By Kathlean Wolf
I love my neighborhood; people sit outside in the evenings, talking, playing cards. I bring my neighbors tomatoes from our garden. I fix kids’ bicycles in the first warmth of springtime. I’m the weird white lady who’s always disappearing into the woods across the street. I pick up beer bottles and occasional drug paraphernalia from the gutters and curbs. Sometimes I hear shots fired, witness domestic violence, make both emergency and non-emergency police calls. It’s the poorest neighborhood in Madison. I feel safe here; not everyone would understand that.
We live in a city with one of the worst rates of segregation, Black unemployment and poverty, and educational gaps in the nation. From what I’ve seen and heard, most white Madisonians don’t understand how racism works, nor how unconscious biases and actions support and entrench that racism even more deeply. I’m one of the few who get to live in an ongoing lesson in how systems of oppression work behind the scenes, quietly doing damage to the neighbors I love.
Two weeks ago, I heard raised voices outside my building, and looked out to see what was going on. A group of my Black neighbors were gathered around a struggling figure on the lawn. I heard a young voice yelling, “Let me go!” Standing out on the street half a block away, a white man was calling the police. Listening to his tense tone of voice, I knew I had to go outside.
Half a dozen faces turned my way as I approached the group on the lawn. “I’m just here to be a white person here when the cops arrive,” I said, explaining myself to bystanders. The struggling adolescent boy on the lawn was frightened, angry, and very young, and his friends and mother were trying to calm him down. As the first police car pulled up, he and a few of his friends disappeared into the night. His mother, crying, turned to watch the police officer emerging from his vehicle. I went to stand beside her in the headlights of the patrol car.
Officers must read a situation quickly. I used my body-language to send the message: “There is no threat here. I’m not afraid and you don’t need to be, either.” I see this as my job as a white person in a part of town where 911 calls hold the potential for an accidental shooting of an innocent Black person. It seemed to work: soon, the mother was explaining her son’s mental health issues, and how she didn’t know what to do. The report of a large fight turned into a helpful search for a troubled child. I went back into my apartment, having not spoken a word to the police. I didn’t know the woman or her son. I hope she didn’t feel like I’d invaded their privacy. Maybe she understands; we all share the fear that a Black teenage boy could be shot by a police officer due to a misunderstanding.
I’m not a hero, I don’t have any delusions that I’m rescuing anyone; I just feel that it’s my job. Being here, in the middle of one of the few truly diverse neighborhoods in Madison, is my privilege. Everyone here has a story, and they’re all stories of people trying to rise up against the long history of oppression, generational struggles that are largely invisible to the white people whose parents and grandparents had no such obstacles to success. In the middle of it all, I’m just the busybody white lady in a building where everyone else is Black. I’m just standing here, trying to convey through my actions; all of us deserve respect. All of us deserve a chance.