When in the Special Operations Community in the Military, there is something that you begin to notice pretty quickly… There aren’t very many Black People or other minorities around. For the most part, your coworkers in that community are, White. After graduating The Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) in North Carolina, I got assigned to my unit in Fort Lewis, Washington, 1st Special Forces Group. As Black Men, we have this funny thing we do up here in Washington State. We’ll see each other out and about and give each other ‘the nod’. This is a small tilt of the head and making eye contact that says, “Hey Bro! I see you! You’re not alone!” It’s hilarious to think about but it’s a real thing. Walking down the halls at my unit, working in a local gym as a trainer, working in the Emergency Room in a local Hospital, there aren’t a lot of Black Faces and it can feel a little isolating at times. Especially when you encounter racism.
One day I was on my bike riding up 6th Ave near Wright Park. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a pretty well known Street and Park here in Tacoma. As I was going uphill a Grey Jeep came driving the opposite direction and the driver yelled out of the window, “Get a car nigger!” (Sorry for the language but I think it’s important to convey the rawness of the moment) He rolled on down the block to a stop sign and I stopped and looked back and my initial thoughts were, “I wonder who’s Country he’s fought for?” I wanted to flip my bike around and take off after him! I wanted to pull him out of his car and find out how tough he was! I was furious! He was looking momentarily in his rear view as he paused at the stop sign and then pulled off. I thought, “Coward!!!”
As I contemplated going down the hill after him, I can remember a thought penetrating the cloud of anger in my head, “Are you really about to let that foolishness ruin your day?” I settled down and rode on.
I grew up in the deep south (Birmingham, AL). I’ve been called the n-word before. When working in a hospital it happens almost inevitably. A patient comes in drunk/high and belligerent. All the guards are down and what a person truly thinks come out. I’ve experienced racist joking in work/school scenarios. In college I got harassed by campus police officers. Over the years I’ve never gotten very frustrated about it. Sometimes when I tell these stories to friends they get fired up about it (no matter their race). They’re genuinely upset and hurt by it all. It’s never affected me too deeply. I think a primary reason for that is growing up and experiencing teasing and bullying on a regular basis. No matter what a person chooses to use as ammunition for attack, it’s still attack. Race, bodyweight, scars, clothes, money, hair, etc. We as humans are good at finding and scrutinizing what we don’t like. We can also easily find ways to justify it, even we it’s clearly ridiculous (cognitive bias).
Here’s what’s really interesting about me…
Growing up, the abusive language that I experienced came from people who looked like me. The schools I attended while growing up were predominantly Black Schools. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I can be biased against Black People. Back in the Summer of 2016 I had to move home to Birmingham for about 4 months. In that time I realized how much hurt I was still carrying from my childhood. It’s an interesting experience to go back to a physical place where you endured so much pain at the hands of others. There was one day where I was sitting and writing at a coffee shop that was downtown, not far from where I went to High School. I was writing about experiences that I had in that same place. In the midst of writing I began to get angry. Not with those involved with the incident, I was angry at the whole city. I began to breath harder. I knew I needed to step outside. When I stepped onto the sidewalk, as people walked by, in my head all I could see were enemies. All I could see were the perpetrators of so much pain. In my mind I knew this was unreasonable, but when I write about the experiences, I relive them and, in the moment, it’s hard to seperate the incident from the city of people associated with it. Guilty by association. That Summer I learned that I needed to work on forgiving my own people (Black People).
I also needed to learn empathy. Bullying is pretty much accepted as a part of growing up. Nobody marches against it. There are no class action suits against it (that I know of). It’s not illegal. God only knows how many overweight kids get psychologically and physically traumatized everyday at home and school. There were no anti-bullying campaigns when I was growing up. Subconsciously, I’ve grown callous to a lot of things that would cause a noticeable reaction in others (To include racism). The internal anger response to the bike incident maybe a sign that I’m learning how to ‘feel’.
Last Summer I was asked to conduct a workshop for LGBTQ People of Color. My contact asked if I could put together something on overcoming adversity. As I researched, I learned how difficult it is to be a woman, who identifies as lesbian, and is a person of color. It’s like the Holy Trinity of Discrimination – Female/Homosexual/Person of Color. I also participated in a scholarship committee for the Greater Seattle Business Association (GSBA). The scholarship is aimed at students who identify as LGBTQ or Allies. The stories I heard from some of these kids were heartbreaking. Just as traumatic (if not more so) as many of the things I experienced growing up. I think we often think of our own struggles as the apex struggles of humanity. Sexism, racism, homophobia, ageism, classism, and the litany of other reasons we find to abuse other people are vast and numerous. As the objects of that abuse we can become cold/callous as a means of survival and, in that, we can forget that, potentially, someone else has gone through the same or worse, in different ways. That’s me and this experience definitely opened my eyes and softened my heart.
My parents were born in the 50’s in the south. When I listen to Black People talk, who were born in that era or earlier, you can still hear a lot of the pain in their voices as they talk about their experiences with racism. You can also hear the prejudice and distrust that they sometimes have towards Whites. Also, I’ve listened to White People who were born in that era. What’s so interesting to hear is how some of them were taught racism in there households growing up. If you’re a little kid and from the day you could understand language, someone was telling you all kinds of stories about how evil/ignorant/disruptive etc. another group of people is, it would be hard to shift that paradigm without some profound experiences that speak to the contrary. Even then, a person still may not change (cognitive bias). In both of these scenarios, I understand where the prejudice comes from and why it persists. After all, I’m trying to forgive my own people for stuff that happened to me 30 years ago and I’m trying to unlearn behaviors that settled deep into my psyche when I was a kid. I presume this process will be lifelong.
Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable but the response to such things may be the most critical component of change. If I whip my bike around and take off down 6th Avenue after that Jeep that day, screaming and shouting curse words, I look crazy and I further perpetuate all the myths that fill the driver’s head (and potentially onlookers) about Blacks. Though difficult, settling down and moving on was the best response.
Sitting down and trying to understand what forms a person’s viewpoint is the opportunity to create a bridge for relationship and continued discussion. This requires the discipline to overcome emotion and not react to our first inclinations. I definitely encountered prejudice in the Military but I realized that these interactions were opportunities to be an ambassador for my race. The more patient and calm I responded to such things, I have to believe, the more my behavior defused myths about Black Culture. Maybe that posture helped to change someone’s perspective for the better.
We can’t control what’s done to us, but we can control how we respond… And yes, that’s hard. Very hard. We’d better get to work!
Until Next Time…