All Snowflakes Look the Same - Pacific Standard
After I moved to Wisconsin to pursue an education, other people’s racial perceptions began to pursue me.

The first time someone called me a nigger was in 2012, during my first winter in the Midwest. I walked into a women’s restroom at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. There was only one other woman in the restroom and she was talking—very animatedly—on the phone. I smiled briefly at her and went into a stall. Suddenly she screamed to the person on the phone: “A nigger is listening to me talk!” I froze, shocked and scared her verbal rant would turn physical. After a minute or two of continued ranting on the same topic, she left the restroom. I waited for a few minutes, then hurriedly left, shaken. Chicago was my weekend escape, a haven far enough away to give me some emotional distance from Madison, Wisconsin, where I was at graduate school.

A few months later at a rock show in Madison, a very drunk man started talking to me. “Are you looking for the North Star?” he asked. I stared at him in confusion. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt—he couldn’t have been referring to the direction given to runaway slaves. He went on, “I’ve never had fried chicken before but....” As my doubt disappeared, my friends fell silent, except for my now-husband who asked if I wanted to leave. A few hours later, the drunk man was kicked out of the club for being too rowdy.

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I had been a little apprehensive about attending graduate school in a Midwestern town that, at almost 80 percent white, is considered “diverse” by its residents. Compared to the rest of the region, Madison is diverse, but as a black woman who had lived in towns in the South that were about 50 percent black and 40 percent white, I was wary—but not wary enough that I expected the place to give me a whopping dose of racism before my first year was over.

My first year in Madison provided me with a parade of examples. Many were the obvious, blaring examples of racism that anyone could understand, because they fit textbook examples of racism, like getting called a nigger or someone taunting you with tired black stereotypes in a public place.

“I realized that if I got robbed and had to pick someone out of a line-up, I wouldn’t be able to tell who did it. Then I realized how weird and messed up that is! I just wanted to ask you if you think white people look alike.”

But if the first year was flashy, the next two years revealed a more subtle form of pervasive racism. But what I’ve learned is that even as people understand these as examples of racism, they might subtly undermine them. I have come to expect that the response from white acquaintances will be to find a way to excuse the behavior. “That woman in the bathroom must have been crazy,” they might say. Or: “The man at the show was drunk and bothering lots of people. That’s why he was booted. Justice was served!” No one will mention that like the woman at the airport, the man at the rock show’s lowered inhibitions allowed him to say things that others simply know better than to say explicitly, but may hold internally. And no one will say that the act of excusing this behavior or telling me my feelings and experience are invalid is itself a form of racism.

In fact, while the big, glaring examples are jarring, they don’t affect my life as profoundly as the subtle moments. What haunts me are the frequent, small actions that remind me I don’t belong, that people look at me and see a black person before they see someone who’s just a person. These reminders build into an invisible weight I carry. And they have a formal name—micro-aggressions. They are the small and constant confirmations of your fear that people see you as a caricature rather than as an individual.

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During my first spring in Madison, I went to have an eye examination. The man at the front desk took a look at my insurance card, then told me that the doctor would not be able to see me. I remember him saying, “Your card is from last year and we require a card that has this year’s date on it.”

“But my card was printed fewer than 12 months ago and my insurance doesn’t issue new cards at the beginning of the year,” I responded carefully.

"I'm not trying to say you don't have insurance, just that a lot of people have come in here and we gave them eye exams and then their insurance wasn't current and we had to pay for it.,” he replied. I understood then that he didn’t believe I had insurance.

He pointed to his book of appointments for the day and claimed I had told him over the phone that I had no insurance. He jabbed at the paper and said, “See? NO INSURANCE.”

I kept as calm as possible; I was out of contact lenses and needed new pairs, so I asked him what I had to do to prove that I did have insurance. He told me I could call my insurance and have them verify my coverage.

I made the call. The woman on the phone sounded confused, and told me what I already knew, that new cards aren’t printed at the start of a new calendar year and that service providers could verify coverage online. I handed my cell phone to the man at the desk. A few minutes later, while waiting to go into the exam room I overhead him telling the optometrist that I was “so good, she even called them herself!”

His expectations were clear: He wanted me to fit some kind of stereotype. Did he think he could turn me into an angry black woman by being rude to me?

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In my graduate program, I am quite often the only black woman in the room. My university makes great attempts to enhance its diversity, but I cannot help but feel I have been imported to a hostile environment.

Wisconsin incarcerates the highest percentage of black men in the country. It is the worst state in the nation for the well-being of African American children. Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in America. The Center on Wisconsin Strategy has a tragic list of statistics about Wisconsin’s black population. All of these facts and figures support the feeling that I’m out of place in a white liberal paradise. When Willy Street Co-op employee Sasha Debevec-McKenney wrote last year, “I am so consciously aware of being black, all the time,” her blog post about moving to Madison went locally viral.

Sun dial on Washburn Observatory Hill on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Photo: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock)

Sun dial on Washburn Observatory Hill on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Photo: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock)

I feel the same in a way I never experienced while growing up in the South. In my hometown many different kinds of white people regularly interacted with many different kinds of black people.

I moved far from home to gain an education at a world class university; I will also learn what it is like to live in a place that has little direct experience with— and lowered expectations for—people who look like me.

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“Hey, what did you want to ask me earlier?” I asked as I caught up with a classmate at the end of class early last year.

“You know how there’s been a lot of crime alerts sent out lately?” she said, “And, y’know, a lot of the suspects have been black, and they haven’t caught them all yet.”

My heart sank. I’d seen the crime alert emails the school had been sending in response to a recent rash of crimes. It was true that many of the suspect descriptions were of black men. I had been worried, and wondering what people in town were thinking.

In my graduate program, I am quite often the only black woman in the room. My university makes great attempts to enhance its diversity, but I cannot help but feel I have been imported to a hostile environment.

She continued: “I realized that if I got robbed and had to pick someone out of a line-up, I wouldn’t be able to tell who did it. Then I realized how weird and messed up that is! I just wanted to ask you if you think white people look alike.”

As sick and scared as this made me, an ingrained sense of wanting to make other people feel comfortable kicked in. I told her about a white schoolteacher friend in Chicago who had been amused when her student told her that all white people looked alike. I told her that being able to tell people of different races apart probably depends on how exposed one is to interacting with members of that group. I didn’t tell her how her question ruined the rest of my day.

She confirmed my worst fears about the effects of the crime alerts. She had told me she could recognize me (“Oh, that’s Princess!”) but not other people who looked like me. She assumed that the person who robbed her would be black, and that all of the people in the line-up would be black. I knew then that many white people in Madison didn’t see me as person, but as a part of an anonymous and possibly criminal black mass. She came to me to discuss the issue not within the confines of friendship, but because I was likely the only black person with whom she was well-enough acquainted to ask. Her realization that she couldn’t tell black people apart was not the issue. The problem was that she chose to ask me for an answer instead of researching it herself or asking someone who wasn’t personally affected by the wider implications of her question, and thus outsourced her emotional burden onto me. We would have had to be very close friends for me to be willing to perform this emotional labor for her.

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There are good things about my life in Madison. I’m getting a prestigious and challenging education that will help me grow. I met my husband and got married here. The town has a natural beauty; the people are progressive and actively involved in shaping political discourse. But the city has a major blind spot that only makes Madison a great town for white people.

I’m uncomfortable riding the bus to school most days because people alternate between staring and avoiding eye contact and the seat next to me often remains empty even as the bus becomes full. It’s easy to think that I’m being sensitive and imagining things, and then other local people of color tell me they’ve noticed the same things. In finding community with them, I’ve found  solace in their reflections. But I still don’t feel at home.

The Midwest has a reputation for being both “nice” and tight-lipped. Many times when I bring up something related to race my comments are politely ignored. I think people expect me to ignore my blackness in order to make them feel comfortable, in sharp contrast to my upbringing in the South, where people openly discussed race. My identity here feels simultaneously muted and amplified in a way I’ve never felt before.

In the wake of a few local personal essays like this one, the scary statistics about Madison and about Wisconsin, and the wider national dialogue on Ferguson, on-campus student groups have protested and local activists have marched in support of improving race issues in Madison. It has been heartening to see people in Madison start to talk about and act on the town’s racial problems. And I hope as this change happens in town, people also think to stop before asking someone questions that put them in the position of being the voice of their race; I hope people consider the more subtle forms and interpretations of their actions—and how these forms of quiet and compounded racism can make someone feel uneasy and out of place on a daily basis. And I hope they consider that each one of us in town is simply another human.

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At the start of my second school year in Madison, I went back to North Carolina for a wedding. My now-husband and I went to a local museum before the festivities. As we were walking to the front door, a white man looked me in the eye and smiled. It startled me, and then I realized it was because I wasn’t used to it anymore.

The Weekend Essay is a Saturday series edited by Leah Reich.

Lead photo: (Photo: Iurii Kachkovskyi/Shutterstock)

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