Out of the blue, my employer decided to make Juneteenth a company holiday. The leadership team's hope is that employees will take some time to reflect, research, and understand their role in society today and how to help move us forward through these troubling times. As before when they shutdown globally for #BlackoutTuesday, I decided to actually do something positive instead of just having the day off.
In light of all the recent police violence, murders, and Black Lives Matter protests, I've been thinking a lot about my origins, family history of racism, and what it means to be a white person in my position today.
My goal with this post is to shed some light on what I've discovered about myself over the years. Teach others what I've recently come to understand as "systemic racism" and how it can be changed one person at a time. Perhaps explaining how my I made mistakes in raising our boys over the years will help other parents prevent the same mistakes. Maybe this will help someone else that might believe they are not racist or are turning a blind eye to it, or are simply sticking their heads under the sand and believing it will all go away. Maybe it will start some dialog between family members. I certainly hope it will help someone in some way.
I grew up pretty poor. I was the seventh child to a single mother in a smallish town in the Texas pandhandle. My mother pretty much single-handedly supported us by doing clerical work from home. She literally had to work 12 to 16 hours a day, every day, to make ends meet. Eight mouths are a lot to feed and things were often very tight. I remember many times going hungry throughout the day and wanting more food when none was available.
As our mother was so often working, the seven of us were frequently free (if not downright kicked out of the house) to go and explore and do pretty much whatever we wanted. The younger four of us formed a pack of friends in the neighborhood and roamed all over the place.
At home and about town, we were exposed to all sorts of situations that kids that young should not have experienced. Today, a parent would likely be reported to Child Protective Services if someone saw circumstances like ours. Back then, things were different than they are today.
One of the biggest things we were exposed to at home and about town was racism. In my neighborhood and experience, racism against black people was pretty limited. Quite simply, there were not that many around. Despite that, at a very young age, I knew the "N word". It wasn't said as the "N word" though. I literally heard the full word on occasion. I honestly don't remember if I ever spoke it myself at a young age though.
While blacks were not well represented in my community, Hispanics were. We had the "W word" for them. As it's not as commonly known as the "N word", I'll use it one time for those that don't know it. "Wetback". It's a derogatory term used to slur someone of Hispanic origin. It's used to suggest they illegally crossed into Texas by swimming across the Rio Grande from Mexico.
I heard the "W word" virtually every day. I'm ashamed to admit I used it frequently myself. I grew up with an "us vs. them" mentality when it came to Mexicans. I was too young to understand the "why" of this, but it was definitely there. Perhaps poorer, working class white people were frequently at odds with Hispanics over housing and jobs? Perhaps it's simply that racism was more openly prevalent back then and no one feared any repurcusions from it?
I'd love to say I had some defining moment where I bravely fought down racism or defended a black or hispanic person in a dangerous situation. What really happened is more mundane. At the age of 12, I moved to Austin, Tx. With fewer mouths to feed, we were moving up in the world. My mom got a better job, and we moved to a much nicer neighborhood. We weren't "poor" anymore. However, we certainly weren't well off like so many around us. In fact, I understood what "wealth" was for the first time in my life there.
In my neighborhood in this new city, there was less class distinction and friction because ... there were pretty much only white people. I only have the vaguest memory of a handful of minorities back then. No one used the "W" or "N" words here - at least not openly.
As I went into high school, I started to see more minorities. Because I was no longer constantly exposed to racism, I was able to see them in a different light. I no longer felt peer pressure to give them names. I started to be very uncomfortable with the idea of that at all.
Because we had a drug problem in our household, the four youngest kids made a pact to never to drugs. We had seen so much turmoil and destruction from it that we would never let it affect us again. Fortunately, 3 of us stuck to it.
Back then, I also made a private pact with myself. I would not be racist like my parents' generation. I literally made that decision because I thought it was ugly and vile and made me a worse person.
I was a shy, introverted, and lonely high school kid. I didn't want to make anyone else feel the same way. While I never took positive action to improve the lives of any minority, I certainly didn't want to add to any problems they might have faced.
The Navy - The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
When I was 18, I joined the Navy and went off to boot camp. My "company" of 80 people was a mixed bag of everyone across the socio-economic spectrum and all parts of America. It was a struggle for the first few weeks to get all of these young, different individuals to think of them themselves as a team instead. We made progress though.
At one point, my Company Commanders noticed my work ethic and assigned me a leadership role. I was one of 8 team leaders responsible for making sure my 10 or so "shipmates" got to the right classes, performed our cleaning duties, and were always ready for inspection.
This is when I got my first taste of real, raw race relations in America. One evening, my team was all on our hands and knees scrubbing the bathroom tiles. All except one of us. He was a big, sullen, black guy I'll name "Richardson" and just sat on the floor leaned up against the wall. Several times, I asked him to get his brush and help out. He refused. Eventually, I told him if he didn't start helping, I'd report him for "IT" the next day.
"IT" or "Intensive Training" was 4 hours of boot camp on steroids - yelling, screaming, tons of verbal abuse while you're forced to exercise relentlessly. NO ONE wanted to be reported to IT.
Richardson certainly didn't either. In fact, he jumped up, yelled "Noel called me a N****r!" and ran out into the the main barracks chanting it over and over - "Noel called me a N****r! Noel called me a N****r! Noel called me a N****r! Noel called me a N****r!"
Needless to say, things got pretty tense. There were about 8 or maybe 10 black people in my company. All of them were riled up. Richardson screamed, "I'm going to tear him up!" Someone started chanting, "Rip! Rip! Rip!" over and over. Many people (some white) joined the chant and started marching around the barracks shaking their fists at me as I stood dumbfounded and scared for my life. The rest of the whites circled around to defend me - not necessarily out of altruism. Everyone was spoiling for a fight. This was literally a Lord of the Flies kind of moment.
Keep in mind, that we were 80 young men (barely more than boys) unsupervised for the evening (Company Commanders left about 7:00 pm each night) except for our own Recruit Commander (the top recruit team leader) and the 6 other team leaders. The Recruit Commander was a short, scrawnly, little kid (more so than even me). However, he was a natural leader. Despite this turmoil, he managed to settle down all 80 of us and get us shutdown for the night and into bed without ever calling the hotline to get help.
Despite the Recruit Commander's efforts to calm the situation, I went to my bed with not so subtle, but quiet whispers, of "Rip! Rip! Rip!". I laid in fear of what was going to come next. I knew this was not over.
Later, there were whisperings, scuttling, and scraping sounds. Suddleny, the lights popped on and someone shouted, "Get back to your bunks!" Amazingly, the guy on watch duty had just stopped a "blanket party". Some people were gathering with towels in their hands. The towels would be wrapped around hard bars of soap. Then, I would have been held down by the edges of my blanket as the others slammed my body with the towels.
The next morning, the Recruit Commander reported the evening's events to the Company Commanders as soon as they arrived. Immediately afterwards, "Richardson" was called into the office and spoke for some time. Next, I was brought in with Richardson still there. I was never allowed to tell my side of the story. In fact, I wasn't even allowed to speak. I was simply told there was no room for racism in the Navy. We were all one color - blue. I was also told that Richardson and I were to:
- Report to IT together every morning for the next 7 days!
- Become bunk mates - he was the bottom rack, I was the top
- Be joined at the hip for 7 days (cleaning, eating, showering, you name it)
- Jointly reprimanded for any infractions: If I failed inspection, he failed inspection and vice versa. If I had to do extra push ups, he had to do them as well.
Needless to say, those were some pretty intense 7 days. I was furious that I'd been falsely accused of something heinous and never even allowed to deny it. I was angry that I was suffering a punishment for something I hadn't even done. Most people in my company believed I had in fact used the N word.
Richardson and I barely spoke through that week. We literally just communicated enough to get through the task at hand. We certainly didn't discuss the incident. However, we did form a bit of ... an understanding (dare I say a bond). No we weren't buddies by the end of it. However, we'd endured some intense, joint suffering. I think we both got to know a little more about each other in a non-friendly way and respected each other a little more after that.
I never spoke to nor heard of Richardson after that. We parted ways at the graduation ceremony. I hope he succeeded in life. I hope that whatever anger drove him to make that claim has dissipated and that he's found no cause to do so again. I hope that he felt sorry for what he'd done and gained some insight from it. I really do wish him the best now, but I know I didn't back then.
After bootcamp, I proceeded with nearly a year and a half of intense training on electronics and nuclear power engineering. I put the incident behind me and almost never told anyone about it (about 3 people have heard this story before). Fortunately, no one from my bootcamp was in my extended training; so, it was as if it never happened. No recruit records become part of an enlisted person's official records.
There were times I was still bitter about it, times where I feared being near black men, but I really didn't let it affect my pact to myself. I did not and never would use the N word.
Eventually, I got assigned to my first boat in California. My Chief was an "old" black man that was getting ready to retire. He was kind and caring and treated everyone the same. I had a great deal of respect for him and was sad to see him retire before our ship left recommissioning. From him, I learned about how the Navy was really at the forefront of the civil rights movement (and before) - giving black men an opportunity to lead and grow their careers.
Along with my Chief, I worked alongside several other black men - several in leadership roles. This was literally the most time I'd ever been around a black person. I came to learn they were just like me. We were young men in positions of high responsibility and sometimes moderate danger. I recalled "the incident" and realized it truly was behind me. I knew that not every black man was out to cause me harm.
Over the years, I worked with many leaders - some black, some white. I liked some and really despised others. The color of their skin made no difference in my opinion of them - because I had come to know them.
While in the Navy, I saw that anyone, regardless of their starting point, could achieve success with enough hard work and commitment. The Navy (or at least what I saw of it and the command I was a member of) truly was color blind. I also saw that angry, sullen, young men (both black and white) frequently ended up in trouble and made no progress professionally or emotionally. They washed out very quickly.
After leaving the Navy, I really felt I was an adult for the first time. I also began to realize a few things about me. Because of my racist upbringing, I was highly attuned to the differences in people. Quite simply, I discriminated constantly.
Now, before you think too poorly of me, you need to understand the real definition of discriminating. It simply means to "make a distinction" or perceive differences. It is not "discrimination" - "the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than individually".
Everyone discriminates. You judge people by their looks (the importance of a first impression). You choose which tomato to buy at the grocery store. Discriminating is a natural part of life - it's ingrained in us primally for survival. "Is that animal a threat or not". Discrimination is when you paint a group, race, or society with a broad brush instead of just as individuals.
However, I must admit my level of discriminating is deeper than that. I came to realize that I literally went through life noticing the differences instead of the collective. I would walk into a mall, office building, down city streets, ...anywhere and mentally classify people into groups: whites, blacks, Asian, women, men, poor, middle class, wealthy, educated, gay, etc.
I also realized that until I got to know an individual, I let my own personal biases for them (whatever classification I assigned them) reflect how I interacted with them. For example, I immediately was wary of any young black man that didn't appear at least middle class. Maybe my feelings about "the incident" weren't completely under control.
Oddly enough, I realized that I was more "income-ist" than "racist". I literally thought less of people I considered poor or not well educated - regardless of their skin color. At the same time, I really had no issues with women in authority. I still mentally classified them. However, my mother's work ethic and devotion to her family made me hold women in higher regard than many other people - deservedly or not.
Despite my pact with myself to not be racist, to some extent, I still was. At this point, I literally began retraining myself mentally. I truly did put an effort into tamping down my initial gut reaction to any person or group I encountered. Yes, I still classified them all, but I worked hard to treat everyone the same. I worked to shove down that initial impression of someone and let them prove themselves.
Walking down the street, I smiled at and said, "Hi" to everyone - intentionally treating every person the same. Now, admittedly, that seems like a pretty small and perhaps useless "improvement". However, I think it was really transformational. I used to be extremely shy and introverted. Simply greeting everyone got me out of my shell. It helped me to realize that everyone is nothing but an individual.
I remember (and still experience) many instances of people from various walks of life being surprised someone unlike them would even greet them. It also helped me to see someone unlike me respond in a kind and friendly manner. People are good when given a chance and no they are not prejudged.
In my professional life, I endeavored to give everyone the same opportunity - regardless of my biases. Some times, I was under black leaders. Sometimes, I was in charge of men and women of every race. I believe, and hope others do, that I treated everyone equally.
I began volunteering at food shelters and pantries to help people of all backgrounds. I found this vital to ensuring I was connecting with people on an individual level. This helped ground me and give back to the community and an opportunity to feel good about myself.
Over the years, this has become much easier for me. I am not as aware of the classification I do. I'm not saying it still doesn't happen. However, it's now subconscious, and I don't have to fight it down anymore and force myself to mentally change my perception of someone.
I married a lovely young woman from England. She was aware of some of what I've talked about above - but not all of it until recently. She knew that I had a strong aversion of "mixed marriages" and homophobia (thanks again to my upbringing) and she was very disappointed in me because of it. Despite all of my shortcomings, she loved me and knew I could/would do better.
When she moved to America, she was surprised by the openness of the race issue here. Please understand, there is racism in England as well. However, it's generally directed at middle easterners or easten European peoples. More importantly, it's just not as obvious as the racial tensions here.
Thanks to conscious effort, I truly am a better person than I used to be. I've changed. I no longer act on my initial perceptions (at least not often). I've grown to not care about whom someone chooses to give their love to or spend their lives with. It's really none of my business. Besides, who was I to judge someone else? I've learned that happiness and love are precious, and I do not care where or with whom someone finds it.
Raising Open-minded Children
When we had our first son, I actually made an internal decision about how to raise him in regards to racism. I don't recall my wife and I actually discussing this though. I decided I wanted him (and his brother later) to be blind to color. I really felt that was the best way to end and avoid racism. We never made distinctions about color and ethnicity. We just treated everyone the same and let our boys see it.
I was delighted about a situation at my son's pre-school. It was a "Spanish immersion" school where only Spanish was spoken. Needless to say, there was a very diverse (racially speaking) mix of people there. Most of the teachers were from Latin America countries. The students/parents were a mix of ethnicities but predominantly white. Everyone was fairly affluent.
My son was telling us about one of his friends at school. We asked him which one, but he couldn't say (he NEVER bothered to learn anyone's name). So, we asked him to describe the friend. As he was only about 5, he struggled to be able to do so. Finally, in frustration, he blurted out, "the one that's not pink!"
My wife and I got a big laugh out of this. It was literally so precious. For me though, it was much more. It was validation that I'd succeeded in breaking the chain of racism. Admittedly, my son was still incredibly young, but I was proud and believed this was the way forward. I truly believed that his continued innocence and my shielding him of racism was the cure to this centuries old problem. I was very wrong and naive.
Learning the N Word
Years later, my boys and I were at a restaurant. My youngest son was telling me about the Minecraft server he had been playing on. Most of the players were friends from our homeschool group. However, there were a few kids on that he did not know. He said he didn't want to keep playing on it because one kid was really annoying him.
I asked what the issue was. He explained that in the chat window, the kid kept typing "N nu nuh nuh nuh n****r" over and over. Except my son said the actual word out loud in a restaurant. I was shocked and mortified and blurted out, "Never say that word" or something like that. I wanted to be sure everyone knew that we weren't racists at that table!
That's when the lightbulb turned on for me. I realized that no matter how "enlightened" I had become, there really was still racism in America, and it wasn't going to magically go away by shielding that generation from it.
I also realized that I had to protect my boys and educate them from becoming racist, or at least using that word unknowingly ever again. We stayed at the restaurant for quite a while as I discussed what the "N word" was. How it was vile and evil and should never be repeated. We discussed what racism was and how slavery had stolen generations of people from their loved ones.
As they were still pretty young, we didn't get too deep. However, I was heartbroken. I worried that my boys were no longer innocent. Like it or not, they would possibly begin to see their friends, peers, or strangers in a different light. Perhaps they would treat them differently. My hopes of them being free from the curse of racism were dashed.
Fortunately, kids are better at handling some things than parents give them credit for. As they'd had a strong experience of socializing with fairly diverse groups, I never saw any of my fears come to light. I became complacent about the subject again and only rarely brought it up again.
There were some obvious mistakes here. First, I didn't do anything to find out who the other kid was. I didn't address this with the owner of the server. Basically, I let my child walk away from time with his friends because I wasn't comfortable confronting the problem. I could and should have done more.
Parenting Lessons Learned
The important lesson I'd convey to other parents is to not let something like this slip by. This is a problem. You may think your kids are not exposed to racism online, but they very well may be. The may not understand what it is yet. They may not act on it. At best, it will stain them. At worst, it may influence them. Don't do what I did and just hold a single discussion about it.
Still Room to Grow
Several years ago, I was contracting for a great company. At one of the company retreats, we had some diversity training. The class was lead by a lecturer that introduced the story of the "Race of Life" (there are several titles given to this training exercise). Essentially, it's goal is to teach about "white privilege".
In the training, she described a theoretical foot race. The race involves a bunch of people across all spectrums that begin at a starting line. It's reported that the winner of the race will receive $100. Then, some special rules are added. "Anyone that was raised with both parents, step forward two paces". "Anyone whose parents went to college, step forward two paces.". Several rules later, and you can see that clearly some people are at a great disadvantage and others are well on their way to winning the race.
As the lecturer described this scenario, I was getting more and more angry. I knew where this was going. I was a white guy that was getting blamed for all the world's problems. With a broad stroke, I was being accused of having taken advantage of others to get where I was. I was being told I had to change.
Finally, the lecturer asked how this made us feel. I explained it made me angry and that I was one of the kids left at the starting line. She didn't seem to believe me so I backed up my statement with a few facts about my past. Then, she asked, "How did being left at the starting line make you feel?"
I explained it made me feel challenged. I explained it made me want to succeed. I swore that the hardship I experienced growing up made me more capable and willing to fight for something better. I truly believe(d) that hard work and dedication can get you anywhere.
There are lots of examples and videos of this story online. Please read them and the comments. You'll get a very broad sense of people's belief in this scenario and other people's rejection of it.
After the session, I met with several people that were very angry about the training. They (and I were offended) that we had been attacked and made to feel guilty without actually knowing where we were from and what circumstances brought us to where we were today.
Since then, I've really debated internally about what I felt and why. While I grew up poor, I didn't go into the adult world poor. By that time, I was "lower middle class". Yes, I'd faced adversity but it wasn't that bad anymore.
I believe that my success has been purely a result of hard work and continued self education. However, maybe there was more. I'm fully aware that having been trained and educated by the Navy helped open many doors for me in my professional life. Maybe my skin color did the same. Would a young black man equally trained and educated in the Navy have the same doors opened for him?
I've never been a fan of the term "white privilege", the concept of reparations, or affirmative action. I've had my opinions on these topics for a very long time. I've believed that many white people talk about it, lament it, but don't actually do anything about it (virtue signaling).
However, I think I should spend more time analyzing where those opinions come from, why I'm so opposed to them, and learning more about them from different perspectives. I'm not sure any of this will change my mind, but it will certainly educate me and make me more empathetic of other people's opinion on these topics.
I was definitely one of the "All lives matter" people as well. However, reading tons of news and opinions on the topic, I've really opened up to why "Black Lives Matter" is a valid point. Not suprisingly, a few comics and twitter posts   were some of the most effective at changing my viewpoints.
Where We Are and Where We Go From Here
Since participating in the #BlackoutTuesday marches, we've spent a lot of time together as a family discussing the recent events that lead to the protests, riots, looting, police brutality, murders, and the Black Lives Matter movement in general. We've discussed "the talk" that black parents must have with their children as they move out into the world and risk confrontation with police.
After writing half of this post today, we went for a hike in a state park. On the way, I explained to the boys why I had today off. As we drove, we read articles about Juneteenth, slavery, the KKK, the Tulsa Massacre, and listened to and discussed "Swing Low Sweet Chariot". We discussed some memes that my son had recently seen that on the first glance seemed humorous but later introspection made me uncomfortable. How viewing those kinds of things over and over desensitizes you to the plight of others. We talked about the danger of these kinds of things - young white men groomed to be racist and join radical white militias, just as is done with young Arab men to commit acts of terrorism.
I'm committing to the following:
- Using the major holidays and events (MLK, Juneteenth, and BlackoutTuesday) to discuss racial issues. We'll read books and articles and watch movies about the history of slavery, the civil rights movement, and recent events.
- Adding additional race related education to our kids' homeschooling curriculum.
- Digging deeper into my feelings about white privilege
- Adding U.S. black owned businesses in my monthly Kiva micro loan efforts.
- I will have my wife and boys read this. We've discussed some of it but not all of it. They need to know where I come from.
- Be willing to discuss this more openly with anyone that would like to discuss it. In the past, this issue was pretty taboo for many people. It's time that changed, and I'm willing to be a part of that discussion.
A Simple Lesson
Clearly, I don't have all the answers. However, I've spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. I'd have one simple suggestion for everyone on all sides to consider:
Start off thinking of and treating everyone you meet as an individual. Don't assume anything about them. They will have biases. They will be different from you in culture, gender, mannerisms, color, speech, income, and dress. Their starting point is not the same as yours. However, let how they interact with you from that point forward be the basis for your opinion of them.