Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Racism Matters To Me

I'm a middle aged white guy.  I have never been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, my national origin, religion, or anything else. I've never been turned down for service in any restaurant, hotel, motel and no one has turned me down for a job because of the way I look. So why would someone like me get so riled up over racism?

Oh, I've had racists take me for one of them more times than I care to count.  Maybe it's the fact that I don't scream in their faces when they show themselves for what they are that would cause a guy back in my college days to confide in me in a conspiratorial whisper that he "he used to go shoot up Nigger Town back home."  Maybe it's that I know that racism doesn't respond at all to reason or facts so I just let them rant themselves out as I sit there quietly.  Maybe it's just that I don't think someone's skin color or accent says any more about them than the color of their eyes.  I don't know - maybe I should walk around wearing this and that would stop:

but I doubt it.

I blame my concern over racism to a day back in high school.  Back then, we had school clubs and were alloted class times to meet.  I don't recall the name of the club I was in at the time, but the discussion was about the word "nigger."  Our faculty advisor was trying to make a point that it was just a word and its power was what we gave it.  OK, this went well with the white kids in the room including me then some of the black kids started to talk.

It was going about as you'd expect then it came to a quiet black girl and her time to talk.  She did something for me at least that had never happened before then: she gave a human face to what racism does to its victims.  She tearfully told us of a night during a family vacation.  They had driven all day, were very tired  and were looking for a motel for the night, only to be turned down time after time and told explicitly it was because of the color of her family's skin.  It was one thing to think of racism's effects in the abstract - we'd all read or at least heard of books at the time like "Black Like Me" and read of distant tenements where babies were being bit by rats.  She brought it home.

The tears, pain and humiliation on that young black face has stayed with me to this day.  That's when fighting racism became important to me - I vowed to do whatever I could to see to it that no other American had to go through what she did and worse ever again.

I'm fortunate in that that incident broke me out of my own, home taught bigotry at a young age.  What helped even more was, of all things, a class on racial tolerance when I was in the US Navy.  They were having racial "incidents" aboard ships and such at the time (early '70s) and this was their way of trying to ease the tensions.  They did the usual "let's be reasonable about this" routine but what stuck with me from that was a method they taught to make yourself see the person and not the color, etc. 

It works like this:  If you see someone who makes you uncomfortable based on the way they look, take that image, make that person looks change to something you are comfortable with in your head, then bring back what they really look like.  Try it, it works like a charm and has blessed me over the years to be open enough to have had a rainbow of friends and acquaintances that I might never have had otherwise. 

That "rainbow" paid off in an unexpected way for me.  My two sons, from infancy on, were also exposed to people of varying backgrounds and colors and as grown men now are pretty much bigotry-free.  One of my proudest moments as a father was when my son told me about something that happened at his apartment.  He is a huge fan of rap music and had a large poster of his favorite rapper on the wall at the time.  One of his friends brought a new guy with him to visit.  The new guy pointed to the poster and asked, "Who's the nigger?"

My son told him to turn around and leave, right now.  I was nearly popping the buttons off my shirt at how proud I was of my kid for that.

Racism is stupid and a waste of American human resources.  Just think, thanks to racism the man or woman who could have cured cancer could now be standing on a corner drunk or high.  It's getting better and rarer (or at least was until the election of a black President), but it's foolish to think it's entirely gone.  And that is a shame for us all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

GREAT ARTICLE ! I love white un-racist males.