23 April 2008


i grew up in a small farming community on the northern montana prairie, a town that was, and remains, just about completely lily-white. i remember only one black classmate in high school, and a few indians. i was friendly toward them, but did not become true friends. even white hutterites http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutterites , religious kin to mennonites and the amish, were regarded with suspicion, stereotyped as alien, odd, thievish. they still are seen that way, sad to say.

after i left home, i spent two fairly directionless years in college before dropping out to join the military. it was there that i was thrown into a truly mixed-race setting, from day one. i'm proud to say that i quickly formed friendships with everyone, easily sloughing off my upbringing. once during basic training, i helped defuse a near-riot between black and latino soldiers in my platoon. both sides were facing each other across the squad bay, confrontation and violence crackling in the air. like an idiot (in retrospect), i deliberately walked slowly into the space between them, and sat cross-legged on the floor, asking questions and encouraging them to talk out their beef. somehow it worked, against all odds.

throughout my nearly two years in the army, at radio and radioteletype schools in arizona and georgia, and especially in vietnam, i continued to reach out to blacks and latinos (as well as whites) for friendship, looking for shared understanding. it was a new and rich world to me, this cultural mix, and i wanted to learn as much as i could.

i've never stopped in all the years since. to this day i have latino and black and asian friends around the country. those who say "i'm colorblind, i only see the person" are naive. a person's racial heritage is part of how they grew up, how others treated them, who they've become. but that doesn't mean that skin color has to be the first thing you see, when you get to know someone from a different background. for me, it is a freeing experience to look someone in the eye and think "my friend jabari" or "my friend irene", not "black guy" or "latina woman".

but even with all that liberation, i think that there is no such thing as a white person who is completely free of the effects of racism, any more than is true for people of color. it takes constant, 24/7 awareness and caring to outgrow all that crap, and it is a lifelong process. i feel sorry for those who don't even try. they are missing out on diversity that can only enrich their own lives. i cringe whenever i hear racial epithets, and don't tolerate being around those who use them. if i think the situation calls for it, i'll readily stand up to confront the ignorance. but some battles just aren't worth the trouble.

you doubt that racism is alive and well in america today? two articles in this morning's NYTimes might give you pause for thought. the first article, "american exception" http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/us/23prison.html?ex=1209614400&en=26caf0c15ae6f5a3&ei=5070&emc=eta1 is about the inmate count in u.s. prisons, compared to other countries in the world. we have 5 percent of the world's population, and almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. think about that. and while you're at it, consider that the majority of our prisoners are black, latino, native american. a staggering 25 percent of black males are in jail or prison as i write this. no racism? spare me.

the second article, "the accidental rebel" http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/opinion/23auster.html?ex=1209614400&en=68c1d55cebf9d760&ei=5070&emc=eta1 doesn't focus on racism itself, but talks about events in the seminal year of 1968 (the year i was in vietnam) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968 . it was during the height of the civil rights movement and the birth of the women's movement (second wave). it was the year of the assassination of dr. martin luther king, jr. and bobby kennedy, the year of race riots and ghettos burning. the article's author is 61, as i am. and like me, he fell into relative enlightenment by happenstance rather than design.

from my perspective, the take-home message of both pieces is that not much has changed. one sees less blatent racism than was true back then, but it's still there, just more subtle. i can spot a racist remark a mile away, whether it's about rap music, or recounting a personal memory that (on the surface) is unrelated to race, until you start to question linguistic assumptions.

how many black senators, congressmen, major CEOs to we have? are they in the same proportion as the percentage of blacks in our population? no? i wonder why not? and don't trot out that tired old song and dance about blacks (or indians, or latinos, or substitute your own ethnic group of choice) being lazy, or angry, or feeling entitled to unfair advantage. it is precisely unfair DISadvantage that minorities are struggling to overcome. if we whites have to give a little for that to happen, then it long past time we did so.

personally, i will welcome a world where i can work with, work for, be friends with folks from a rich and colorful array of cultures. that's where the most interesting realities often flourish -- in music, in literature, in life experience. (it is no accident, for instance, that most american music during the 20th century had its roots in black culture -- jazz, rock, hip hop. there's always resistance at first among the old guard, but even most of them start to catch the beat over time.)

so to all you overt and closet racists out there, get over yourselves and join the human race. john lennon said it best:

well you may say i'm a dreamer
but i'm not the only one
i hope someday you'll join us
and the world will live as one.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written! IMAGINE...by John Lennon - nice way to end it too.

    I'm going to mark your blog as a favorite to read - I found you because of our movie favorites.