BARABOO, Wis. — Two Wisconsin men, a self-proclaimed reformed racist white man and a Black activist from Milwaukee, met for the first time to continue a conversation they started last summer.
“I’m racist by default,” Greg Pittman of North Freedom, Wisconsin said last summer.
After George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, it forced Pittman to take a hard look at his own implicit biases. He says he has known he has had racist tendencies, reinforced in his life by his family.
“My father was involved in the 80s version of the Proud Boys,” Pittman said. “We can’t keep having this conversation. We’re not getting anywhere and now we’re going backward with the way we’re trying to limit voting and stuff. It seems like we’re going backward.”
Harvard University created the standard for assessing implicit bias over 25 years ago. A series of questions will give you a score on your own implicit biases. Take the test yourself.
Pittman was listening to Wisconsin Public Radio last summer in the aftermath of the Floyd murder. He heard well-known Milwaukee Activist Tracey Dent on the airwaves.
“It was a real awakening for me,” Pittman said.
This week, Pittman and Dent met for the first time in-person near Pittman’s hometown.
“It was hard for me to sleep,” Dent said. “I was wondering how the conversation will flow and how he’ll react towards me.”
Dent is one of the many leaders for social justice in Milwaukee. While his reach is far, he doesn’t shy away from impacting the individual. He is just as motivated trying to help educate one person as he is in a group.
“It starts one person at a time,” Dent said. “It would be great if you could do it with a large group, but realistically, it will be one person at a time. Small changes. The small victories are the most meaningful to me.”
While the two men have discussed the issues facing African Americans today, this meeting was another training exercise to help Pittman address his own biases while also providing him some education to spread the knowledge.
“I’m going to be making missteps all the time,” Pittman said. “Even using the word, ‘They.’ Why are ‘they’ upset? When you go ‘they,’ that’s implicit bias.”
Pittman, acknowledging his room for improvement, says he has seen progress in his own life. He corrects friends who use excuses for their actions like, “having black friends” or acknowledging his own white privilege. While Pittman is getting better at addressing the learned behaviors that have led to his implicit biases and stereotypes of people, fully understanding the Black experience is something he’ll never be able to achieve.
Dent shared some of what it’s like to be a Black man in a white-dominant society. Growing up in Milwaukee, Dent had his fair share of negative interactions, but it was something accentuated when he got to Sauk County, an area where the population is 95.1 percent white.
“It feels uncomfortable when you walk into a store and see white people start staring at you right off the bat,” Dent said. “Or, they follow you around the store. It feels uncomfortable when you’re driving and a police car drives behind you.”
It’s a level of alienation Dent feels that can come from even the most well-intentioned people.
“A few years ago, somebody was asking me, ‘Why do Black people say the word ‘axe’ instead of ask?’” Pittman explained to Dent. “I said, 'why do we say ask? I don’t know.' I don’t concern myself with the word ask or axe. I kind of wonder if it’s a cultural thing and an endearing way to communicate with one another. Why have a problem with it? I communicate with friends in a certain way.”
“That’s kind of a racist statement right there,” Dent interjected. “That’s not what Black people talk like. That’s street talk. We label it, that’s how Black people talk. No. That’s people from the streets, no matter what ethnic group you are, people in the street talk like that. It’s not just Black people. It’s sad that what you see on TV, in the movies, or on the news or whatever, but no. That’s street. That’s not Black. I wanted to clear that up.”
The interaction was an example of the progress that can be made. Pittman made a mistake, Dent corrected it, and the two men continued moving on with a very friendly conversation.
The meeting of the two men was in a very symbolic place. While they discussed the inner workings of implicit bias, they were but a few steps away from a location that made national headlines just three years ago.
On the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse, a group of a few dozen Baraboo High School seniors, a majority of whom were white males, had a photo taken before prom. The group gave a Nazi salute to the cameraman. One student was seen showing a hand sign that has been co-opted by white supremacy groups.
The majority of the group is grinning, ear to ear. Some frozen in mid-laughter about the gesture they’re making. This kind of photo happening in 2018 was concerning to Pittman.
“It was disturbing,” Pittman said. “Some of it is young and dumb, I understand that. But the disturbing thing is that local people tried to explain it away. Saying, ‘oh that’s not what it was. The photographer happened to be making that sign and the kids, monkey see, monkey do.’ That’s disturbing. The community trying to downplay it and saying, that’s not what it was. We’re going backward here. It’s too bad that George Floyd had to open our eyes again, but what I’m concerned about, we’re going to fall back and not be having this conversation.”
“It’s opened the eyes to the rest of the state and the country about Wisconsin,” Dent said. “Plain and simple, Wisconsin is ranked as one of the most racist states in the country. It’s sad, especially for a person of color to have to deal with this on a daily basis. I’m sorry for the people of color that live here with what they deal with on a daily basis.”
Backward is anything but what is happening. Pittman and Dent sat on the same steps those boys took the photo, discussing what they can do to make a difference.
“It seems like we’re slipping here,” Pittman said. “Not gaining any ground.”
“I think today, we gained a lot of ground,” Dent said. “I mean, us, as a solution to racism, we’re sitting on the steps of racism. We’re cleansing the steps of racism right now. By me and you sitting and talking together and denouncing racism, hopefully that can start cleansing the city.”
It’s a conversation Pittman was grateful to have. Over the last year, while he’s trying to make headway in conversations with friends and family about race, he’s felt defeated. Hearing from Dent helped reinvigorate that drive.
“It’s hard to talk to people,” Pittman said. “I get frustrated and I’ve been shutting down. I hate to say it, but you can’t fix stupid.”
“Knowing you’re trying, that’s half the battle right there,” Dent said. “You admit you want to change. You’re trying but it’s not going to happen overnight. That’s a start. That’s where a lot of people need to be at.”
The next step for Pittman is trying to impact systemic change. He hopes to change the Baraboo School District curriculum. He fears the current generation of students, like the Baraboo boys photographed on the Sauk County Courthouse steps, are getting the same lackluster education he received several decades ago.
He says he got a whitewashed version of history that avoided some of the dark spots in America, like the race riots of the 1960s. He hopes the curriculum can be reflective of the oppression that’s been instilled in the country from centuries ago.
“I don’t know where it starts,” Pittman said. “Pay more attention to history? More about critical thinking? More about empathy?”
Dent suggested Pittman start reaching out to other like minds to build a larger group of supporters before approaching the school district. Pittman has already doubled his group of one to two with Tracey Dent by his side for whatever help he needs.
“It’s good and important to get to know each other, like what we’re doing now,” Dent said. “To understand each other, that’s how you hit the core, the foundation, to break down layers of racism.”