I grew up in Wausau in the 1950s, and as much as I valued the community—the free summer programs at Thom Field, Teentown, the friendliness of the people, the beautiful outdoors, including my favorite place, my Uncle Walt’s farm—as much as I treasured all of that, I grew up deprived. I say deprived because I was deprived of the experience of knowing people of color, deprived of the joy of learning how much I have in common with friends from many backgrounds that I eventually made when I left Wausau, including some who were the great-grandchildren of slaves. What I learned from them about love, friendship, discrimination, courage, greatness and strength is something that has enriched my life beyond words.
Wisconsin people pride ourselves on “being nice,” but what I read about the Marathon County Board “Community for All” vote in the recent New York Times article is not nice, not nice at all. In fact, it may be the ugliest thing I have ever heard about a community I love—something that makes me ashamed—and this blot on my hometown has become national news [Epstein, R.J. (May 18, 2021) A Community for All? Not So Fast This Wisconsin County Says, The New York Times.] Even though I now live in New York, I heard about this from friends across the country! Three-quarters of the Executive Committee of the County Board—which my uncle served on for many years-voted against a resolution titled “A Community for All.” The purpose of this resolution is kind: to “achieve racial and ethnic equity to foster cross-cultural understanding and advocate for minority populations;” yet its supporters met ruthless opposition and even received death threats! I don’t think the evidence could be stronger that racism does, indeed, exist in Marathon County. And since then, I have read even more in the Wausau Pilot & Review that shows that it does, including through the examples given by Ms. La‘Tanya Campbell in her important opinion piece (May 12, 2021).
Much as I hate that this is how my hometown came to be in the Times, it’s fortunate that this has come to the surface because now the good people of Wausau have a clear choice: to try to continue with business as usual [though, I think now that many tourists will think twice about a trip to Rib Mountain or a dinner stop in Wausau on the way up north] or, to do some soul-searching into what people of color working and living in Wausau might be feeling. I’m glad that Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg has declared Wausau “A Community for All,” but more needs to come from Marathon County to begin to right this wrong before the County Board most likely takes this up again next month [Jayshi, D. (June 8, 2021) Wausau Pilot & Review.]
If groups of people feel the need for a resolution to embrace inclusion, a nice person—an Evangelical Lutheran like me, for example—should at least have the decency to try to understand why. To deny what others feel without walking in their shoes is to miss the opportunity to grow, to learn, to become a deeper and better person. I hope now that the good people of Wausau take it upon themselves to do this, to support members of the County Board who have put their lives on the line and to demand that the County Board support this resolution. If members of the Executive Committee don’t represent you, don’t let them hurt members of your community who deserve better. Don’t let them permanently damage the reputation of a community we all love.
The Times reported that Supervisor McEwen said, “When we choose to isolate and elevate one group of people over another, that’s discrimination.” It is, if they’re equal to begin with, but if a “minority”—such as African Americans—has already been delegated to a lower position by negatively stereotyping them, then elevating them is simply bringing them up to the level at which they deserved to be in the first place, before all the lies weighed them down. Not to acknowledge racial disparities is to pretend that it’s okay to give some people a head start and tie others’ legs up in a gunnysack—not because it’s fair, but because “that’s the way we’ve always done it!” I have seen that a Black man in America—such as the Black physician who saved my husband’s life last year—needs twice the fortitude it might have taken someone like me to achieve the same success. I’ve worked hard in my life, very hard, but the obstacles I faced were different from many of those faced by my African American friends. The least I owe them is an interest in how and why. Equality is an American value that can only be achieved when you acknowledge what others need to reach an equal outcome. It is equity that levels the playing field.
The Times article says that the “‘Community for All’ story began last summer when a small group of county officials began drafting a resolution they hoped would acknowledge disparities faced by local people of color.” Learning what these disparities are is an opportunity, not a threat—and one of the most interesting and useful studies people in America could pursue. It takes a big man/woman to be humble and courageous enough to see what needs to change, but the reward is priceless: self-respect and true pride.
White Americans who insist on holding on to old, narrow, hurtful ways of seeing other people are like people refusing to obey traffic lights. They hurt people’s lives. Supervisor Schlei shouldn’t deny that he has “white privilege” when it’s so clear he doesn’t know what it is. As a teacher for over 50 years, mostly to people of color but also in Merrill, I have seen that to admit you have something to learn, to understand and to change is not a humiliation. It makes you bigger, better, more able to like yourself.
Some White people are afraid that this resolution “would lead to the county’s taking things from White people to give them to people of color.” All this resolution asks White people to give is respect. You can give respect to others without losing anything you yourselves need—in fact, it inevitably makes for greater self-respect! It is true that people will have to give up the fake idea of White supremacy and superiority, but how happy have those things ever made a person? How proud? How secure? Life has greater rewards that can actually make you happy.
There is nothing about welcoming inclusiveness that threatens private property, as some fear, but the unwelcoming message this Board is sending will scare good people of all colors away, depriving the people of Central Wisconsin of things they need. In fact, the bigotry uncovered by the opposition to this resolution is guaranteed to drive away business and opportunity. It may scare away the one health professional that could save your life as our Black doctor did for my husband just last year.
I’m glad that a Hmong family now lives in the home I grew up in on Park Avenue. I once visited them while they were eating lunch, and they were so welcoming. I saw that while they were very different from me and my family, their family—with many daughters hoping to go to college—was not entirely different from my own and that of my grandparents who built the house 100 years ago. I’m proud that Wausau is no longer just White, as it was when I lived there and that now there are Black and Hmong members on the County Board. I’m grateful to every person, Mayor Katie Rosenberg, Ms. Kayley McColley, Ms. La’Tanya Campbell, John Robinson, Supervisors William Harris, Ka Lo, Alyson Leahy, Yee Leng Xiong and others for fighting the good fight in Wausau, and I pray they have the strength and support to continue.
I have no doubt that good will eventually win, but it would be so good if it were now—and not embarrassingly 40 years after the fact, like it was with the county board’s Black History month resolution. Demand that the county board support this resolution. It is what all the citizens of Marathon County deserve.
Janice Cline of New York, New York, formerly of Wausau
Editor’s note: Wausau Pilot & Review gladly publishes commentary from readers, residents and candidates for local offices. The views of readers and columnists are independent of this newspaper and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wausau Pilot & Review. To submit, email firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to 500 N. Third St., Suite 208-8, Wausau, Wis. 54403.