Friday, October 23, 2020
Terrelle Wilson was a featured speaker at a program on race and racism July 9 at Tomah High School.  Contributed photo

Ft. McCoy soldiers’ treatment in community spurs race discussion

In her role Tomah Chamber and Visitors Center president Tina Thompson is one of the community's most vocal advocates.

In that role, Thompson fully embraces the importance of Tomah being a community that welcomes ethnic diversity.

Public scrutiny on racial issues across the country the past few months has been under a microscope. To be honest racial scrutiny has been under a microscope for decades. 

Thompson feels the time is overdue for public discussion in Tomah regarding racial issues. The Chamber invited Terrelle Wilson, equity and inclusion specialist at Western Technical College, for a discussion on race and racism last Thursday, July 9.  The event was held in the Tomah High School auditorium.

The event was open to area educators, business leaders and the general public. In early June the Chamber contacted WTC to gauge interest in public discussion on racism in Tomah. That initial contact was spurred by a Facebook post from a black soldier stationed at Fort McCoy who described acts of racism other black soldiers experienced in Tomah and Sparta during off-duty hours.

The post went viral and Thompson realized the need to address racism in her hometown. Not comfortable to confront, but still important to address. Thompson researched some of the soldier complaints and was discouraged what she learned.

"They were substantiated occurrences," Thompson said.

Occurrences not uncommon to Wilson, a younger black man, but very aware of the history of racism.

"We have to address race/racism history before things can change," Wilson said. "For me (racism) is not surprising."

Racism starts with unconscious bias that can begin as early as three and four years-old, Wilson added.

“It's a systemic thing that functions like a well oiled machined," Wilson said. "Racism is in place, embedded to perpetuate itself. Racism, bias, prejudice, whatever word you use, it can be unconscious, that subtle shift. We don't even recognize what we are doing."

Wilson outlined laws and Jim Crow behaviors that fueled racism over American history.

"(Actions) were racialized and legalized, so many things were law that you try to wrap your head around," Wilson said.

Wilson conceded his own bias as he shared a recent story from a trip to a local gym. An older white man approached Wilson mistaking him for someone else. 

An honest case of mistaken identity. But Wilson shared his hidden bias toward older white men, uncertain if it was mistaken identity or that most older white men think most black men look alike. Something difficult to accept.

"Walking this out is not perfection," Wilson said. "It is awareness. People are going to make mistakes. It is not a walk of perfection, it's a walk of awareness and not denial."

Responding to a question from the audience, Wilson was asked if he feels the BlackLivesMatter movement has slid into a political crosshair.

"To declare that BlackLivesMatter is not a political thing makes me feel sad because black lives should matter," Wilson said. "It is not trying to propagate another racial hierarchy. This thing has been lopsided for so long we are fighting to get to an (even) plane. Challenging racism and injustice should not make people feel uncomfortable..., I know this discussion can be uncomfortable. There is a lot of work ahead, but good work, beneficial work that will only build a better community."

At the close of Wilson's presentation Thompson shared a message she expressed at the Tomah City Council meeting Tuesday night during her monthly report.

Thompson expects additional discussion to confront racism in Tomah. That Facebook post ignited a fuse.

"It shed a light that we need to have serious conversation on how we are treating people of different color," Thompson said. "This is not what we want to be known for, not how we want to be living in our communities, not how we want people to feel coming into our community."

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