In Iraq for 365

About my experiences in Iraq... the frustrations, the missions and this country... and the journey home

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Racism

Today, I ate at my favorite restaurant. I enjoyed a steak, Spinach salad and cup of coffee. Sitting across from me was this cute elderly couple, who started a conversation.

“What do you do, son?”

I’m a writer and former military.

“Really, I was in the Navy. In the Pacific back in World War II. My brother was in the Navy, too. He fought the war from Miami Beach. I always give him heck for that.”

The gentleman told me his life story, ending every sentence with “I’ve had a good life. I’m 82 years old, you know, and don’t have a single health problem.”

He said his wife made him take a job he didn’t want, and 35 years later, he retired. Currently, he lives off his pension and dances on the weekends. He spoke slowly and sipped coffee in between sentences, reminding me of my grandfather with his deep voice. I found him to be pleasant and very interesting, but our conversation ended when he spoke of how things were in his day.

“When I was your age, everybody worked except for the $%^&**$”

The words hurt. If you want to break relations or a friendly conversation with me say something derogatory about another race. Even though I’m white and 1/16 Cherokee, I get offended when KKK types speak.

I’ve encountered prejudice before. Once I was in the Deep South for business and an executive started the meeting off with a racial joke. Had I not been obligated to be there for my client, I would have caused a scene and left. I would later tell the guilty member of how unprofessional the joke was, which had no impact whatsoever. He called me a Yankee and went on with his business. Later on in the trip, I felt ashamed for even being associated with the man.

But the situation with the elderly man in the restaurant was different. I found myself disappointed as a child would be with a crappy Christmas present. He seemed so genuine and American that it pained me to fathom that he was just one person out of a generation who believed in such nonsense.

Racism exists. And although our country has made great strides in the past 40 years, people still judge others by the color of their skin. In Milwaukee, it seems like blacks and Hispanics are targeted by police. Recently, a Hispanic kid was shot by an officer. The family contests the kid had no gun. I wish I could say this is the first time this has happened, but it’s not. There are still businesses that have no minority employees, and some golf courses in the South still won’t allow blacks on the course.

With that being said, let me tell you about an organization that does not care about the color of your skin or religious belief. It’s called the military. In the Army, you do not see the same racial problems. Black, Hispanic, white, purple… it doesn’t matter. You’re a team of green.

I recall one squad I spent time with. The squad leader was Samoan. One team leader was white, the other was black. One soldier was Indian, another was Hispanic and the SAW gunner was of Middle Eastern descent. When it came time for patrols and raids, these soldiers didn’t care about one another’s ethnicity. They had a job to do; their lives depended on one another. In the end, they became brothers. They would share music and joke about each other’s mom.

In fact, the Army does not tolerate prejudice. If a soldier speaks a racial slur, he can lose rank and half his pay. If the behavior continues, he or she is Court Martialed.

The irony of it is that Americans have the freedom to think what they want to. So if a man wants to hate black people, he can, even if millions of African Americans have fought for his rights.

Maybe one day racism will not exist. Maybe the bigots will realize the errors in their ways. While I hope this happens, I doubt true equality will ever be achieved in this country… because the hateful thinking is passed on from generation to generation. But one thing is for sure… just as my father taught me, I will teach my children not to judge another by the color of skin. After all, America is about diversity and opportunity, not hate.

117 Comments:

At 11:16 PM, Blogger JUST A MOM said...

Hey Smink,,funny I thought of my own father while you spoke of this man. My father spit out those words like he was saying pass the bread. I would get very upset with him, but my point is this. My father didn't even notice he was sayng it, because it was ,, it just was! He would take the shirt off his back and hand it to any person that needed it, no matter the color. I found it very sad and tryed to explane to my kids, that it is hard for older people to change. Sad very sad!

 
At 11:29 PM, Anonymous Zach said...

Great post. I have one question though: what is your experience with homosexuality in the military? Is there the same sort of response to homophobia as there is to racism?

 
At 5:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess the people he was fighting for didn't include black folks.

 
At 5:42 AM, Blogger CaliValleyGirl said...

It's interesting what an effect the military has the rest of the population.
After WWI, women won the right to vote partly because of their effort in the war.
And after WWII things improved for Hispanics and African Americans.
There is some talk that the WOT is going to do for homosexuals, what WWI and WWII did for other discriminated groups.

About the old man...it's sad, and very disappointing, however many are a product of their era and that is hard to "unlearn." I think that is one of the biggest problems in the Middle East: the prejudices they have come to know will really impede a lot of progress for a while, until they come to learn from personal experience that things are different. E.g. women's rights.

 
At 8:27 AM, Blogger Word Grrl said...

Wow, must be something in the air, I was just thinking about this, after some corporate diversity training at work. After serving in the Army, diversity training is sort of a joke. The drill sergeant's line "I'm not prejudiced, I hate all of you motherf$%rs" pretty much summed up the Army's basic philosophy when it comes to race relations. At least for me.

My husband tells the story of his days as an Army tanker, where his gunner was a former gang member from NYC and black man, and his platoon sergeant was Puerto Rican. He watching a football game at his gunner's house, and after a particularly brilliant play, his gunner turned to him in excitement and blurted out, "Niggah, did you SEE that play!?!" Everyone stopped for a brief second before my husband, who is white, pumped his arms and said "YES! I'm in the club!" After spending so much time in the field under such stressful conditions, the race lines get to be pretty blurry.

 
At 10:54 AM, Blogger Chris said...

Yeah racism still exists, sadly.

But I do think it also goes both ways. I've met many of blacks that were racist.

My own opinion of the north v. south thing in America is that I think the south does a much better job of being less prejudiced. Sure the slang, hateful words are still spoken in the south, but I think race relations are much better than in the north.

My wife is from Iowa, which is like 98% white, and when we go there to visit I'm shocked at the differences of race relations. It's like the south has finally learned. Not that everything is perfect there, but I do think better than the north. This is all my opinion, and I'm probably wrong, nevertheless.

 
At 12:52 PM, Anonymous kbug said...

Just a Mom's right, Casanova, back in the days when that man was young, things were quite a bit different. My dad, being from the South and about the same age as the man you spoke of, was raised to call all black people the "n" word. It was just a part of everyday language. He learned a valuable lesson during WWII, though, when he was laid up in the hospital with a knife wound. He became friends with a black man and spent countless hours talking with him in the hospital tent. He brought dad his food since he was unable to get out of bed. But, when dad was finally able to use crutches and walk to the mess hall, the man walked with him and helped him get his food, but he wouldn't sit at the same table with dad in the mess hall. He told dad that it would be better if they didn't sit together. Dad was dumbfounded. He had never even considered the fact that they were different colors, he was simply a friend. He didn't teach us to hate people of different color, either. So, change is possible, even in the South.

 
At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Scott said...

In my Basic Training (FT Benning), I had drills who were Cuban, black, & a little white dude built like a tank (doing the airborne shuffle with a ruck near as big as he was!).

My BN SGT MAJ was black, and the BN XO was, I think, hispanic, with the unusual name of Clint E K(surname redacted for privacy).

All uniformed females I met were black.

Not that anyone noticed any of this on the job.

Unlike the civilian world's lip service to "equal opportunity", the Army really means it.

Hooah!

 
At 10:30 PM, Blogger strykeraunt said...

I have this awesome picture hanging in my living room of my nephews recon team. It definitely supports your point about race in the military. These guys became closer than I could ever even imagine (and I was thankful). I have heard comments about some of the cultural difference but it was all complimentary and respectful stuff.

 
At 10:52 PM, Blogger Household6 said...

I have to say that is probably one of the better things about being a military spouse. I have been introduced to and became friends with folks from all walks of life.

I've met people like that before, they don't even realize what they are saying most of the time. I agree too that it is mostly a generational thing. I was raised the same way you were. I never thought of race until I hit college. Boy that was a rude awakening. Friends were just friends with the only difference being that they were either boys or gilrs, not by colour.

Just take it for what the intent was meant which was a compliment to you and move forward with how you intend to raise your children - colourblind.

 
At 9:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm from East Tennessee and I can confidently report at 50 years old that racism here is far below what it was when I was a teenager.

It is no longer culturally chic for the white men to have a racial joke,whereas it was all the rage when I was younger.

The deeper south,I cannot vouch for. As a youth,I shared the racism Smink laments. Not as aggressive as this guy though.

When I was about 23,I was reading a Time Mag article about Vietnam. 2 pages of photos of war dead.

Several were black.

My personal road to Damascus event.

 
At 1:47 PM, Blogger medic_J said...

No one is perfect. And your elderly friend was obviously flawed.

I also am a anglo/indian mix (Ojibwa not Cherokee).

I think it is good to recall Lincoln's words "If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will."

Respect the elderly gentleman for his service not for his unfortunate comment.

 
At 9:12 AM, Blogger Lorilei said...

There are so many admirable qualities that get taught to someone when they join the military. Just basic stuff that we all should have learned at home or at school that just don't seem to be happening these days. Like respect for authority, patriotism, better appreciation for the meaning of freedom, responsibility for oneself, and the apparent lack of racist attitudes, as well. I always thought it would be a good thing for this country to have a military service requirement for every student coming out of high school.

Why is it that the military has success at teaching so many of these life-long values? What is the secret? How are we failing, as a country, to teach this at home and in our schools?

 
At 3:35 AM, Blogger tmg said...

Thanks for your service and for sharing your stories.

Discrimination - in one fashion or another - will always exist. However, I believe that it is important for equality-minded people to speak out. We have to challenge each other to really examine our prejudices, whether based on race, class, religion, etc. We have to come out and ask, "Do you really believe that? And, if so, why?" Maybe we can start up a conversation - maybe open someones mind. Racism is learned and, therefore, can be unlearned.

 
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