It can be uncomfortable to discuss race relations. Discussions may be particularly minimal, in a region as segregated as metro Milwaukee. The group Ex Fabula relies on storytelling to make inroads. It invites its fellows to share personal tales about prejudice and misunderstandings.
One of the fellows is Rochelle Fritsch, who is black. She tells audiences about a time she took her daughter to a sleepover in the suburbs, and got lost in a white neighborhood. Fritsch's GPS had given her bad directions:
Nothing feels familiar except the feeling of being lost. And for me it’s that lost that carves a hollow in the pit of my stomach and it crawls its way up into my shoulder blades and it finds its way down to my hands and they get all sweaty. And I’m gripping the wheel tightly and before I know it I've dropped an F-bomb.
Fritsch says she had such a powerful reaction, because she's been pulled over in other areas where police told her she didn't look like she belonged. She wasn't in the mood to broach the topic with her daughter:
We have talked about our hair, we have talked about our faith, we have talked about alcohol, drugs, boys. But we haven’t talked about this. So I have to sojourn on and I just look at her and I say, “honey, this isn’t cool. Mom is lost and mom needs to slow down to get her bearings. But somebody in this nice little cul-de-sac might see a black woman driving slowly and figure she doesn’t belong there and call the cops.” I didn’t want to have that conversation with her. More than that, I did not want her to see me -- her mom, her cheerleader, her last line of defense -- shaking, frightened.
Another Ex Fabula fellow, Nakia Hood, says he also has been stopped while simply driving in a white neighborhood. Those incidents stay with him, including when he takes long runs:
I'm 39 years old and I want to give myself the gift of running a half marathon. So I started this winter training. I don’t want white people to think I'm going to hurt them, harm them, when I just want to get ready for this marathon. So I'm bundling up, I grab my bicycle lights, I tie them on the sides of my pants so people will see the lights flickering. I’m thinking, maybe they’ll know I'm just trying to exercise.
LG Shanklin-Flowers tells audiences about a time she attended a party where most of the guests were white. She is black. She says she brought along CDs. After dinner people were dancing to the music and having a good time, until:
Suddenly, I heard -- or not only me, everyone heard -- shouting above the music: "Who brought that jungle music?" It got real quiet, very quickly. Everyone sort of gasped. And then people started shifting back and forth, awkwardly looking at each other, mostly looking down, and then looking towards me, with these looks of, "help us, do something, make this right."
Shanklin-Flowers says she talked to the person who made the comment, explaining why it was offensive. He appeared somewhat contrite. Yet she found herself having a hard time letting go of what had happened:
As I thought about the situation more and more I became furious. I was the one that was attacked. Where were my friends? Where were my allies? Where were any of the people who had been in that room who heard what had been said? It reminded me of how exhausting it is to operate and navigate white spaces.
Ex Fabula also invites white fellows to share their experiences involving race. Elaine Maly recalls coming to terms with her grandparents' prejudice. She says she first thought about it after discovering a letter she had written to them from Girl Scouts camp in 1967. Maly had written about an African American girl in her unit.
I wondered about myself. Like, why did I choose to write that to my grandparents? Oh yeah! This is why. That summer the NAACP Youth Council and Fr. Groppi were in the midst of the 200-consecutive day march for fair housing. Well, my grandparents weren’t a fan of fair housing, and I know this because before I went to camp that summer riots broke out on 3rd St. We were miles and miles away. My grandparents lived next door to us and we were there visiting. And I remember that my father asked my grandfather what he would do if the violence came to our neighborhood. And my grandfather pointed to the window in the upstairs stairwell and he said, “I will get my shotgun and I will pick them off.”
Maly says the memory reminds her that although there is a "legacy of racism" in her family, she has the power to foster diversity.