I grew up in Madison. I have two brothers and a sister. One of my brothers and my sister were adopted; they are African-American.
We did all the normal things that kids do around Madison. We played in the park, went to the beach, and rode our bikes. When it came time to go to school, we naturally walked there together. When I was in fourth grade, our mom made us all matching outfits to wear on the first day of school so my brand new first-grade sister would feel more connected to us. We were proudly marching arm-in-arm, wearing our Hawaiian print shirts when I started hearing the catcalls: “Nigger-lover, nigger–lover, nigger-lover.” As a child it was hard to comprehend why they were mocking me. The words were beyond my years, but I could feel the hatred in their voices.
That was just one of many times I witnessed this kind of treatment toward my family. I knew then that my brother and sister, and their future children, would have a much different experience in the world than I.
Watching the events in Ferguson over the past weeks has brought these memories flooding back and has had me contemplating the state of race relations in our world.
I keep coming back to the word “fear.” We, as a collective, are afraid. We are afraid of our neighbors and afraid of police officers. We are spoon-fed who and what to be afraid of by the media. We turn incidents like the shooting of an unarmed black teen into a political game of who won and who lost.
None of these things is a reflection of reality. My brown-skinned nephews have a very different existence than my white sons' experience. My sons aren’t followed around a store because the manager suspects they may take something. My sons don’t experience the feeling of being presumed guilty until proven innocent. My heart is torn apart at the thought that any family should lose a child to such senseless violence. I hear the chaos on the evening news with the feeling that our nation has lost its moral compass.
We must move beyond fear and separation to come to a place of understanding and connection. This can only come from society as a whole. Creating silos between different sections of our community must stop now. We need to make a real effort to move toward compassion and thoughtfulness, replacing the violence and fear of incidents like Ferguson with the promise of a brighter future devoid of the bloodshed and heartlessness of the past.
To those in our community who are black, and may be filled with fear, anger, and a mistrust of your white neighbors, I can only acknowledge that your experience is different from mine and that your feelings are equally real. My brother and sister must walk a different path than mine. They understand that racism isn’t limited to a small group that clings to an outdated mindset; it is a prevalent force in our society that must be acknowledged and worked on until its ugly influence is eradicated from our world once and for all.
None of this is easy. It’s something we have to work on day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute. It must be done one conversation at a time.
We all need to rise up and engage in a communitywide conversation to address this. It is possible to be empathetic but complacent. We must end the complacency and tackle the race issues that face our community. Though the conversations will be difficult and will make people uncomfortable, we must move forward with as much energy and passion as our community holds. This is Madison and when we put our minds to it, we can change the world.
Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, is a member of the state Assembly.