I am one of four adopted kids — three of us mixed race and one, Vietnamese — raised by white parents in Milwaukee, the nation’s most segregated city.
My early days were spent in the predominantly black Sherman Park neighborhood which you may have seen on the news this week. That’s where violence erupted after a black Milwaukee police officer shot and killed a 23-year-old black man last weekend.
As a biracial woman, born and raised in Milwaukee in the 1980s and 1990s, who has gone on to be successful in my own right, I may be able to help put into context why a city you probably know nothing about, perhaps never visited, and most likely don’t know anyone from, has overflowed with rage.
And let me be clear. I do not condone violence of any sort. But I do understand pent up frustration. I understand trying to quiet an internal storm. I understand the hatred, hopelessness, fear, and hurt in my city, gripped with high unemployment, poverty and racial tension.
My family eventually left Sherman Park and moved to the proverbial “other side of the tracks” after we had been robbed a few too many times, and families started leaving our church.
When we learned that kids were getting jumped for their lunch money as they walked to school, that was the final straw for my mom. She was saddened and reluctant to go: she loved our house on Sherman. Loved the neighbors. Loved St. Catherine’s Church. Matter of fact, she still does.
However, our motley crew ended up trekking from one of the city’s first integrated neighborhoods to one of the city’s whitest.
I was usually the only black kid in class nearly all the way through high school (my siblings and I went to mostly white Catholic schools). Adults and kids repeatedly told me that my parents weren’t my real parents, and was often called on by teachers to be the unofficial “spokes-kid for the plight of black people.”
It was a role I was never comfortable with. Not because I was black, not because my parents are white — it just wasn’t plausible. For a kid who looked different, talked different, and brought a brown bag lunch to school, I never could fully wrap my head around how in the world one kid could channel every black person’s experience across history and summarize it.
You see, in the Milwaukee I know, I have been called nigger more times than I can count, been called sell-out more times than I can count.
Hell, I’ve been called “monkey” complete with accompanying sounds and gestures, more times than I like to admit.
In the Milwaukee I know, I was never asked to homecoming or prom. I went to school with kids whose parents wouldn’t let me come over to play. Had classmates who weren’t allowed to date my brothers. Told my “street ball antics” wouldn’t be tolerated in my parochial school basketball league.
In the Milwaukee I know, I have been called dumb, told I wouldn’t amount to much, and that going to college was probably out of reach for “a kid like me.”
Yes, I am adopted. No, I was not raised with blinders on or a silver spoon in my mouth.
I delivered the Milwaukee Journal newspaper, peeled gum from underneath desks, and scrubbed school floors to help my parents with the tuition for Pius XI High School.
I worked at SummerFest, State Fair and every other area festival summer after summer for tuition money. I answered phones in the Classified Advertising Department at the Journal to pay my way through college at UW-Milwaukee.
More times than not, when I tell people that I am from Milwaukee I get a sympathetic head tilt followed by, “I’m sorry.” And that was before the recent protests.
But here’s the thing: I am not sorry for being born and raised in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee made me. For every person who tried to cut me down, there were countless more to build me up from teachers, neighbors and a host of loving family members. I developed layers of thick skin there, cultivated an open mind, a loving heart, work ethic, and above all, loyalty — even if to a fault.
Although it may be easy to sum up the recent news simply as a reaction to an officer involved shooting, it’s so much more than that. Milwaukee is so much more than that.
Maybe I should have a chip on my shoulder; maybe I should be angry, bitter even. But I’m not. I was born without hate, was taught not to hate, and will die without hate in my heart.
I truly believe, as idealistic as it may sound, that there is hope for a city in pain, and hope for a way forward.
Milwaukee is hurting and has been for some time.
The question is: What will the city and its resilient residents do to heal?