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Essay: My Legacy Won't Be White-Washed

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The case of Dontre Hamilton – a black man killed in an altercation with a white police officer – shines another light on the divide that frequently exists in this community.

Milwaukee’s legacy of segregation shows up not just in the criminal justice system, but in peaceful, everyday life, as Lake Effect essayist Pam Parker explains.

White privilege is a popular term these days. For me, a more appropriate term might be white ignorance. I’ve lived a white-washed life, surrounded by people who looked like me and shared similar backgrounds. I knew no people of color growing up. Zero. My town in western Massachusetts had a corner store, a classic little white church, no traffic lights and no one with skin pigment different than mine.

When my husband and I bought our home in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was homesick for rural New England. Wauwatosa’s abundant trees, its Congregational church and sadly, its sea of white faces, felt like home. I didn’t know then that the locals referred to Wauwatosa as Waspatosa. I didn’t confront my limited perspective until we had children.

At eighteen months old, our son sat in his high chair working puzzles as his parents watched lots of March Madness. One Saturday, he flipped through a magazine. Pointing to a white woman he said, “Mama.” A white man earned a “Dada.” An African-American man? “Badja-ball.” I felt like I’d been kicked. My son’s impression of African-American men was as athletes – and that’s all.

When time drew near for him to attend elementary school, I toured our neighborhood school. Somehow a suburban Milwaukee school in the 90s felt like a rural western Massachusetts school in the 1960s. I knew if we sent him there he would continue to live my inexperience. We enrolled him in a Milwaukee Public School with a more diverse student body. I realized the power of that diverse experience in an unfortunate incident that happened while driving. From the tape player, a lovely soprano voice repeated the name, “Mandela.”

“Who’s Mandela?” Scott asked, maneuvering another Lego onto his creation.

I launched into an explanation of apartheid and what a hero Mandela was, trying my best to make the incomprehensible comprehensible to a first grader. “Do you think you kind of understand?”

“No, not really,” he said. “What do you mean by blacks and whites?”

What do you mean by blacks and whites? I nearly cried. His world hadn’t introduced him to the idea of dividing people by color, but his mother had. His classmates were all people, period. Boys and girls, like him. Good intentions aside, I had introduced him to the concept of categorizing by skin color.  And I knew, once learned, this concept couldn’t easily be un-learned.

I can still count on one hand the people of color whose lives have intersected with mine at more than an acquaintance level. My school, work and social life contacts have been predominantly white. I hope I don’t die still able to count my friends of color on one hand. But if I do, at least I know that won’t be the case for my sons. Their lives, experiences and friendships could never be labeled whitewashed. I’ve made sure they live a more colorful life. ​

Pam Parker's fiction and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications. When she is not traveling to her beloved New England or somewhere else, you may find her leading or attending writing groups in Milwaukee at Red Oak Writing.​

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