I am so tired of the memes these days. They are all extremely polarizing, silly one liner justifications for whatever side the person happens to be on and are worse than bumper stickers. And I have been sucked in and lashed out at a few of them. I want to apologize to those of you who I have been harsh to with my comments and dumb memes I’ve posted.
In all the things I have read and seen online, on FB, Twitter and Instagram and so on, 2 people have stood out. Isaac Olivarez and Giovy Sanders have taken the time to really put some thought into what they are saying and have been real, honest and vulnerable. They inspire me. They have made me look at myself and my history when it comes to race relations, racism and in my case, ignorance and preconceived notions.
What I’m about to write isn’t perfect, may not get to the core of what I’m trying to say. Sometimes it is just hard to articulate what you are really trying to do or say. But, I have to try.
I grew up in a completely white community and it wasn’t until the age of 10 that I first met a black kid. My Boy Scout Troop went to a large summer camp with troops from all around Minnesota. There was a Troop from Minneapolis that was all black. I did stare at them, because, well, I had never met a black kid in person. Anyway, we were all waiting in line to cross a rope bridge when one of the black kids just stood there and wouldn’t cross, some kids were telling him to hurry up and cross. I will never forget what he said, “Make me”. Standard kid thing to say. I will never forget what I said, it’s something I had said thousands of times to my brothers and friends, “We don’t make trash, we burn it”.
The next few minutes that unfolded rocked my world. Before I knew it I was surrounded by 10 black kids who were all pushing me, slapping me and kicking me…I still remember one kid who had a smear of mustard on his face from an earlier encounter with a hotdog.
I was truly scared, trembling and so confused…why were these guys so upset? Why would they attack like that? I just made a joke! I said it to 1 kid why am I surrounded by 10? It wasn’t until several years later that I understood why he and all of his friends would surround me and what it meant, in the 70’s, right off the Civil Rights movement, to tell a black kid he was trash and you were going to burn him. Even today, I wish I could go back and explain my intent to him, help him understand what I meant.
I was ignorant to his story, his culture and experiences. I was ignorant of a lot of things then and no doubt still have more to learn.
But I learned something in my 10 year old mind. Be afraid of groups of blacks.
I joined the Army at 18 and got an even bigger eye opening to race, ethnicity and culture. Wow! I never knew there were so many black people in America. ( I went to a High school of about 2600 kids. I think we had 3 black kids in the whole school.)
When I first joined, I was constantly on edge, waiting for the moment. Trying to watch what I said and did. I didn’t do fare well in Advanced Individual Training (Basically Job Training). I had a run in with a black squad leader and told him, if given the chance I’d shoot him…in the testicle. You might be wondering if I was a punk. I was. The next 4 weeks were hell. Every black guy in the platoon took shots at me, I was punched, pushed and threatened at every opportunity they had. I barely slept, wondering when the blanket party was coming. (Code Red for you Marines).
Again, I said something out of ignorance not knowing that man’s life, history or story. He and his friends were threatened and reacted to a threat. I don’t blame them.
But, I was still scared. Until I met an old crusty Sergeant First Class. (He was probably 35 yrs old!). He was nearing retirement and had served in Viet Nam, he was big, he was black and he was scary, at first. He taught me something. He taught me to know the person, not assume the stereotypes of the culture. He modeled how to treat people, as an individual first, no assumptions, no jumping to conclusions.
My 20yrs in the Army were the most formative and informative years of my life. I learned that it didn’t matter where you came from, what color you were or what your background was. I learned that we all had mom’s, celebrated births, mourned loss, had bias and assumptions, were ignorant to each other’s culture. And we all learned together, learned what it meant to come from Alabama, Texas, New York.
Even then I made mistakes along the way. I’ve had to apologize to my black friends for assuming they came from the Ghetto or assumed all blacks liked watermelon and fried chicken or that the Native American in our platoon didn’t like being called Chief.
I mostly remember the good people I served with. Men and women from Africa, Germany, Pacific Islands, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guam, Korea, Philippines and many other places around the world. We all just wanted a good life for ourselves and our family. We were proud to serve and protect America and our friends and family back home. we worked together for a common good and a common mission.
I can tell you, I am better, because of being thrown into the melting pot of the military.
I can also tell you that I am not completely there yet. I can tell you I have to fight deeply rooted bias, I have to self evaluate, I have to not get defensive when my notions are confronted.
I have hope in America. I have hope that we are not a racist country, maybe just ignorance that can be overcome. I have hope that I will continue to change and grow.
Special thanks to Isaac and Giovy who gave me the courage to be honest and vulnerable.
Philippians 3:12, NIV: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”