By LaShunda Carter, MSW
My previous ideologies about race and inequality came from my lived experiences and from what I learned in school. Even though I did not formally learn about these concepts, by growing up poor on the Northside of Milwaukee, I experienced the detrimental effects of inequality. I was raised by a single mother of seven children. We relied on government assistance, were homeless numerous times and my father was in and out of prison. Living in poverty, witnessing violence and dysfunctional relationships were all normal for me. It was my experience and the experience of those around me which led me to believe that it was the black experience. My mother always worked, yet we were always poor which I never understood growing up. I remember asking myself why didn’t she just work harder to care for us. At that time, I did not understand that the answer was more complicated and rooted in historical and systematic constraints than I thought, it was not just a matter of her ‘working harder.’
One of the earliest experiences of systematic discrimination happened at a gas station. My mother, siblings and I were accused of attempting to steal because we were taking too long to buy things. My mother argued with the clerk and he called the police.
We left and there was no discussion of why we were accused of stealing. I perceived that we were accused because we were black. Other experiences such as being followed around stores as a customer, being pulled out of a car during a ‘traffic stop’ being asked “where are the drugs” before asking for identification, being pulled over for having tinted windows, being pulled over and asked “what are you doing out here” every time I visited suburban areas outside of Milwaukee County, witnessing the use of excessive force by the police on black people in my family and community. Couple those first hand experiences with seeing countless murders of unarmed black men, women and children-caught on camera and seeing news outlets criminalize victims to justify their murders. All of these things led me to believe that black people were not cared for or valued by society. I assumed that all black people experienced this. I believed that white people were just better off in life than black people. Simply stated, I believed the narrative that has been promoted in Amerikkka since its inception.
My outlook on race and inequality changed once I went to UW-Madison. Being the only black person in my classes and sometimes going a whole day without seeing any black people made me feel like I didn’t belong there. Sitting in lectures with all white students and hearing them lecture about how “bad” black people were when speaking about African American history made me angry. One day there was a rally to get rid of affirmative action at UW-Madison. Protestors argued that affirmative action was the only reason blacks were being accepted into the school. I went to the rally to fight against ending affirmative action. At the rally, I saw so many black students fighting to have their voices heard. It was the first time I was a part of a group of black people advocating for their rights. I felt empowered. At that point, I began to love and learn more about my blackness.
When I enrolled at the UW-Milwaukee as a social work student, I began to better understand systematic oppression in Amerikkka. I gained a better understanding of institutional racism. I learned a more in-depth Black history and about early views of poverty. I stopped believing the ideology of Poverty as Culture, that people were poor because that’s the way they want to be, once I learned about the ways systemic racism and oppression have directly and indirectly contributed to poverty. In her article “Makes Me Wanna Holler”: Refuting the “Culture of Poverty” Discourse in Urban Schooling, Gloria Ladson-Billings explains that “the culture of poverty distorts the concept of culture and absolves social structures—governmental and institutional—of responsibility for the vulnerabilities that poor children regularly face.” I learned about how racism has been written in many laws and policies of our country which have black people at a disadvantage and keeps them there. Blacks are excluded from many of the very same benefits that helped whites prosper but were still expected to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”.
All of my experiences and education will benefit my work as a social worker. Looking at poverty and social issues from a historical perspective will help me look beyond current circumstances of clients at the underlying issues of why things are the way they are. Having gained new insights, I will remember to think about the best interests of my clients first because I know the system is not always fair and can sometimes do more harm than good to families. While working as a crisis interventionist, I learned that a critical part of my service to the community is to advocate for my clients and amplify their voice. Learning about the true nature of the U.S., its history and continued dehumanization and marginalization of the same vulnerable communities and populations I come from, I admit to being pessimistic about equality and freedom ever truly being accessible for black people. Though I am weary of some of the ways of Amerikkka, it won’t stop my determination to support, help and advocate for my future clients. In fact, that determination is only being strengthened.