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The Challenges Of Being A Black Male In Milwaukee

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Milwaukee has been called one of the most segregated cities in America, and one of the worst places for black people to live and raise their families.

With this in mind, today's Beats Me question put me in the position to try and offer some insight into this question: 

What's the cultural experience for being black and male in Milwaukee?

Of course, there isn't one black experience. So, I sat down with four black males of different ages and professions to discuss the topic. I talked to a high school senior, a medical student, an ACLU organizer, and the executive director of the Near West Side Partners.

Keith Stanley is a third-generation Sherman Park resident and executive director of the Near West Side Partners.  To explain his perspective, he brings up his experience attending a historically black university — Alabama State University.

"When I went to ASU, many moons ago, that was the first time I experienced being an individual, that I was Keith not a black boy or young black man or tall black guy or a bald-head black guy," he explained. "I didn't experience that growing up in Milwaukee. In Milwaukee, you are black then you are whatever. Not to say that's bad, but being able to go somewhere where you are free of that label."

Stanley says this allowed him to see his place in the world as a human, not as a person associated with a group.

Diwante Shuford is a medical student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, but he grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. He mentions the culture shock that came with going from always being around people who looked like him to going through undergrad and now medical school here in predominantly white institutions.

"You're being looked upon by everybody. And because of that, you feel like you have to be the best because you are the representative of the black community," he explained. "That can bring a lot of pressure on you or it can just make you stronger and just say, 'Yeah, I am the representative of the black community. That I can keep up, I'll compete, that I can do just as well as anybody else.' "

That was a theme everyone agreed with. In some shape or form, they've been looked at as the depiction of an entire group of people and have had to overcome others' skepticism that they can do just as well as anyone else.

Listen Listening... 9:34 In this clip, speakers continue the conversation talking about what has helped them effectively navigate different spaces despite being a black male faced with so many challenges. They also chat about how some systems lack sensitivity for the black male.

Washington High School student Devonta Hymes is also employed with Running Rebels.

But it was a comment from 17-year-old Devonta Hymes — the youngest of the group — that made the room quiet for a second:

"In high school here, you got these teachers that will call you dumb in your face. I honestly had one my freshman year, she would just be like, 'I don't need you in my class; don't seem like you gon' even be nothing. Just get out.' So, yeah, I just never felt welcome in school," Hymes said.

Even so, it seems that Hymes' good experiences outweigh the bad. He says Milwaukee will forever be home, no matter how welcoming or not it is to him.

But this part of his reality briefly turned the conversation to acknowledging that many institutions aren't designed for black people to succeed.

Jarrett English, the senior organizer for the ACLU of Wisconsin, also grew up in Sherman Park. He responded to Hymes' school experiences rather disappointed.

"When I hear something like that it makes me very, very sad, but I also see a great deal of truth in it. When it comes to my experience … my experience in school was not that. That being the case, it goes to what everyone said: that there's a lot of things that just simply aren't built for us. But that being the case, we still need to be able to survive and take advantage of what's here," English said.

He says this is one example of how business and political leaders in Milwaukee and the region have failed to meet the needs of people of color, specifically, for years — and that needs to change.

It's hard to sum up more than an hour of conversation I had with this group. But what I learned is that support from different entities, like mentors, family and the whole community help make navigating Milwaukee, and the world, as a black male a bit easier.

The four of them agree that it's important for outsiders to hear these realities. But they say it's more important that conversations like these continue to happen among black men, so the black community can be stronger because of it.

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