An Old Story and a New Story

we can’t pretend the Chippewa Valley is free of bigotry and racism, but we can decide to be on the right side of history

David Shih, illustrated by Janae Breunig

In 1999, when my wife and I moved to Eau Claire, we arrived knowing almost nothing about the city we now call home. We joked about the inordinate number of large fiberglass animals seemingly lurking around every corner. Babe the Blue Ox welcomed us to the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum, while the Heckel’s black steer and Ron’s white rooster vied for family restaurant supremacy. And then there was this enormous bald eagle perched atop a local high school, a monument whose size and aspect were so intimidating that I remember being a little frightened at the time.

But what happens if we choose not to believe in Eau Claire’s exceptionalism? In other words, what if we accept that Eau Claire is much more like the Charlottesvilles of the world than not? What do we stand to lose and, more importantly, what might we gain?

I didn’t learn the history of Old Abe and the 8th Wisconsin Infantry until much later, but I was already proud to be part of a state that fought for the Union and against slavery. I grew up in Texas, where in the 1980s, you were taught about the virtue of the Texans at the Alamo and that the Civil War was a conflict over states’ rights. Old Abe was key to Eau Claire’s identity, I realized, part of a broader narrative that defined our community as special, exceptional even, apart from so many others.

Like Charlottesville.

This narrative was challenged earlier this summer when word broke that the National Socialist Movement (NSM), a white supremacist organization, planned to rally in Phoenix Park. Residents quickly organized counter-demonstrations to signal their rejection of the NSM’s message of hate. Even so, many were stunned by the possibility that a Nazi rally could happen in Eau Claire. “This is not who we are,” was a popular refrain.

When Cory Klicko, a local NSM official, announced that he had decided to cancel the rally, the news was no doubt a victory for antiracist organizers and our community as a whole. But I wondered whether this turn of events would serve to strengthen a collective mythology about Eau Claire as a haven from racism and white supremacy.

Because that belief is a problem.

Just as it is a fiction that the people and institutions in the North prior to the Civil War were innocent of the economy of black chattel slavery, so too is it untrue that any of us can choose to stand apart from a system of institutional racism whose policies and practices have shaped our lives in what can be imperceptible ways – where we live or go to school, what we can and should do for a living, whom we might befriend or fall in love with.

Dozens of Wisconsin communities such as Appleton and Janesville were known as “sundown towns” because they were racially engineered to be almost exclusively white after dark. Historian James Loewen argues that racism was worse in the Midwest than in the South for this reason. This legacy of exclusion remains with us most starkly in our region’s demographics today. Racism manifests in many forms, overt hate speech only the most obvious.

But what happens if we choose not to believe in Eau Claire’s exceptionalism? In other words, what if we accept that Eau Claire is much more like the Charlottesvilles of the world than not? What do we stand to lose and, more importantly, what might we gain?

Granted, we would no longer be able to say that “we’re better than this.” But upon what authority and from which perspective could we make such a claim anyway? When my white friends have said this to me, I recognize their good intentions, but I also know that I grasp the reality of our situation better than they do.

Yet accepting that Eau Claire is as enmeshed in the nation’s racist abuses and injustices as any other place is neither cynical nor disabling. Just the opposite. We gain something quite precious: more choices for how to live our lives.

Sundown towns restricted the possibilities of the lives of their residents without their even knowing it, curating their sense of reality and the world around them. Acknowledging the reach of racism and white supremacy in our day-to-day lives, on the other hand, presents us with more options for ethical action. The courage and energy found for a counter-protest could also inspire regular, antiracist decision making, creating new opportunities for us to become the people we never imagined we could be.

Old Abe the war eagle is Eau Claire’s best-known Civil War veteran. But he is also just a bird who, over the years, came to symbolize not only what the state and nation needed him to be, but also who we needed ourselves to be – people on the right side of history. This is not an identity that we inherit from a comforting story but one we must struggle to achieve every day. Not where we live but how we live is the ultimate testament to our morality.

David Shih teaches in the English department at UW-Eau Claire. He blogs on race and racism at professorshih.blogspot.com.

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