Mama Madison: Race to shame

Seeing our community through another set of eyes

A close friend of mine is a psychology professor, which turns out to be a very useful kind of friend to have. Since getting to know her, I now have a much better appreciation for why Pavlov's dogs did what they did. I can also sketch the Maslow's Hierarchy pyramid and finally understand what people are talking about when they reference cognitive dissonance.

Some of our most interesting recent conversations have been around the psychological concepts of guilt and shame. Guilt, my friend has taught me, involves a focus on a regretted behavior and the desire to set things right. Shame, though, she explains, is a focus on the actual self being bad, and is often associated with feelings of hopelessness and unworthiness.

Now, opportunities to feel guilty abound in the world of parenting. I feel guilty when I lose my temper with my kids. I feel guilty when I've let them spend an entire Saturday afternoon in the basement on Xbox so that I can enjoy a solo "House of Cards" binge. I feel guilty when I tell them it's okay to put the recycling in the regular city trashcan if our recycling bin is full.

But I think the first time in recent years that I've felt a real sense of shame, as both a parent and community member, was last Tuesday evening as I sat in a crowded elementary school LMC to listen to Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and his colleague, Torry Wynn, present key findings from the 2013 Race to Equity report to our PTO group.

This wasn't the first time I'd heard about the on-going study, which has brought to light the sobering fact that African Americans, who make up 6.5% of the population, fare much worse than whites in Dane County. But it was the first time I realized that our community's discrepancies are among the worst in the nation. The facts are staggering: 74% of Dane County's black children were poor, compared to 5.5% of white children. This 13 to 1 disparity ratio may constitute one of the widest black/white child poverty gaps in the country.

In 2011, over 20% of Dane County African American students were identified as chronically absent from school, compared to just over 2% of whites.

Nearly half of all black high school kids do not graduate on time, compared to 16% of white kids.

Even among students on track to graduate on time, black 12th graders were only half as likely as their white classmates to take the ACT. And among those who did, African Americans averaged a score of 18. The white average was 24.

I could go on. The report is 44 pages of statistics.

So, there I sat, a D.C. and then Chicago transplant, who has spent many an hour since moving to Madison bragging to my bigger-city friends about what a fantastic place this city is to live. I've waxed poetic about our spectacular farmers' markets. And about how great it is to have a world-class public university just blocks away from my home. I've raved on about our gorgeous lakes and awesome bike paths, not to mention the fact that there's a yoga studio on just about every corner.

Yes, shame is the best word to describe how I felt upon fully realizing for the first time that so many of the amazing things I am so proud of in my adopted home town -- including a public school system that has served my children in spades -- tend to work best if you look like me. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

But fortunately, my professor friend has also taught me that shame, which is often accompanied by the desire to want to shrink away and hide, isn't a particularly productive emotion.

So instead, this past Saturday morning I decided to take a step further in educating myself about racism by taking part in an "Intentional Talk" at Fountain of Life church called "Understanding Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism" moderated by associate pastor Kevin Evanco. And it's kind of incredible what I learned in those two hours. Mostly, I learned that I know next to nothing about African-American history and culture. And that I am personally far from immune from behaving in both privileged and racist ways.

So I'll definitely continue to be part of the Church's future discussions. They will be posted on the Justified Anger website). As well, I plan to enroll in one of the YWCA's on-going Racial Justice Workshops this summer.

I learned this past week that I unquestionably have a lot to learn about the root causes of our shameful racial inequity in Madison. But I also know wanting to learn more is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

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