18 August, 2009

Life in Black and White

I'll never forget the day I discovered racism. [click for more]

I was about 5 years old and watching a TV show, a rare treat. The central character was being mistreated and I couldn't understand why. My mother said, "They don't like him because he's black." My response was a confused and forthright, "But that's stupid!" Of course she agreed, and tried to explain how "some people don't understand that. They don't know any better."

The fact that I was white (a pale white) and my friends came in skin shades ranging from mine to the deepest shades of brown was about as relevant to my evaluations of them as the fact that our hair came in different shades, too. People of a variety of skin colors were my family's best friends, my father's classmates, and our fellow worshipers at church.

This intermixing continued through high school--white was merely a plurality; the senior class vice-president was black, and the senior president was a Hispanic guy with the last name of Chan. I don't remember the other class officers, but they included at least one person of Asian extraction, and I think only one was white.

Going to college was a shock. Not only did people segregate themselves in the cafeteria (that never happened in high school), but I had the joy of taking classes that taught me I was a racist and introduced me to all sorts of racist ideas that had never before even crossed my mind.

I couldn't possibly document all the people of a variety of races who have been a part of my life. Some because I never really considered their race, others because they never stood out--there hasn't ever been a time when my social millieu didn't include a variety of races.


The director of the USO facility where I volunteer--a friend whom I have come to deeply respect and appreciate--retired from thirty years in the Marine Corps after having risen to among the highest levels of his profession. A couple months ago he strolled back into the facility on a slow day and snuck up behind me. He greeted me with a jovial, "Hey there, Pinkie!" before disappearing into his office without ever giving me the time to shake the reverie in which I had been lost and turn around.

"Pinkie?" It took me at least three or four beats of "Hunh?" before I realized what he meant: I was once again using the tiny pink laptop computer he always teases me about. And as I glanced up through the window into his office and saw the rich, dark color of his skin for the first time since he'd walked in the door, another thought slowly formed in my mind...

"Why didn't you think of race as one of the possible contexts for what had at first seemed an inexplicable comment?" A racialized person would've instantly assumed it was about our respective races. But that interpretation had obviously never occurred to either of us. I looked around the room, knowing that the young Marines lounging on the sofas must've heard what he said, too. Not a single one looked at all disturbed by a comment like that from a black man to a white woman. I thought that was pretty cool.

More recently I commented on a picture in his office. It showed him standing with an elderly black man and I asked if he were a relative. He told me the man was actually one of the first blacks in the Corps and asked what I knew about the history of blacks in the Marines. I told him I knew that though they'd integrated late, black enlisted Marines had been tremendously successfulreaching leadership roles in percentages far beyond their relative numbers.

But he told me the details. What it boils down to is that it wasn't until 1941 that Marines were accepted into the USMC, and even then they were not truly integrated. The first black Marines were trained at Montford Point, near Camp LeJuene. Thus they are called Montford Point Marines. Today an entire veterans organization is dedicated to preserving their memory and example.

It's funny. Thirty years ago I would've been be entirely fascinated by that conversation, as my child self had been when I sat in the lap of my mother's best friend, comparing our hands and asking why mine where the same color front and back, while she had lighter palms with backs of the same rich chocolate color as the rest of her.

But this time there was a bit of discomfort. I didn't really care to hear about how honorable Marines were treated so dishonorably just because they looked different, as I sat across from this highly-accomplished man whose "fathers" had been subjected to such indignity. But I set that aside and put on my big-girl pants, talked about what I knew, and listened to learn what I didn't. I had nothing to be ashamed of, I told myself, and so I refused to take on the shame that society has tried to thrust upon me ever since I sat in that first college class.

I was glad when the conversation was over, though.

Then, a couple days after that, he invited me to accompany him and his wife as their guest to a scholarship dinner-dance for the veterans organization I mentioned above. I was truly honored to be asked. Though I wondered if it would be awkward, I wouldn't have dreamed of doing anything but gratefully accepting his kind invitation.

Now the dinner approaches and while on one hand I look forward to it, there's something else there too... I don't know if it's because I fear the societal shame certain people would like me to shoulder, and which will surely be front-and-center at the event... or if it's because I fear this friendship could change. I like it being about nothing but military service and military support, with innocent and artless jokes that others less sanguine would misinterpret. I think I like the freedom to disregard our mutual heritage and pretend it's all about today and nothing more.

An interesting dichotomy that the military is one the most racially-integrated of American institutions... and yet only just-barely removed from open and institutionalized racism. A tribute to the fine people who comprise it today, but a bit uncomfortable for the newer generations who can't relate to the process the older ones went through and would rather it just all fade away.

I miss high school.


Postscript: I'm not sure it's wise to write on this topic when I know I'm not at my clear-headed best. I felt the need to get it out on "paper," though. Hope I've expressed myself well. We'll see...