While we didn't meet that night, they did establish a group and a Facebook page called One Circle Forward. This group is going to promote change starting in Whitefish Bay, and at the rate we're going, I can see great things happening everywhere.

That little girl with the weird last name, pug nose and nappy hair knew in the early 80s that going to school in Whitefish Bay meant something special. Tonight, I found out exactly how special it was. I'm so excited for the next chapter, but in the meantime, go Blue Dukes!

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