When forced to address the issue of racism, UW-Madison — and overall Madison, for that matter — has been well known for engaging in polite conversations about race — racial discussions that are always pretty timid and superficial and center around the protection of white feelings.
And that’s if those conversations ever even happen.
Eneale Pickett, a second-year elementary education major at UW-Madison, is no longer having it. He recently launched Insert Apparel clothing line to bring awareness to issues of race, gender and sexuality on campus with his sweatshirts that are meant to provoke.
“I first started by saying that I want to start conversations with this apparel, but now I’m saying that I want to shift conversations with this apparel,” Pickett tells Madison365 in an interview at the Red Gym on the University of Wisconsin campus. “Because everybody has been talking about this quietly for too long. People have been talking about race forever, but the conversation has been highly problematic and nothing ever changes.”
The idea for a clothing line came after Pickett felt very disturbed about an incident in Sellery Hall when one of his Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI) First Wave cohorts was spit on by another student. It was one of a string of racial incidents on the UW campus last year.
“It was terrible,” Pickett says. “[The student] told her that everybody on scholarship didn’t deserve to be here and are poor. She went through so much with that incident.”
Pickett would screen print a shirt that said, “Affirmative Action Didn’t Grant You Action to This Space.”
“Students of color are always told that they are here because of affirmative action and that they didn’t work to get here,” Pickett says. “I made the shirt to counteract that.”
Pickett soon began selling other sweatshirts with statements like “All White People Are Racist” and “You Can’t Be A Revolutionary And Homophobic.”
“I wanted to facilitate conversations with clothing. Clothing is very important to movements,” says Pickett, the outreach director for the Wisconsin Black Student Union on campus. “You see the Black Panthers – all black, afro, beret. You see the civil rights movement – highly respectable, suits and ties. Fashion always plays an important role in movements … so this is my movement. Especially in today’s day and age; fashion is everywhere. I want you to think critically about your clothing.”
Pickett hoped to empower marginalized communities, particularly students of color who experience daily discrimination at predominantly white institutions, so the messages on the apparel had to be strong. It was too strong for many.
“The death threats that have come to me are sick. They are on my page, they are sending me messages. They were on my Etsy, on my Twitter, on my Facebook,” Pickett says. “They were just going nuts, ‘FU, ni**er! I wish somebody would have aborted you. You need to hang from a tree. Black people are inferior. Black people are the most racist people ever.’ It was a whole bunch of stuff.”
Pickett had to check out for a little bit and make sure his mental wellness was OK. But there was no way that he was going to stop doing what he was doing.
Next to the “All White People Are Racist” sweatshirts, sold on Etsy, is this explanation: “Racism is a set of systemic, institutional, cultural, and epistemological (although not limited to said forms) structures that inherently empowers white folk and in turn disempowers people of color. This power dictates who lives, have housing, access to education/healthcare etc. Racism has little to do with hatred and mostly to do with who has power. White folk or those who see themselves as white are given said power inherently regardless of socioeconomic class, education etc. This is why white men created race in the first place —to maintain power. Racism gave birth to the idea of race. This is an oversimplified definition.”
Pickett admits that the sweatshirt is not something people want to see or deal with.
“It makes them uncomfortable. I don’t think that people realize that to have these conversations you need to be uncomfortable. But this needs to be talked about,” Pickett says. “I’m sick of having conversations around whiteness to make sure that everybody is comfortable. It’s like we can’t say this or that otherwise they will shut down. If you’re shutting down, then we shouldn’t have this conversation. There’s no growth there. We’re just wasting time here.”
Originally from the west side of Chicago, Pickett came to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison and immediately encountered some culture shock.
“Madison is funny to me. In Chicago, people are really real,” he says. “Here, it’s totally different for me. It’s a little shady here.
“One of my professors here at UW took aside the three black males after class,” Pickett continues. “He called us over, the only three black kids in the class, and said, ‘I just want you to know that you don’t have to talk like me to succeed in this class.’ We were like, ‘What? I’m confused.’ And he said it again. At this point, I’m laughing because I don’t know where this is going. Then he said, ‘Richard Pryor made a joke about black people and white people eating differently.’”
Pickett still couldn’t figure out quite what was going on or where the professor was headed or why they were pulled aside. “It came completely out of the blue. I was really thrown off guard,” he remembers. “I just started laughing because I didn’t want to show anger.”
His First Wave advisor told him he should meet again with his professor instead of letting it go. “We set up another meeting with him and we told him that when he said that we felt like he was saying that his vernacular was more valuable than ours … that his vernacular was correct and that he was trying to devalue ours,” Pickett remembers. “He responded, ‘That’s EXACTLY what I was saying.’”
With that coming from the professors, the interaction with fellow UW students – many originating from rural all-white areas of Wisconsin – has often been much worse.
“I know that racism is not just at UW, but I can’t affect change unless I do it here first … in the environment which I live day in and day out,” Pickett says. “This university drains me on a daily basis … going to classes and the culture shock. White people still go up to black women and touch their hair!”
That’s still a thing?
“That’s still a thing!” Pickett says. “I’m like: Are you serious? This university needs to do better. I know it’s not just here; but it needs to change here.”
The university got away from Insert Apparel pretty quick, Pickett says. “They tried to separate so hard. They released a statement saying, ‘He’s exercising his right of free speech and what he is doing in no way is connected to the university.’ They said that because I threw up a ‘W” in a Facebook page with one of the pictures, but I’m glad I did. They need to be held accountable,” he says.
But Pickett is not interested in people buying a hoodie as a stop-gap measure to temporarily ease your white liberal guilt. “If you’re not actively using your privilege to fight oppression than you’re not really an ally then,” he says.
There are literally a ton of white experts on “microaggressions” and “white privilege” in Madison who have never stepped foot in the black community or even had a black friend.
“Anybody can do that,” Pickett says, “but to actually put yourself out there and to make change is very important and what we need. So, I don’t want people buying these sweatshirts for fun. You have to know what’s going on and be committed to social and racial justice.
“If you are wearing a hoodie and people come up and ask you questions, please know what you are talking about,” Pickett adds. “This reflects on me.”
Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, can be tiring, saddening, and angering. “If you’re a person of color and you wear this, you don’t have to educate anybody. You can keep it moving,” Pickett says. “Even white allies are like, ‘Educate me!’ You’re going about it all wrong. We live in an age with tons of information. Go on the computer, go pick up a book and educate yourself. It’s not a person of color’s job to educate you. That takes a lot out of you.
“If you want me to do all that, I don’t get paid for that,” he adds, smiling. “To be critically aware, you have to do the work. If you’re not thinking about this critically, you just wasted a whole hoodie!”
In a country where many feel that white feelings are valued more than actual black lives, Pickett hopes the clothing will make a difference in the way people think about race.
“I made the statement bold so that you can’t avoid it. I’m no longer centering everything around whiteness and am just going to be nice,” Pickett says. “You’re going to deal with it whether you like it or not … because we deal with it every day whether we like it or not. It’s in your face; you can’t avoid it.”