Single Up All Lines

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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.

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16 thoughts on “Single Up All Lines

  1. Ted

    Great write up Boats. I’ve always tried to explain the fairness you speak of to people who have not served. Its not perfect but its the best system I’ve seen to allow talented, hard working, and sincere people move up.

    When I joined I came from Iowa. As you can imagine, I had similar demographic experiences as you did prior to arriving at boot camp. Also, I shared similar experiences to you in boot camp and in my short tenor in the Navy. I met many types of people whom I knew nothing about outside of false generalizations I had been taught up to that point.

    A ship is comprised of a very diverse ground of people. As such, people with similar back grounds will tend to aggregate. What I noticed and really cherished was that there was nothing preventing me from approaching any one of these aggregates and being excepted. One only had to spend an hour on a mess deck to see this phenomenon in action. Theres something about the brothers and sisters in arms that knocked down these barriers and allowed this to happen.

    I remember the computer incident. To this day that individual is the most repugnant douche bag I have ever met. I still would love to meet them in a dark alley and make them pay for the career of bullying they imposed on people. One of my fondest memories is watching that person stand on the pier with a scowl on their face as the ship left them behind.

    • Exactly Ted. And damn, I wish someone would have snapped a pic of that bagadoosh standing on the pier as the ship left. I really would have liked to see that scowl. I do take a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that Lyle Walker and I had a lot to do with that. As we were checking out of the command with the Skipper, he asked us about that sadistic son of a bitch. As we started sharing our thoughts, the Skipper told us to stop, went to his desk, grabbed a pad of paper for each of us, and told us to write it down so he could get rid of him.

  2. Ted

    Holy grammar batman! I should have checked my first post for grammar and the correct use of words – except vs. accept etc. that’s what I get for rushing a post on the way out the door.

  3. Wayne Bannatyne

    I find this very interesting. I grew up in Western Canada. Canada itself is actually very diverse with many people of Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani descent (among numerous others). Plus there are the Native Canadians, both Indian (multiple tribes) and Inuit (commonly referred to as Eskimos), but there are not, at least not in the late 70’s, early 80’s, a large number of African Americans, or in our case, African Canadians. The high school I went to was around 1400 students. It was only grades 10-12. As far as I can remember, there were only about 5 or 6 black kids in the entire school. There were a couple that had moved there from Jamaica (talk about a climate shock), a couple that were biracial and another one or two that were adopted into white families. I never thought anything of it. I played sports with one of the guys and he was a riot. I never thought of him as different, he was just Jamie. The reason I bring this all up is because I want to support you in stating that racism is a learned behavior.

    After I finished my first year at that particular high school in Calgary, my family relocated to Palm Beach Gardens, FL, a suburb of West Palm Beach (another climate shock, just in the opposite direction). The school I ended up attending was in a nice neighborhood, one that would be described as a “white neighborhood”. This was a funny description to me. I came from an area where there weren’t “white neighborhoods” and “black neighborhoods”. The school population was about 65% white (at my best estimation) and 35% black. The majority of the black students were bused in from one of those “black neighborhoods”. This was a little bit of a culture shock for me. Not because I had any preformed opinion of black people, but because I had only known a handful to that point in my life and I wasn’t used to seeing so many black people at one time. Didn’t bother me, it was just different. I ended up trying out for the basketball team later that year and made a few friends that were from that “black neighborhood” Seemed nice enough to me. No different than Jamie back in Calgary. Dialect was a little different. Accent took me a while to get used to but I didn’t see it as a bad thing. Again, just different.

    After finishing high school and moving on to college, I still had no preconceived notions of black people, or any other race, being different from me outside of the obvious physical differences. I am ashamed to admit the following, but it is true. After being in college for a little while, I became exposed to many people from the “true south”. West Palm, is in the south, but it’s not “THE south”. It’s the north east with palm trees. After being around so many “southerners” I started to hear the N word. I’m not saying that I was unaware of it prior to then, I just never used it, I knew the negative connotations of it and therefore never used it. As I was exposed to all of these southerners, and their constant use of it, instead of saying something, I cowered. Instead of standing up for something that I knew was wrong, I pretended it didn’t exist. I was afraid of these “friends” not accepting me because I didn’t think the same way. In fact, the worst part of it was that I became so numb to the word and all that it represents that I began to use it myself. Of course, never in public. I didn’t have the balls to do that. Only behind closed doors. I guess that was how I justified it to myself. Kind of a “No harm, no foul” scenario. The truth of it was, however, that there was harm being done. Every time that word came out of my mouth, I felt dirty. I knew it was wrong and if some of my friends knew I had ever muttered that hateful word they would be devastated. So here I was, saying something that was so reprehensible and then justifying it to myself, all the while it was eating away at me and destroying my own moral compass. So to back track to an earlier part of my comments here, this was a programmed, learned action on my part. The thing I regret the most though, beyond the fact that I used that word, was the fact that I allowed that learned behavior to creep into my being.

    I don’t have many regrets in life, but the way I thought back then and the way I used that word is at the top of my list. I am not a racist. I never have been. What I was though, was a coward. I caved in to peer pressure and allowed myself to act in a way that I knew was wrong just because of those around me. This is why I have so much respect for the Jackie Robinson’s of the world. The Dr. Martin Luther King’s, the Rosa Park’s of the world. That is true courage, and I didn’t have that. This is why I believe so strongly in human rights and equality for ALL people. Not just the ones that look like me, or talk like me, or have the same political or religious beliefs as me, but ALL people. I knew that all along but I had a week moment and I strayed from those convictions for a short time. And for that I am regretful. Someone I worked for, early in my career, around the age of 20, once told me “different is different. It isn’t bad or wrong, it’s just different”. I now try to live by those words every day.

    • Wow. Thanks so much for the perspective and that personal account Wayne! That seriously is the type of thing that makes me want to blog.

      I know exactly what you mean about hearing that word and taking no action. It’s weird how white people are comfortable saying it around other white people, isn’t it? I’ve heard it a lot in my adult life, and I too have typically let it slide. I usually just feel like I don’t have the time/energy to have the discussion and I know that I’m not going to change what’s in anyone’s heart. And sometimes I’m just shocked into inaction by its usage. That happened to me a few months ago at the NAS Jax CPO Club. I had a retired Master Chief drop it on me as a reference to the President. I was stunned for a minute and he just moved on as if nothing had happened. I actually talked to a black friend of mine at the Club that night about the issue. I asked him how he would handle such an incident. He told me that he would simply say, “I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t use that word around me.” Brilliant. Non-confrontational. Simple. It doesn’t have to generate the lengthy debate on the word I always feared would ensue and it makes it clear how you feel.

      Thanks again for sharing your experience!

  4. This from my cousin Patrick who put his comment on Facebook instead of here:

    “Interesting take there at the end. Not sure how much I agree with not seeing color as disingenuous. I was taken in by a black family for a while and it never really was brought up. I had been friends with Luther since 1st grade…And to this day him being black or me being white has never came up. There was really nothing weird or odd about me being in a room during a holiday as the only white kid…or him being in a room at my house with only white people. That is not to say we feel that way with all people of different colors than us. But between he and I, I see Luther. Not that black guy named Luther. Pretty sure he sees me as Patches…not that white kid Patrick. Different take on it.”

    • I get what you’re saying Patrick. Let me try to make my point more clearly. What I think is disingenuous is the people who vociferously let you know that they “don’t see color at all.” That’s crap. And I don’t think it’s a good thing either. Even if it were true, it homogenizes everyone into a singularity that removes all the wonderful benefits of diversity. I would contend that you absolutely knew that Luther and his family were black. The fact that it didn’t bother you doesn’t mean that you didn’t recognize it. Thanks for the comment though Patches!

      • Wayne Bannatyne

        I think that’s where I was coming from about “different”. Being different isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means you’re different. In fact I would argue that our differences are what makes us unique and who we are. It’s when people try to pretend that there are no differences between us and therefore can’t or won’t talk about it. Sometimes we are so afraid of the fact that we may be different from someone else or that they may be different from us that there is a fear of bringing it up, when in reality, it can serve as a way of breaking down those preconceived barriers and enable is to realize that although we have differences they aren’t always bad and can actually make you see past the differences and embrace the commonalities. The stigma of being different is removed.

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