Last night as I began making all preparations for getting this blog underway in my mind, I gave some thought to where I wanted to begin. I figured that since I am neither black nor religious, that might be a great place to start – black Christianity. Makes perfect sense, right? But before I get into that issue too deeply, I’d like to offer a little personal background. So, let’s single up all lines while we await word from the bridge to take them in and get underway.
I grew up similar to most people I think which is to say that the people in my neighborhoods and at my schools sort of looked like me and had similar backgrounds to me. I never really had much interaction with black people. My grandparents once managed a hotel in Jackson, Mississippi and most of the staff there were black. I really enjoyed spending a couple weeks there one summer because the staff let me hang out with them while they worked, whether it was the maintenance crew, the housekeeping group, or the lobby personnel. And the best part – they barbequed every day at lunch and fed me well. Those barbeques were the highlight of the trip to me. That was pretty much my only exposure to the black community growing up. Sure, there were a few black students at school, but I never seemed to be friends with them. Not a conscious effort, it just didn’t seem to work out that way.
At home, I shared what I imagine is a similar experience to most of those in my neighborhoods. I heard a lot of racial jokes coupled with a pretty liberal usage of that horrible word we all know. (And wasn’t it peculiar how those jokes and that word were uttered so soon after church or in such close proximity to remarks about God?) I remember being analytical about it. It struck me that what these people intended I learn from these jokes was that blacks were inferior. Thanks to a couple of really smart people who taught me HOW to think, I always hated being told WHAT to think. I rebelled against it in my mind and preferred to make my own decisions. So for me, until I had enough evidence and had acquired some personal experience, the jury would remain out despite what I was being conditioned to learn.
And isn’t that what is at the heart of racism? Isn’t it a learned behavior? Aren’t children conditioned into feeling racism in a manner similar to John B. Watson’s Little Albert? (Boats – who the hell is Little Albert?) Aren’t those jokes, that anecdotal ‘evidence,’ and that word all meant to saddle black people with inferior traits, intellect, motivation, abilities, and worth in the minds of children? I think so.
The guys I hung out with in high school were all a year ahead of me in school. None of us had much interaction with black people and the subject never really came up. I can remember when my next door neighbor and great friend Rayce (always baffled me how many girls loved that name – you’ve got to be more on your game as a Jim for sure) told us that he had started playing tennis with a black guy he had met at the courts. We were all a little curious and I think Rayce knew that. I remember him telling us that the guy was a really cool guy and not unlike us at all. Interesting that the notion that he must be so different from us as a person was in play. More conditioning I suppose.
After I graduated high school, I took the summer off and then joined the Navy. I went to boot camp on 21 Sep 87. That was the day I began to be exposed to black people on a personal level. Our company was a group of 80 young men that demographically probably looked a lot like America. Mostly white, quite a few black and hispanic guys, a couple Asian guys. And the guy on the rack next to me was a black guy (from somewhere up north I think) named Lamont. Lamont and I talked a lot. He was a cool guy. We helped each other out on the things that you need to get done in boot camp. And when we got out of boot camp, we hung out together while waiting on our A-school classes to convene. Lamont came over to the house regularly, we went out regularly. He was just a regular guy like any of the rest of us. And there certainly was nothing inferior or lacking in his work ethic, motivation, intellect, or worth.
Eventually, those classes convened, we completed (or in my case, were asked to leave) them and we went our separate ways. I soon thereafter scored the biggest win of my life when I got married to the most talented, amazing, and beautiful woman ever. Susanne and I packed up both our belongings in my Yugo and moved to Norfolk, VA. Once there, I immediately ended up flying to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to meet my first ship, the USS Spartanburg County (LST-1192).
The Sparkle C, Super T as we called her, was another pretty accurate representation of America demographically (with the obvious exception of it being an all-male crew). We had Sailors from virtually every part of the country, socioeconomic background, race, religion, etc. And the thing about having 200-250 Sailors (often with 350-400 Marines) in an area that small for extended lengths of time is that you just have to get along. It’s really not going to work if you don’t get along. We have a collective mission to accomplish and each of us has a specific job that will help us all reach that mission accomplishment. Everyone has to contribute and everyone’s contribution is valued. There’s really just not any time for much else but doing your job and contributing to the mission. There certainly isn’t time for divisive behavior that takes away from the unit’s efficiency, proficiency, and ability to complete the mission. In the Navy, the team is absolutely greater than the sum of its parts and that teamwork and unit cohesion is of critical importance to getting the job done.
So that’s what I did. I got along. And it was very easy to do. It’s what everyone else was doing. We all got along. We were all on the same team. We all valued each others contributions. That’s not to say that it was a bunch of guys sitting around the camp fire singing Kumbaya. We were far from that. In fact, we gave each other hell. The busting of balls was of monumental proportions. And it crossed every line of decency known. There were many times I had my guys over to the house and Susanne left us alone because she was uncomfortable with how we talked to each other. But to us, it was fun, it wasn’t mean-spirited, and it was all always in-house. We were brothers and we knew where our own lines of demarcation lay. We didn’t cross those. And we never allowed someone from outside of our brotherhood to cross those lines with one of our brothers.
And as I progressed through my Navy career, the experience was largely the same at each command. I came to notice that the diversity we had was a strength. Having Sailors from every walk of life meant that each individual had unique skills, experiences, and knowledge that could be brought to bear on whatever issue presented itself. I found that diversity makes any organization stronger. I came to appreciate and value diversity. I came to actively seek it out and to promote it. It just made sense.
I love the Navy. A lot. I often tell people it’s the fairest organization around. Everyone starts exactly the same on day one and is only limited by their own talents and desires. The Navy has been great to my family and me and there isn’t much I wouldn’t do to help the Navy and my shipmates. I learned so much not only about my trade, but also about life from some truly amazing people. I tried to pay that forward and I departed active service proud of those I left behind and supremely confident in their abilities. Civilians often don’t understand the bond we brothers and sisters in arms share and I don’t think they have an appreciation for the quality of the people we have in our nation’s military. I’m not sure I have the words to express either that bond or that quality. And I suppose it’s really not important that civilians do understand either, but I sometimes wish they did.
None of that is intended to paint the Navy as an idyllic paragon of race relations, because it isn’t that at all. The Navy has historically struggled through all of the same battles still being waged in our society today. And there are still remnants of the good ‘ol boy network present even today. I happened upon one such relic aboard the USS Portland (LSD-37) and my refusal to bend to his will cost me a few years in making Chief. I’d do it all exactly the same again though (well, except for that incident with the computer) because I know my sacrifice saved several of my brothers from having to make sacrifices in their careers.
So, why was I telling this story to begin with? It wasn’t so you can pat me on the back in the comments and tell me how enlightened I am. It was just to explain to you how I arrived at where I am and to develop what I hope becomes a central theme here – the use of logic, reason, and free inquiry. It was my refusal to accept being told WHAT to believe that led me to where I am. It was the gathering of data and the use of reason that led me to determine what I was being fed by many was complete bullshit. Racism isn’t natural. No one is born with it. It is a learned behavior. So how is something so wrong learned so often? Because people don’t employ logic, reason, and free inquiry often enough.
So exactly where am I now on the issue of race? I am not one of these “I don’t even see color” people. I find that comment ridiculous and disingenuous. Of course you see color. You literally have to be blind not to see color. The point isn’t to avoid seeing the distinction between the races at all. The point is to embrace that distinction. That’s where I am. I absolutely see color. And I appreciate the differences of diversity.
Bridge, Boats. All lines singled up.