Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Complicity

The Mystery within...
Admitting I have been part of the problem in the racial unrest of our time has been an eye and heart opening experience for me. 

I was born on Milwaukee’s Polish south side in the early 1940s. My grandparents’ parents emigrated from Poland. My father was a lawyer, my mother a homemaker. I was unaware of my white privilege, but remember my father’s deep offense with Polish jokes. 

I had an early childhood picture book, Little Black Sambo, that made me aware there were people with a skin color different than mine. I learned to count to ten to a song’s lyrics, “One little, two littIe, three little Indians…” and then backwards from ten until there were “no little Indian boys.” I loved Walt Disney’s movie, “The Song of the South”. I saw the movie’s black protagonist, Uncle Remus, befriending the white seven-year-old Johnny visiting his grandmother’s plantation, for the good that it was.  I was oblivious to the subtle nuance that Johnny’s grandmother’s slaves were content with their lot in life. Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, the movie’s song, and Uncle Remus’ parables surrounding the antics of brothers Rabbit, Fox and Bear were precious. And when I went to school, history lessons of America’s founding only depicted brave explorers and happy Thanksgivings.

Fast forward to the early sixties. I was newly married, and sympathetic to Martin Luther King’s nonviolent struggle for equality. But the truth is I was more concerned about my own immediate life. After the birth of our first child, we built a modest home of our own on Milwaukee’s south side. Of the lots we looked at we chose the most expensive one because it was within walking distance of both a grade school and a middle school. 

The assassinations of President Kennedy, 1963; Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, 1968; combined with the violent 1967 riots in Milwaukee’s inner city, made for very scary times. Then came a plan to bus children across town to integrate Milwaukee’s schools. I could not believe putting my then seven-year-old son on a bus across town to be a solution to hundreds of years of discrimination and violence. And maybe it would have been the only way to eventually end segregation and poverty.

My husband and I borrowed money from both of our parents, sold our Milwaukee home, and built another house in Grafton, WI within walking distance of a grade school and middle school. We were part of the white flight to the suburbs that exacerbated the plight of Milwaukee’s poor.  

Three years later, in 1975, my husband died. I became the sole breadwinner. I pieced together before and after school care for my three children and returned to my former work life with the USDA Forest Service in Milwaukee, commuting daily from Grafton. 

The USDA Forest Service, of all Federal agencies, had the fewest minorities and women in their workforce. To comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Forest Service developed Upward Mobility Training programs to provide women and minorities qualifying experience for advancement. I was in the right workplace at the right time, albeit a challenging one. I began as a Clerk-typist, then advanced to Human Resource Assistant, Human Resource Specialist, and retired as a Public Affairs Specialist. 

Political conservatives saw the Civil Rights Act, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission it established, as a violation of their belief that fewer government policies would create a strong economy and produce gains that would benefit the historically disadvantaged. I personally know that to be seriously flawed thinking.

I have come to know facing my own vulnerability and complicity to be very freeing. Only then can I find compassion for myself and know compassion toward all others. Only then can I appreciate the late John Lewis’ invitation to be “good trouble, necessary trouble.”  

America will only become great when we all share the role of Good Samaritan to those who need quality health care and education, living wages, adequate housing, safe drinking water, and compassionate care for the incarcerated. What if we each asked to be shown ways to contribute to those ends?

1 comment :

  1. Very well stated, Marcia. It is difficult to look at our past behavior and strive to learn, grow, and better our future actions. We are works in progress, and there is much to do. Thank you for your reflections.

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