On Being a White Guy
Recently I signed up with one of those DNA Analysis services and sent in a sample. I had always fancied the idea that I was of Dutch heritage but it turns out that my genes paint me to be English. I found this disappointing as I have a sort of love/hate relationship with Englishness. I am from an adopted family of five kids. My parents alway put us to bed telling us that we were their adopted angels, and they made us feel special for it.
This is not an apology. I am in my 60´s and I have worked with lot of people in my life. The only people I ever found difficult to work with are those who were obviously bigoted. I discovered bigotry at a relatively early age and the discovery coincided with learning that the adults around me were not always right, and might not even be very mature.
As a child, my particular gift was my voice. I could sing and talk without fear. Boy could I talk. One of my fondest early memories was in a Catholic parochial school. I somehow learned a joke about a priest who played golf and was warned that using the creators name in vane when he missed a shot would end with him being smitten. One day he made a bad shot and cursed and lightening struck a nearby tree. Then a thunderous voice called from the sky ¨God Damnit, I missed¨. Apparently a nun overheard my joke on the playground and I was later summoned to the Mother Superior´s office. I could not imagine why, but no one at the school has been anything but kind to me so I was not frightened. On the other hand, corporal punishment was a topic of discussion now and then.
When I was ushered into the office, Mother Superior was standing behind the desk with a paddle resting before her. She was smiling as she greeted me and asked me to sit down. Then she asked me to tell my joke. So I did. She laughed out loud and then covered her mouth. Still smiling sweetly, she told me that the joke was not to be told at school anymore and asked if I understood. I told that I did and said I was sorry. She walked with me to the door and as I headed back to class she swatted me ever so gently on the butt.
I do not remember how the story and/or my joke found it´s way back to my house, but it did. My parents loved to entertain and would often have people over to dinner. For a long time after, they would ask me to tell my joke. I would, and though we and they were all Catholic, it would delight them without fail.
When I was in the 2nd grade, an english teacher learned that I could not read. We were reading from a book and I remember seeing an illustration of an aquarium catfish. The previous student was reading something about fish laying eggs. My dad kept an aquarium and answered all of my questions. When the teacher called on me to read, I blurted out that catfish to not lay eggs — they give live birth. Then, embarrassed, I put my head down on the desk. She moved on to the next student.
I don´t remember all that happened after that, but I found myself being guided to classrooms full of younger students to participate in a sort of supporting role in their activities. That, and spending an hour or more a day with a very nice young lady who would read with me sitting very close by. By the end of our sessions, I was reading The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking to her on my own. Later in life I came to understand what a fine and progressive thing this was for that school to invest that time and attention in me.
This, I believe, led to a lifelong passion for reading and later writing.
I never considered myself to be handsome. But as I was growing up I learned that I could get away with a lot with charm. Somewhere along the way I also discovered that I could be quite clever. My parents always spoke to us as adults. Baby-talk was only for dogs, not children. I always found it easy to speak to the adults and I was more comfortable talking with them than I was talking to people my own age. I could even get away with a little mild insolence sometimes. There were hard lessons as well. Being clever to the wrong kid my age could end with a beating. There was one occasion when all the boys in a gym class decided they were going to teach me a lesson about my mouth. (This was in a public middle school.)
Though I never went to college, my passion for reading opened up a wide world of ideas to me. My favorite fiction was science fiction, and I read a lot of classical works and non-fiction too. In middle school I was unhappy with the library. I somehow figured out to walk a block to the high school and check out books there. No one told me I that I couldn't do this and one time I was late returning a book and a classroom teacher read note that I needed to return Childhoods End (Clarke) to the library. The classroom laughed at that. I also read Dante´s Inferno and a book about Nuclear Energy, because there was a nuclear power plant visible from the school.
The next experiences I had worth mentioning were in the U.S. Army. There I did indeed get exposure to the wider world. I learned to work with so many different kinds of people. I also started to understand that many people would look to me for leadership. Basic Training was a revelation. The Drill instructors were stern but good humored, and they would put some extra effort into getting me in line. The biggest surprise was that we attended classes about the Constitution, Military regulations, and legal and illegal orders and how to deal with them. This was all very no-nonsense and I was gratified when instructors would discuss questions with respect. I enlisted to be a Cryptographic Technician based on my proficiency test scores. I failed the math but soared in electronics, so they waved me through. The other thing I learned in basic training was that I was no soldier. I was clueless in combat scenarios.
I was in the Army for five years. I worked with a lot of people and learned a lot. I worked with a lot of political conservatives and had many, many, sharp discussions about bigotry of various forms. These ranged from Gay rights to Apartheid, to good old fashioned racism. All of those were with white guys and I learned firsthand how I might feel if I were the victim of some of these lines of (non)reasoning. I got along really well with minorities and women in the ranks.
Here is the thing. I was clever and well spoken and I was almost always given the benefit of the doubt, and I always wondered if this was easier because I was a white guy. I cannot prove it, and I cannot disprove it. After the Army I worked as an electronic technician in the defense contracting arena. I certainly worked with a lot of political conservatives in those environments. There were no reservations about discussing politics. I won a great many of these discussions in my own mind. The only evidence that I won was that the opponent lost interest in discussing politics with me thereafter.
A couple of these contests were quite memorable, but the one that stands out is with pair of older white guys. I told them that I was pretty certain that there was a young man somewhere who was every bit as intelligent as I am, who was not given the same opportunities as I was because his skin was dark. I told them that I did not think that was right. One of them turned to me and said ¨The world could use more people like you¨, and then turned back to his work.
I am going to use my white prerogative here just once to tell you something I know to be true. Reparations are owed to Native, Black, Asian, Jewish, and Hispanic citizens of the United States. Don´t accept anyone telling you that reparations are about recompense for slavery. Don't let them tell you they are for genocide or internment or illegal deportation or any other fixed-in-time injustice against any particular group of people. Reparations are about the bigotry, subtle or obvious, that has been practiced everywhere in the United States right up to this very day. Reparations are about justice and opportunity for people who have been oppressed.