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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thoughts on Racism

A long time back now, a blogger with whom I ordinarily have a lot of agreement wrote a post that, to my mind, came very close to flat-out calling someone a racist over remarks that--at the very least--might have been completely innocent in intent.

Racism bothers me. But falsely accusing someone of racism, or accusing them of racism on the slimmest of pretexts, bothers me, too. I thought I'd gather some of my thoughts on the subject, and it's taken me a little while.

First, here is some of the flotsam and jetsam floating around in my mind, to give you some perspective on what follows.

Memories and Perspectives

Despite suffering the misfortune of having been born in an Arkansas military hospital, I consider myself a native Oklahoman. Both sides of my family have been here since before the Civil War, more correctly known as "The War of Northern Aggression" (If you ever hear me speak, remember that I come by my accent honestly). Like most folks whose families have been here that long, I have just a little Indian blood. My relatives say I'm part Choctaw; just how much, I don't know. Nobody seems to know. It's probably not much--there's just enough to give my skin an ever-so-slight copper tinge, at least on the parts that have been exposed to the sun. I doubt you'd notice any difference in my skin tone at first glance. Shoot, even I can't tell unless I see paler folks next to me in the mirror--like when I see myself and a couple of others in the wall mirrors of the little dojo I get to practice in occasionally. It's only then that I can tell that my genetic background isn't exclusively Celtic.

Nevertheless, the first time I met my now-deceased father-in-law, he said, within seconds of shaking my hand, "You got some Injun in you, don't ya? Not that there's anything wrong with that."

I never thought anything of it. It would have been ludicrous, given his background, to think that he meant any harm or thought any the less of me. The only reason I remember it at all is that it struck me forcibly how quickly he was able to recognize--somehow--that I had Indians in my ancestry. Nobody else, to my knowledge, has ever picked up on it so quickly.

Yet, I know that there are people who consider it grossly inappropriate to make remarks like that, as though it were somehow offensive to acknowledge that there are identifiable racial characteristics in a person's appearance.

When did we get to the point where even to acknowledge a person's racial background can be considered rude, or even indicative of racism?


After I got out of boot camp and Infantry Training School, my first platoon commander was Warrant Officer Gunn. In the Marines, Warrant Officers are often referred to--often even to their faces--as "Gunner," so he was "Gunner Gunn."

Gunner Gunn was, I think, my favorite of the officers I served under. He was inspiring, had high expectations, was tough, completely fair, and it was clear at all times that his men came first. He was really good, a pleasure to serve under.

He was black. I mention it only because someone occasionally suggests--like a commenter on the blogpost that originally got me thinking about writing this post--that whites sometimes resist putting blacks in leadership positions, or following them once they're there. I don't know about that. The United States Marine Corps was about as color-blind as it is possible for an organization to be, and my experience there makes me automatically question assertions about whites' alleged unwillingness to follow black leaders.

To my mind, it's always about the leader in question.


I was on duty once in one of the fast-food restaurants I spent years in, when a couple of young black ladies came in. One was just fine, just placed her order like anyone else, but the other let rip with a non-stop stream of invective. I got called a "White Mother------" and all kinds of other names, and for some reason, it seemed like my calmness (I refused to get visibly upset) aggravated her all the more.

To this day, I haven't figured out why she did that. I treated her just like every other customer--just like her friend had been treated, in fact.

It didn't escape me that her behavior embarrassed the heck out of my crew. Every single person on duty, except for me, was black. Not one of them was comfortable listening to her tirade.


Another time, in a different location of the same restaurant chain, a black lady with whom I often worked were alone together in the store. I can't remember whether it was before opening, or whether it was just a slow spot in the afternoon, but as we worked, we talked, and at one point, she confided in me--I'm afraid I can't remember what brought the comment on--"MOTW, I don't like most black people. My husband keeps bringing these people home, and--well, I don't like most of them."

The weird part is that she told me this in hushed tones, like she was afraid someone would overhear, even though we were alone in the building. What could she possibly have been afraid of?


Yet another time, in yet a different location of the same restaurant chain (I spent a long time in the fast-food business), I was on duty with another management person, a black lady who was an assistant manager. We always got along well, but I was nevertheless a little taken aback when a black family came in and--in her judgment--behaved abominably. When she had had just about all she could stand, she leaned over and whispered, "MOTW, it's people like that that make me ashamed to be black."

I don't quite get it. White people that behave badly don't make me ashamed to be white.


While I ran a fast-food restaurant on the North side of town, I once employed a real winner: a handsome young black man who was just about to complete the curriculum at Tulsa Welding School. I mean, this kid was just about to finish up everything, every single course the school offered. He wasn't one of those people who take just enough welding instruction to get an entry-level job somewhere (about three to six months, if I'm not mistaken); he'd been at the school for almost two years, as I recall, and when he graduated, he was going to make the big bucks.

To top it off, he was a genuinely nice person with excellent manners and a winning personality. When I'd called his former employers for references, every single one of them said that they'd love to have him back, that he was one of the best employees they'd ever had. I'd hired him even though I knew I wouldn't have him for long.

One night, it wound up that it was just him and me after closing the restaurant, and during the course of closing up, he complained briefly to me that he was a little frustrated because he couldn't find any nice black girls in his age range to date.

It was ironic because in the same store, I also employed two nice young black girls, the daughters of a local small businessman. Their complaint? They said they couldn't find any nice young black men to date.

You couldn't help but wonder, "What the ?????"


In a roundabout way, the preceding section has a bearing on this one. It wasn't that long ago that in visiting a new blog, I followed some links and found myself in a whole 'nother world: the world of black women who have had just about all they can stand of being treated badly by black men. Some of these women refer to black men whom they don't think are ever going to learn to behave any better as DBRBM, or "Damaged Beyond Repair Black Men."

I knew there were problems in the black community, but I had little idea that so many black women were just on the point of giving up.

It's legitimate, isn't it, to ask how this disaster occurred?


Years and years ago, when a teenager, I worked for a while in a shop that rented and sold tools and lawn and garden equipment. Two of the men who worked there made liberal use of the N-word in referring to some customers. This was to my great annoyance, for I have always found that word terribly objectionable.

One day, a black man came in and conducted some business. Apparently, he made quite an impression on one of those two men, for--though I can't remember what prompted the remark--he said to me, "That was not a (N-word). That was a black gentleman."

I didn't quite appreciate the full significance of that remark 'til years later, when I began to understand that what it meant was that to that man, it wasn't about race, it was about behavior and culture. In other words, he didn't necessarily think that black people were inferior (more on that later), but there were certain objectionable behaviors that he had come to associate with black people, and furthermore, he knew enough to know that that behavior was an accident of cultural and social background, not the result of some genetic component.

There are people who would call that man a racist. But by the dictionary definition of the word, he was not.


When I was in boot camp, one of the privates in our platoon was a Cambodian named Ea. He didn't speak very good English, but he was on fire, he wanted so badly to be a Marine. He hated communism and communists--blamed them for all the well-documented evils they'd brought to his homeland--and had hopes of someday getting to fight with the U.S. Marines against communism.

Ea was, without a doubt, funny-looking to the average American. He was little and skinny, with a sallow complexion, and had ears that stuck out from his head, and of course, he had that very limited English and a thick accent that made him almost incomprehensible. If anyone was cut out for the role of "outsider," it was Private Ea, but I recall clearly one day that when discussing Ea's background, the platoon guide, an enormous white man who was a former steelworker (if I recall correctly) and absolutely covered from head to foot with tattoos, said, "None of that matters now. You're an American now."

And you know, he was. He was from across the world, from a completely different culture, a member of a racial minority, but none of that mattered. He had cast his lot and placed his loyalties with the United States, and that was all that mattered to us.


It wasn't that long ago that a Southern Baptist blogger, in an online discussion, made a reference to eating cornbread and buttermilk. The fact that he made that reference when addressing a black man was taken by some as evidence of racism, or at least of unconscious racist attitudes. He denied it; said it was just what he'd happened to have been eating himself when he was at the keyboard.

To this minute, I don't think some people believed him, despite not being able to find anything else hinting of racism in his commentary (at least to my knowledge). They seemed to find it absolutely unbelievable that a white man would actually eat cornbread and buttermilk, despite the repeated assurances of some of us that that particular combination of foodstuffs is actually quite widely consumed in the South by all manner of folks. (You can find more on this in Crescent Dragonwagon's excellent cookbook, The Cornbread Gospels, if you're interested.)

Who was making the racial assumptions? The blogger, or the people who assumed that only black people would eat cornbread and buttermilk? And why?


You know, I honestly think you'd be an idiot to deny that there are race problems in the United States.

I also think you'd be plumb nuts if you thought, in general, that those problems had very much to do with racism.

Why? In part, though I hate to say it, because the overwhelming majority of people that I meet/read/run into/listen to that talk about "racism" have absolutely no idea what the word means. Instead, they have this vague sense that it means that you don't like people who aren't the same color you are.

[Ding!] Sorry. Wrong. Look, it's really simple. Here's the definition of racism. Several dictionary definitions, actually, which I can summarize by telling you that the principle definition of racism is that it is the idea that some races are genetically, or by nature, inferior or prone to some defect in behavior. Associating a set of behaviors with black people, or white people, or people of whatever color is not racism, it's prejudice. A practical bias against some people because of their skin color is bigotry. Not all bigots are racists--people have accused people who don't want to vote for Mitt Romney of anti-Mormon bigotry, for example--but it is rare indeed to find a racist who isn't a bigot.

You can say that black people in general like fruit flavors (and this is perfectly consistent with my experience in running that fast-food restaurant on the North side, by the way), and that isn't racist, it has to do with the culture. You can say that white people, by nature, can't dance, and that is racist. Innocuous, but racist.



My experience with race problems in the United States is that they have less to do with racism and more to do culture, economics, and politics.

Black culture in this country has been very nearly destroyed, in part for the purpose of creating a permanent voting bloc. It has gotten so bad that even in the black community, quite a few people have developed a pronounced distaste for the culture around them. But since part of the destruction has included encouraging black people to feel a sense of solidarity with each other (A sense of solidarity that, by and large, in my opinion, does not exist among American whites. White Americans may have a sense of group identity, but it usually has nothing to do with their color. It may revolve around their politics, their religion, their hobbies, or their jobs, but not their race. It doesn't even occur to most of them.), to have a group identity, to voice that distaste is to assume the role of race traitor. This group identity is, it seems to me, what lead the ladies who whispered to me that they were ashamed to be black, or didn't like most black people, to whisper. It is the group identity that encourages some black men to accuse some black women of betrayal, should they dare to date outside their race. It is the group identity that creates an "us against them" mentality that is very effectively manipulated by some people--especially some white people--to marginalize voices with which they disagree.

There seems to be no quicker way to silence a person, or at least to make his actual opinions irrelevant, than to accuse him of racism. Once that word is tossed out there, a person effectively is reduced to perpetually defending himself against the charge, no matter how absurd its basis. It is a devastatingly effective weapon, and has been so widely used that we have gone to absurd lengths to avoid being vulnerable to the charge. I have run across people who will not mention a person's color when describing him ("Have you seen Mr. Jones?" I don't know. What's he look like? "Oh, he's about six feet tall, etc., etc.," But no mention of whether Mr. Jones happens to be black, white, copper, or brown); little kids who have been shushed for noting that, "Mommy,that lady's hair is curly"; people who are afraid to mention certain foods, for cryin' out loud, around black people; etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, ad absurdum. I have run across people that honestly believe that they can't make it ahead in life, or in the company they work for, because of their skin color. Everyone is against them. Not only are white people against them, black people are against them, because they are too dark or too light or too yellow or too whatever. I have also run across people who--not being stupid--have figured out that the quickest way to get action or attention is to start hollering about someone's alleged racism.

I'm sick of all of it. I'm ready for people to return to a simple concept: giving one another the benefit of the doubt. I'm ready to be able to talk about and with people of other races without having to parse every word, because I know that people aren't going to be looking for hatred and animosity that simply isn't there. I'm ready for people to understand that criticizing their culture isn't the same thing as hating them for their quantity of melanin. I'm ready for people to understand that their color doesn't automatically dictate where their loyalties lie, that we can be white or black or tan or brown and that what matters is not the tone of our skin, but the fact that we're loyal to the same God, the same country, the same American idea.

And most of all, I'm ready for people, especially white people, to quit trying to shut up those with whom they disagree by shouting RAAAAAAAcist! Every time they do it, they make the problem worse.
The inimitable Kat of
Cathouse Chat discovered this excellent little commentary from Andrew Klavan. I hope you take the time to watch it.


  1. MOTW, this was wonderful! I did grow up in an area and a time where there was some subtle bigotry, and I do my best right now to recognize and avoid that latent tendency in myself.

    One of the best ways I've found to keep myself on the right path is to remember that we are ALL created in God's image. I remember a scene from Kevin Costner's Robin Hood; one of the children asked the Moor (Robin Hood's friend) why his skin was so dark. The Moor paused and then said something like, "Because God loves to paint with many different colors."

    The color of people's skin is, ultimately, irrelevant. How they behave, what their character is like, what their attitude is - all these are far more accurate ways to judge people. ;-)

    Thanks for writing this; I found it very helpful because you gave form to many of my experiences and attitudes.

  2. I'm glad you liked it! Compliments are always gratefully accepted...