Dear White People

The majority population needs a sense of urgency in addressing Madison’s racial disparities

Rebecca Ryan

Rebecca Ryan

Dear White People,

We need to talk about the Race to Equity report, the project launched to reduce racial disparities in Dane County. No, I’m not talking about talking about the data. Or whether we’re surprised by the data. We need to talk about our role in this. Forty years of crappy outcomes for Black people didn’t happen overnight. If you’re north of thirty years old and have lived in Madison as an adult, it’s happened on our watch. We share responsibility.

I have wrestled with this thought since I read the report last fall: I am complicit in these results. And it’s time for us, the majority culture, to face this head-on. We can’t sit idly while Reverend Alex Gee’s Black caucus designs a way forward. And Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham isn’t going to solve this for us, either.

We, the majority population, need our own focused response to improve outcomes for Black citizens. Black Madisonians have a sense of urgency; they’ve been living in the narrows of opportunity for two generations. White people don’t have the same now-or-never attitude. Over forty years, we’ve allowed and enabled these issues to grow silently, like an undetected cancer, through our community.

There are so many things we whites must do to move in a better direction for all Madisonians. Here are some that I’ve been thinking about.

How we talk about our city matters. Words matter. The language we use matters. For example, calling our city “progressive” is a misnomer. What we are is elitist. We white liberals live a Portlandia life with our artisanal cheeses and first lesbian congresswoman and snowplowed bike paths. We have mistaken our quality of life for everyone’s quality of life and called it progressive.

The Race to Equity report knocked the brie off our cracker. Can we really call our city progressive with results like these? What does “progress” even mean in twenty-first century Madison?

We need to see Madison more completely, warts and all. But it’s hard. Many of us don’t have deep friendships with Black residents; we live, easily, in an all-white world. That’s why Revered Gee’s and Michael Johnson’s Capital Times stories were shocking. Our beloved community leaders made us face how racism and discrimination impacted them. It was a wake-up call. And the alarm is still buzzing. If you’re willing to listen, you learn that every Black person in our community has a story like theirs.

Are we willing to see Madison as it really is for all people?

The time is now. Demographics show that for the rest of our lifetimes, Blacks and Latinos will be a growing share of Dane County’s population. This is a regional and a national trend. The most recent census data shows that eighty-six percent of all growth in the U.S. came from Black, Latino and Asian Americans. And in cities, their growth accounts for ninety-eight pwercent of all growth.

Madison will continue to grow, fueled by increasing diversity. We cannot fail our new residents in these deeply structural ways and maintain world-class status. If we want to be great, we have to be great for all people. And right now, we’re simply not.

Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, do better.”

Each of us can start somewhere. The important thing is to begin.

Dear white people, let’s begin. Let’s be more skillful in our language. Let’s be more informed in our actions. Let’s stop assuming that our “great place to live” is great for everyone.

By my math, if each and every white person in Dane County started with just one step, we’d move 436,104 steps in a better direction for all Madisonians. My first step is making a pledge of support to Will Green and his outstanding Mentoring Positives program.

Rebecca Ryan is a Madison-based entrepreneur who rewrote this article fourteen times over four months, worried about her own language and her own bias. But she has to start somewhere and this was it. Let’s keep the dialogue going. Reach her at rr@nextgenerationconsulting.com.

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