Fellow White People

I am a white, middle-class woman.  And I have this to say to the rest of you white people:

There is racism in this country.  I can see it.  If you can’t see it, it’s because you aren’t looking.  Plain and simple.

You have the luxury not to see it (because you are white) and you are choosing not to see it.  Period.

Okay, maybe you are only five-years-old and you have never left your little circle of friends so you’ve never seen it.  Okay, you get a pass.

But, wait, did you ask your non-white friends what they think?  Did your non-white friends tell you that racism exists?  Yes, but they have it wrong?  What?  How could you possibly know this better than they do?  This thing you’ve never seen–you think you have some sort of special radar for?

I guess you ignore those times when some stranger says something racist to you.  Don’t tell me it’s never happened, because it’s happened to me more times than I can count.  Some white person decides my pale skin means I’ve got the same random ideas running around my head as they do…and the next thing I know I’m being treated to some racist observation on slavery, Ebonics or baggy clothes.

To hell with you if you don’t recognize that for what it is.  To hell with you if you don’t say something to counter it, or at least walk away.

Why am I so hard on you?  Because I don’t know if we white Americans are mean or stupid, but we can only be one or the other.  We’re stupid if we don’t see racism.  We’re mean if we don’t care.

Think of it this way:  So one culture, we’ll call them Culture A, makes slaves of another culture, we’ll call them Culture B.  It’s hardly unique.  You see a lot of it in the Bible.

This system tends to work best when the cultures are visibly different.  In our case let’s assume you can generally tell the two cultures apart without exerting too much brainpower.

You can imagine that the system that puts Culture A in a position to own another culture also feels entitled to justify its superiority.  What would it use to do so?  Would it use moral arguments?  Religious arguments?  Economic arguments?  Legal arguments?

It would use every argument it could think of.   Since everyone in a position of power benefits from these arguments, no one challenges them.  Those who do are squashed like bugs.  Over time, the arguments become pervasive and increasingly sophisticated.

Now pretend something comes along and abolishes the system.  Pretend that by taking away free labor Culture A suffers an economic downfall.  Do you think Culture A is going to be happy about this?

Let’s pretend the abolition comes from the outside.  Can they be forced to be happy about that?  Now that their economy is in the tank and things are harder on them than they have ever been, do you think they will be willing to share what little they have left?

Or are you thinking that Culture A, backed by all the arguments they had for slavery, will try its darnedest to develop a system as close to the one they had as they can possibly make it?

Do you think they will pass laws that say, “You’re right, our bad!” or “You’re still not good enough, and don’t you forget it”?

When in the history of the world has Culture A, under these circumstances, turned to Culture B and said, “We don’t have much, but what we have we’ll share.  No hard feelings.”?

Whether it’s Pharaoh running back to recapture his Jewish slaves or the South imposing Jim Crowe, Culture A has a strong preference for systems that keep Culture B down.  Slavery is just one.  Jim Crowe is another.

And in this scenario, what will happen when Jim Crowe laws are abolished?  Will Culture A roll over then?  Will they say, “We still don’t have much, but we got the message.  We’ll share now.”  Or will they dig in their heels, determined to fight to keep what they have?

Let’s remember that all along Culture A has kept up legal moral, religious and economic arguments for their system.  They honestly believe it is the better system, at least for them.  And no one has ever accused Culture A of being dumb, so these arguments are very sophisticated.

With the previous systems abolished, what more do they have?  They still have the most important thing of all–power.  They can no longer penalize Culture B for being Culture B.  But they can criminalize Culture B’s behaviors.  They can convince others that Culture B’s behavior is worse than another other.  They impose a more sophisticated form of Jim Crowe.  Incarceration.

No, you say, no.  You’ve gone too far.  Only the South had Jim Crowe.  The North and West let it exist, but they aren’t racist.  All across the nation, more African-Americans are in prison than should be.  But it can’t be race-based, because the north, east and west do it too.  African-Americans just commit a lot of crimes.

Have you been paying attention?  Let’s go back to Culture A.  Some people who belong to Culture A lived outside slavery and Jim Crowe.  They didn’t benefit from Culture A’s economic system.  But do you think they shared Culture A’s value system?  Do you think arguments of superiority fell entirely on deaf ears?  Go back to the Bible.  When has a message of superiority ever fallen on deaf ears?  Did the Philistines deny that they were better than the rest?  The Romans?

Whether it’s used to support genocide of indigenous peoples or discrimination against immigrants, an argument of inherent superiority, whether based on birthplace or skin color, is almost always well-received.  People fall for it time and time again.

Nothing I’m saying, white America, is new.  It’s all regurgitated.  You’ve heard it time and time again, mostly from people of color.  Yet you are too mean to care or too dumb to see it.

People have been screaming that Black boys and men are thrown into jail or gunned down in our streets, but you don’t believe it’s a crime to be Black in this country.  They’ve been shouting about how much we have to do, but you point to how far we’ve come.

Maybe you don’t care.

That makes you mean.

Maybe you think they don’t know what they are talking about, but you, you who are much less affected, you do.

That makes you stupid.

In order to believe that, you have to discount what people are telling you.  You have to ignore context and common sense and decide that people are so good-hearted that at some point in our nation’s history everyone woke up and said, “We tried this racism thing.  It worked out well for us white folks.  But now let’s give it up.”

I must have missed this point in history.  Was it the Emancipation Proclamation?  But that was followed by Jim Crowe.  Was it the Selma March?  But that was followed by an assassination.  The Voting Rights Act of 1964?  But what does this even mean when its a crime to be Driving While Black on your way to polling place?  What does it mean when your boy is shot dead for wearing a hoodie?  What does it mean when everyone tells you there’s something wrong with the way you speak, the way you dress, the family you came from, the food you eat, the very fact you exist?

You are idiots if you don’t see this, fellow white people.  Wake up.  You’ve got some perfectly good folks waiting to treat you nicely if you only reach out to them.  Respect them.  They’ll give it back.  Learn from them.  They’ll learn from you.

And here’s the biggest secret of giving up racism, the thing no one tells you–you will be better off.  They always tell you the other folks will be better off.  But the truth is you will be better off.  Giving up racism can be done as a purely selfish act.  Because the pay-off, even just to you, is huge.

Maybe you will get cancer, and it will be cured by some folks who grew up poor and Black but finally got some opportunities.  Maybe you will fall in love with someone you would never have considered before.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it will be like it is for me. That the whole world opens up.  That you feel a vital part of the world God has made for all of us.

Don’t be a dumbass or an asshole.  Try it.

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A White Man’s Apology

White men do apologize.  I’ve actually heard them.  Sometimes it’s genuine and heartfelt.  Sometimes they hear you out, realize their errors, and express sincere regret.  It does happen.  It happens very often if you have greater status than they do, and even sometimes when you don’t.

But if the white man has power, whether that power comes from social status, a business relationship or even his own head, it rarely happens.  This belief in his own superiority is very powerful.  It gives him this sense that, whatever you meant by pointing out his error, you are wrong.

Let’s use an example.  Say you want to point out that he mispronounced “hegemon.” You could politely point out that in the UK and the US, we pronounce the “g,” a little differently.  In the UK it sounds like a dart game, but in the US it sounds like “hedge-a-mon,” like the name of a Wall Street reggae band.  You could offer him this face-saving way out.

If it’s just you and him, you’ll get an intolerant smile, as if you just farted but he’s polite enough to ignore it.  You’re supposed to be grateful for that, by the way.  Giggle or blush and give him an thankful glance.  Or don’t.

If there’s an audience, you’ll get a tight smile and a lifetime enemy.  But he wasn’t much worth having as a friend anyway.

You may also want to let him continue to mispronounce it.  It may not be important enough to make enemies.  And you won’t be the only one relishing the irony.

Let’s pretend the lie is a bit more ambiguous.  Pretend he says that his 33 minute 5K finish time is more impressive than your 30 minute 3-miler.

Maybe you want to handle this one with humor, too.  Maybe you want to say it’s because his big feet bring him half-way to the finish line before your first step has landed.

About half of these guys will think this is a compliment.  The other half will decide you just granted permission to use sexual innuendo, and they will be thrilled to take advantage of it.

Any audience you have will likely be in on the joke with you.  When a jerk is in the conversation, most people already have an active interior monologue going, and they will be happy to see you’ve joined the play.

But let’s pretend it’s something serious.  Pretend he says that orangutans are closest to humans, and before you can stop yourself you hear your voice saying that it’s actually chimpanzees.  Pretend you stop yourself before you bet on which animal he is most like.

Cornered, like the orangutans, he has several options.  The male of this species tends to throw his arms around wildly to intimidate his opponent.  Therefore, you may hear your opponent double-down.  He may look you dead in the eye and tell you you are wrong.  He may accompany this statement with a superior smirk because if he thinks you are wrong, you are wrong:  No further evidence needed.  An especially delusional white man may even suggest someone look it up.  He’ll rarely do it himself because, well, he’s sure.

If that happens, he’s overplayed his hand.  You are right.

Now comes the “apology.”  It can take several forms.

One:  Denial.  You are on the wrong website.  You should have used his website.  No, he can’t remember what website that was.  But it was better.

Two:  Blame-shifting.  There was no way for him to know his information was wrong.  To build credibility, he may drop the name of some hapless entity, like The New York Times or National Geographic.  For a moment, you might even wonder if someone analyzed President Trump’s DNA.  But then you’ll realize no one would mistake him for human.

Three:  His feelings.  This one usually starts out with a story about how you made him feel, as if you are more responsible for his feelings than he is for yours.  As if you are supposed to apologize.  He may even convince you did something wrong.  Maybe you interrupted, you didn’t consider his perspective, you didn’t care enough about his feelings.  There are a lot of “I’s” in this apology, as in “I was only trying to say…” “If you had let me continue, I’d have said…” and “I was only trying to make the point….” This “apology” is most often used against women, because he is often genuinely offended that a woman did not consider his feelings.

Four:  His understanding.  Oddly, this one may combine apologies two and three and come out making some amount of sense.  For instance, he may say he read that male orangutans beat the ground and show off when they feel threatened, and he’s really threatened by talking to someone as impressive as you are, so he felt like an orangutan.

I’m just kidding, of course.  That never happens.  Instead you get apologies two and three.  It’s just both apologies.  It doesn’t form a new apology at all.  And it certainly doesn’t show any self-reflection…because we wouldn’t be having this conversation if that ever happened, right?  It’s just more of him and what’s important to him, with no consideration for you.

My advice, when presented with one of these “apologies”?

Ignore it.  Stick to the original story line.  The topic was which animal is the closest to humans.  These personal defenses (and passive-aggressive personal attacks) are irrelevant.  The answer is chimpanzees.  Don’t let anyone be confused about that.  This isn’t about you or him, it is about chimpanzees.  And the fact that the best way to sound like an orangutan is to argue with one.

Racism in the Military

“We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Martin Luther King, Jr

Yesterday was Memorial Day.  I am a veteran.  I never deployed, but I retired after 20 years.  Hopefully that establishes some personal credibility with those of you who like personal attacks.  Or maybe its ammunition—I don’t know and I don’t care. 

Given the occasion, let’s talk about racism in the military.

We have a pretty good military.  Our self-discipline is the envy of nations across the globe.  Our integrity is unimpeachable.  Our minds are tough, our bodies tougher.  We have the nation’s respect and we earn it, over and over again, day in and day out.

We are proud of our diversity.  We integrated well before the public at large, and we did it right.  We did it by fiat.  We did not ask permission.  We simply said it will be done and it was done.  People who did not like answering to Black men had to get out, no discussion, no debate.

The military is a wonderful example of the benefits of diversity.  It accepts every healthy volunteer, regardless of ethnicity, national origin, or even immigration status.  It is stronger because of it.  Colin Powell is only one example of how strong the military can be when it ignores things that don’t matter (such as race) and focuses on promoting those that exhibit the things that really matter (personal integrity, leadership, scholarship, vision). 

But the military is still a part of society.  It can be just as ignorant, just as racist. 

Every quarter of every year, for twenty years, I saw a slide show required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  It showed discipline trends across the service.  How many courts-martial.  How many non-judicial punishments.  By installation.  By mid-level headquarters.  By type.  By race.

And there were two revelatory things about the slides on race.  First, without fail, they showed a disproportionate number of charges and convictions against Black men.  Second, without fail, the response from the audience was, “Next slide.”  No discussion, no comment.  Next slide.

What does this mean?  Do the statistics lie?  Does the military expect Black men to commit more crimes than others?  Does the military think Black men are more dangerous than others?  That they deserve greater punishment?  That nothing can be done about this?  That this is a bigger problem than even our military can solve?  Or that it just doesn’t matter? 

Here’s one possibility.  Follow me here:  The military hates dissent.  Hates it.  It is the antithesis of a disciplined military.  If I am in command and I tell you to take that hill, you take it.  You must take it even if you know you will die taking it.  You are not to stand around and debate it.  The hill is there. You’ve been trained to take it.  That training did not allow for debate.  The training told you when I said to take the hill you were to take it.  You are not to think of the pros and cons, weigh the costs and benefits or analyze the alternatives.  You were born only to do this thing I am telling you to do right now.  You must take the hill.  The hill was created only for you to take it.  It is before you now for the sole purpose of being taken.

This sort of thinking worked wonderfully for the initial stages of integration.  The military integrated and never looked back.  But it failed to look forward into the following stages of integration.  It failed to provide itself with any means for assessing progress beyond that initial stage. 

And that’s where it slipped.  That’s where it allowed incarceration to become the next form of suppression.  It fails to question itself.  There is a hill that needs to be taken.  It is begging to be taken.  They know how to take it—they’ve taken it before.  It’s higher than the one they just crossed.  It will give them the same rewards they got with the last hill—they’ll be a stronger military.  They’ll be examples to the rest of society. 

And yet for the same reasons integration succeeded it has stalled.  Because no one was allowed to question integration.  And now no one is allowed to question the leader who says, “Next slide.”

Well, I’m questioning it.  Military, examine the problem.  See that commanders and others will look at the Black man who used cocaine and the White man who used heroin and decide that cocaine is a more dangerous substance, the Black man deserving of greater punishment.  The Black man will get jail time.  The White man will get treatment or correctional custody, with some chance at rehabilitation. 

You know this is a problem.  Let’s talk about it.  You’ve seen that Black men contribute a great deal to the success of the military—they’ve done this since the Revolutionary War.  You know they are worth saving.  You’ve seen it.  Now address the problem.  See the hill in front of you.  Do some recon on it, and then take it.  You have experts.  Give them voice.  There are those outside the military, too, who would be willing to help.  Turn to them. 

Show us real change.  The solution is within your grasp.  You are closer than any other organization in the nation.  You have the tools to do it.  Lead by example.

Suggested Reading:

It Worked For Me: In Life and Leadership by Colin Powell

20th Century Guide to the Tuskegee Airmen, Air Force Integration, Blacks in the Army Air Forces in World War II, Racial Segregation and Discrimination, … Race Relations in the Air Force by Air University Press