Though my heritage is a good portion Native American, no one would take me for anything other than white. Both of my parents grew up close to dirt poor in Oklahoma (formerly known as “Indian Territory” where European invaders who called themselves Americans exiled people including some of my Indigenous ancestors from their traditional homes east of the Mississippi). But by the time my siblings and I arrived on the scene, our family was firmly what would be considered white middle-class.
Staying silent about racism has never been an option for me. But even though I frequently talk about my Indigenous heritage and sometime bore my friends with stories about why we are not “registered Indians”, that doesn’t provide any perspective. Even though I consider myself educated, a big reader, widely travelled I am certainly white clueless.
This is the 21st century. My math skills tell me we are one-fifth of the way through, getting ever closer to the 22nd century. And still as a species we are having conversations about racism. Humanity’s history shows this is a forever problem. Some say it is in our DNA, how humans are built.
But that doesn’t mean humanity shouldn’t fight to evolve out of that.
Racism in ANY form is never okay and should never be tolerated. Silence is not an option. An article like this may be worth nothing. Some may consider it the mindless ramblings of a white guy trying to make sense of 2020. But talking and writing about racism is one thing I can do.
Though my friend who is like a brother is black, I have no perspective for what he and his family go through. I don’t have to worry about a policeman putting his knee on my neck, or someone chasing me because I was jogging through a neighborhood. He does. That image is more than enough motivation to write this.
Like many other people, I did indeed grow up “white clueless.” As I grew, there were different events and different people that did start to give me a few clues.
Getting a Clue: Family Viewpoints Differ Radically
In middle school in the early 1970s, my friend Joe and I were slightly smaller than some of the other kids in our grade. But we were fast (or so we thought). We had a group we called the “Mighty Mites” and we would good naturedly gang up on the bigger kids and wrestle with them (outnumbering them of course). We’d run a lot in gym and after school.
After one after-school running session, Joe and I walked back to my house. My mom was there, with her sister and brother-in-law. My Aunt and Uncle lived in the same town (Plano, Texas) that we did, on the other side of the freeway. I said hi, told my mom we were going into my room and Joe and I grabbed something to drink. As I walked out I heard my Uncle say “What is the colored boy doing in your house?”
I didn’t think anything of it at the time, nor did I notice if Joe heard. My mom said something later, telling me not to worry about what they said. I never really thought about the fact that Joe was black, or that people that I was related to might think worse of my friend because of his skin.
My clueless self learned two things: (1) I had relatives that saw color, or at least saw it very differently than I did, and (2) my parents, no matter how they were raised, hadn’t raised my siblings and I to think differently about people who looked differently than we did. Maybe that came from how they grew up or their background. I (in my middle-school infinite wisdom) never noticed my parents doing anything special to educate us about equality. Maybe that was the point.
Getting a Clue: Raised to Avoid Incarceration
I did eventually survive several schools, got a job and in the late 1980s and 1990s was given the responsibility to manage people at Compaq Computer Corporation. As an eager young manager, I really liked to coach people. I had an employee who was absolutely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with. We young managers were trained to praise the good and coach away the bad. When review time came there was an obvious “flaw” I needed to coach this teammate on. This was a long time ago, so this is not verbatim…but the conversation went something like this:
I said, “When we’re in meetings I’d really like you to look people in the eye when you are talking to them. It shows more confidence, and it will get your points across better.”
The employee, who had not been looking at me as I spoke, chuckled. He may have laughed out loud.
“That’s not the way I was raised,” he said.
“You were raised not to look people in the eye?” my clueless self replied. “My father taught me to look everyone in the eye, to show that I am listening and to do the same when I am talking, to put confidence behind my words.”
I don’t remember the exact quote, but to the best of my memory his response was something like this:
“My father taught me the opposite,” he replied. He then looked me in the eye. “If you look too many people in the eye you can get labeled as uppity….or you can get arrested.”
My clueless self learned that black people, especially young black men, are raised with advice from their father on how to avoid incarceration, and how to avoid escalation. And that even while they worked in the safe confines of a world-class computer company, they have to eventually brave the streets and travel home.
Getting a Clue: Suspicious Because of Skin Color
In the 1990s Vercie came to work at Compaq from Dayton, Ohio, and after a while we were inseparable. He spent so much time at our house that Audrey lovingly called him a piece of the furniture. We were witnesses, cameramen and bride-givers-away at he and Lisa’s wedding. I love him like a brother. And I don’t have a clue what it is like to be black like he is.
I took Vercie on his first international trip to visit the Compaq office in Munich, Germany. When we would go out to eat, the other patrons would stare at us. When we got up to get our coats from the rack, they’d stare at us closer. I said something, and Vercie asked me to forget about it.
A local later told me that there was a suspicion in many parts of Germany that all blacks were thieves, stemming from some event involving black U.S. servicemen during the occupation after World War II. “That was a decades ago!” I said. Time itself doesn’t make people adjust their views.
On that same trip Vercie, another colleague and I were waiting for a train in Germany. Yet another local came up, and tried to explain to Vercie that he wasn’t welcomed here.
In both instances Vercie, as he often did, educated my clueless self. “Don’t worry about it. It happens in the states, too.” I’d just never noticed.
Later in his career Vercie would travel by himself to Germany and Japan. Whereas I loved to travel and rarely worry about it, Vercie hated it. To some extent, two decades later he still hates it. He was always worried what might happen to him, a black man traveling solo in a foreign country before cell phones were invented. My clueless self would have never thought of it. I’ve volunteered to be his bodyguard on any future trips!
Getting a Clue: the N Word
I loved playing basketball, even though I was only mediocre. Vercie loved playing basketball, and he was good, having played on his high school team. He would have probably played in college if he would not have stopped growing. On weekends in Houston we’d go out looking for basketball games, driving around to courts. Some of them were in parts of town we probably should not have been in.
Vercie was almost as good a trash talker at basketball as I! I called him “hands” every time he dropped the ball (which was rare), and “wrong-way” because of a jump ball where he got turned around (did that bucket count for the other team?). He simply called me “the black hole” because passes would come to me but they would never come back out. I’d just shoot or turn and head for the basket and then shoot…regardless of the defense.
So it should not have been a surprise when we were out playing basketball and the “n-word” was thrown about. If I recall correctly, it was finally directed at me by one of the other folks we were playing with followed by the phrase “Pass the damn ball!” My reputation as “the black hole” was assured.
So my clueless self made assumptions – some poor assumptions.
At a party later that week with my work colleagues, after a few drinks and toward the end we were around a pool in a backyard. A black colleague was there with his wife, and I casually said something about ‘pushing the ‘n-word’ in the pool.’ My colleague laughed but his wife educated me, fiercely and correctly, that using that word in that context was not acceptable.
My clueless self realized that this was not a club. Just because I get called by that name on a basketball court in a competitive contest doesn’t mean it is mine to use. There is a lot of hatred, a lot of demeaning emotion, that is frequently behind the usage of that word.
I cringed when I heard that word before. Now when I hear it I cringe and ask the sayer does he know what that word means. Sometime that conversation happens with people older than I (yes, there are people older than me!), who seem to casually drop this word like it was a normal part of their vocabulary. And when they were young, sadly, it probably was.
Getting a Clue: Music is Colorless
If it is not already apparent from reading this article, sometimes I am clueless. I proved that in September 2014 when I drove to Houston’s Fifth Ward for a funeral – the funeral of jazz musician Joe Sample. I’ve written a couple of articles about Joe and his music, so I won’t belabor those points here.
Music is at once immensely colorful and wonderfully colorless. Colorful in its blends of sounds and one’s own interpretation of those sounds; colorless in its anonymity. While listening to music without seeing the performers one never knows what color they are, nor should one care.
Dave Brubeck or Joe Sample at the keyboard – when listening to them I can tell them apart by style, by sound, but not by color.
Books and writings are similar. Unless there is an author photo on the cover, a reader can enjoy (or not) the entire book without knowing or caring.
My clueless self thinks more experiences should be colorless. But I also realize that creators backgrounds do influence their creativity.
Getting a Clue: Painful Past Persecution
When Vercie’s father passed a way, we were no longer working at the same company. He was back in Dayton, Ohio with his family when he called me with the news. He asked me if I would come up for the funeral, and I made a reservation. I drove up in a rental car to the address he gave me for his mom’s house, and got out of the car…quite clueless that I was the only white looking person around. Several people came off the porch of the house towards me, asking me what I was doing there. They were on guard, their wariness of me, a supposedly unknown white man in their neighborhood, was palpable. My clueless self realized that in the same way some white people think all blacks are thieves there are some black people that think all white people are racists, or are there to do harm.
Vercie’s mom then came out of the house, hugged me and led me in.
At the service, Vercie’s brother Lester Jr., preached and spoke of Vercie’s father. Lester Sr. grew up and lived in the 1940s and 1950s with worse racism and persecution that I will ever know. His son Lester Jr. described the constant harassment his father received on the street and recalled Vercie’s father being beaten by white people. I was sitting in the back with Lisa, Vercie’s wife, and his two young kids. Many in the congregation turned around to look at Lisa and I. We (along with Lisa’s family) were the only white people of about 400 people who came together to support the Larks during this difficult time. There was hate and resentment in some of those stares – stares that were judging us by the light color of our skin. I got a taste in a few short seconds of what Lester Sr. had experienced all of his life.
But there was a tremendous amount of love that day. I’d help Vercie build a Powerpoint (we were IT guys!) of slides of his father. I met more people by watching and talking about those slides.
My clueless self usually doesn’t notice or care what color Vercie’s skin is – he’s my friend, my brother, I’d do and have done anything for him. But I should realize – the color of his skin is something he is reminded of in some way every day.
Should anyone’s life really be that way?
Still Clueless…But Hopeful
Our beautiful friend Nani-Jay told us that some of the books she’s read on grief counseling say that the wrong thing to say to a grieving person is “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” With empathy, some people can imagine. The more accurate statement is “I don’t know what you are going through.” Unless you have already been through it yourself this is the truest statement.
I don’t know what black people have experienced in their lives. I don’t know what my friend Vercie has gone through, or goes through every day. I only know what I see, and what he tells me. I was never told to not look someone in the eye, and I never told my son to avert his eyes. They have a higher probability of having a policeman’s knee on their neck or being chased while jogging down a street than me.
It is long past time that we even out those odds.
I only have a few suggestions to offer:
- Listen. Just because we are clueless doesn’t mean we can’t listen and learn.
- If you see something, say something. This phrase was popularized after 9/11 and it has equal or higher validity in this time. Get racism out of the shadows by saying something when you see it in action. Many of the protesters are asking that a rule be in place for cops to intervene when they see other cops doing things that they shouldn’t. We should ask the same of ourselves.
- Pictures and Videos are worth a thousand words. The passage of time has given us a few advantages to turn things around. Almost every person has a phone, and most of those phones have cameras. The videos and photos of George Floyd’s last minutes have had a large impact. More photos and videos, showing both love and hatred, can be impactful as well.
- Vote on a Local Level. If you believe the laws in your city or county are facilitating racism and not providing justice, vote, email, call and pester your local leaders. If you are worried that your vote doesn’t matter, the counts at the local level say that you are wrong.
- Vote for younger leadership. This may come across as age discriminatory. But when our sitting president (age 74), his challenger in this election (age 77), the last two people to challenge them both (Hillary Clinton (age 72) and Bernie Sanders (age 78)), the current Senate Majority Leader (age 78) and Speaker of the House (age 80) are all close to or more than twice the median age of everyone in the country – they are going to be more than a bit out of touch.
- Hire without considering color. Looking at a resume should be like listening to music – the people behind it should be colorless. I got lucky in hiring Vercie, who has gone on to lead large organizations, write a book and help others.
If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for taking the time to read this. If you have any comment or suggestions, please post them below and I will listen. I do moderate comments on my website but if there are any I will get to them as soon as I can.