Friday, February 12, 2010

Black People Are More Racist; Part 1 of Many

My wife and I were once asked to describe ourselves in five words or less. Mine went something like Mormon, husband, artist, blah, blah, blah, hers went black, woman, something, something, something.
If this would have been a few years earlier her answer would have worried me. It may have even upset me.

Race was not just on her list but at the top. Race? Black? Really? I had not even thought to list my color. In my own mind color had absolutely nothing to do with who I was as a person. Race shouldn't’t even matter right? Listing that as the top thing on your list is a problem right? Was it wrong?

I should back up a bit.

Growing up I felt I had absolutely no culture. I looked at my Hawaiian friend with envy as his family performed traditional dances and sang songs in another language. I spent considerable time with a group of American Indian dancers and always secretly, or not so secretly, wished I would one day be adopted into one of their tribes. My family name is Scottish and with little to no real knowledge of the foggy isle, I developed an appreciation for bagpipes that I maintain to the present day. I loved and appreciated everyone’s culture mostly because I felt I didn’t have one of my own.

Then I left Utah.

I went to a place where I looked like everyone else, but I was nothing like them. We spoke the same language but the accent was new. The people were every bit as religious as I, we even worshiped using the same words, but the meanings were no where near the same. I knew songs these new people did not. I even celebrated a holiday in July they knew nothing about. I discovered something. I discovered I had a culture all along, I simply did not recognize it when I was in that culture’s cradle. I hadn’t recognized my culture because it helped me blend in with everyone else rather than making me stand out.

As I spent more time outside my native place I became more comfortable. I learned my way and place with new groups, still I found myself more comfortable more quickly, with those who came from the same place I did. I found I could relate quicker to those who went snowboarding not out of some X Games adrenaline quest, but simply because it was what we always did. It was what everyone did. I am very in tune with my own mortality, so much so that while I snowboard, I avoid the half pipe at all costs. Those who only know of snowboarding from the movies or ESPN2 have trouble understanding this, or even believing it. I related to people who went camping for fun, because it was what we all did for fun. I was, and still am to some point, comfortable around others with this shared culture because they are more likely to understand little things about me. They are more likely to get past what I am to understand who I am.

At work I quickly became “the Mormon guy”, and rarely became anything more than that. I paint, read, write, travel, love to talk politics, love football, and love movies, but if my work associates ever tried to talk with me one on one, they never got much past “so you don’t drink at all? How many wives do you really have?”

Sometimes my culture brings me in direct conflict with the culture I live in. I will not eat at Hooters, I will not go to your bachelor party if it includes certain activities or locations, and sports or parties are not part of my Sunday. I find most people are respectful of who I am and what I believe, but they don’t understand it.

I have a deep and all encompassing culture and all throughout my youth I didn’t know it. I never saw it because it blended with everyone else. No one had to point out my culture because it was theirs as well.

That’s why it did not, nor does it upset me, that my wife wrote black on her list.

We white people don’t think our whiteness is part of who we are.

It is.

We don’t see it because largely, every one else we see is white too. Try going somewhere whites don’t go. A club, a neighborhood, an island, or even continent and see how long your whiteness remains a non-factor. It’s O.K., its part of who you are. Do it your whole life and see if it doesn’t begin to shape you.
See if you don’t begin to feel comfortable with those who also relate to being white when no one else is. See if you don’t enjoy the comfort of being with those who don’t need you to explain yourself. See if your color makes it’s way onto your list.

I know this now. Because I know this I am not upset or offended, nor am I afraid of or alienated by, a black person declaring they are black. I do not mind black kids sitting together at lunch, or mind that there is a channel or a caucus where race matters. I do not mind it and it is not inherently racist.

It’s O.K. To some point, I get it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Robert E. Lee

(post with photographs can be viewed at
I once had a small handbook titled “How to Speak Southern.” Under the heading Robert E. Lee, the book had the definition, “The finest gentlemen to ever walk the face of the earth and greatest example of what it means to be Southern.” I believe it was the only part of the book not written in jest.

Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 at Stratford Hall, only a few miles from where George Washington was born, on the Chesapeake Bay. Lee was the product of Colonial gentry and his father was a revolutionary hero (Light horse Harry). Built in the 1730’s, the home remains enviable to this day. It is everything you would expect for the original Governor of Virginia and the very definition of “landed gentry.”

There is a fee to enter the grounds and when you do so they take some general information for their visitor’s log. When I told the man in the little booth my zip code he paused, “that’s Philadelphia isn’t it?”
Turns out he grew up 3 blocks from where I now live. He asked if the area has gotten any better to which I had to reply, “not really.” He knocked ten dollars off my admission.

The place is closed for winter renovations and I could see carpenters at work through the frosted windows. The brochures talk of how the estate was a self sustained village and center for colonial life. That looked as if it was true, with the palace in the center and village shacks surrounding it. Upon closer inspection all the small shacks were labeled “slave quarters.” The larger shacks or buildings were the stables and barn, or the detached, large, kitchen that served the main house.

I have often read of the struggle Lee had at the outbreak of the war, as to which side he would join. He was invited to lead the Union forces but declined in order to serve Virginia and become the most storied General in the Civil War. Looking at the grandeur of his childhood I wonder how much of an internal struggle he may have really had. Here, before me was a level of comfort I would never aspire to gain, but it was his heritage. Here I saw a way of life that anyone would hope to one day gain, but he had it before he entered this world. It was who he was.

It would have taken a remarkable person to join and fight for a side in which victory meant the destruction of the world from which he came. If the North prevailed, places like Stratford Hall would be unsustainable.

Then again, Lee would have had a front row seat to the horrors of slavery. Lee would have seen what it looked like to degrade another person for your own benefit. He would have sat at the table being served by people who were good enough to raise your children, but then beaten when displaying independent thought. How could someone who saw this first hand pick up the sword in order to defend the right to kill and maim another person without punishment?

Many will think me unfair in my thought process and wondering here. Many will say I cannot judge a man in history by present standards. Many will tell me to relax and temper my zeal.

None of those leveling that criticism will be black people. The ones descended from those who truly had the most at stake in Lee’s decision.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Booker T. and Perspective

Booker T. Washington
(see photos with this post at

I had driven an hour out of my way through winding country roads not passing any other motorists and finally reached the National Park around 7am. The sign announced the park would open at 8 and the gate wore a thick chain with matching padlock. It took a little bit of effort to crawl under the gate but I did so and started the mile walk up the road to the historic site.

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856. He knew nothing of his father other than that he was a white man, a slave master from somewhere else. The plantation he worked was not the genteel manor like Monticello, but rather a simple and lonely tobacco farm some miles outside of Roanoke. Roanoke is closer to West Virginia than D.C. but not near anything.

On these sorts of plantations the owner and his family labor alongside the slaves. Booker tells of the day he heard the Emancipation Proclamation read from the porch of the “big house”; the one the master lived in. Booker did not stay but left to work in West Virginia that same year.

It had snowed earlier in the week and it crunched under my feet as I guided myself around the farm. It was not crisp, it was cold. The recreated cabin built on the foundation of Booker’s actual birthplace was small. Not small as in quaint but small in that the doors were shorter than I am.

I looked around at my surroundings. I could see no one or nothing other than the small collection of slave cabins, a ramshackle barn, the foundation of the “big house”, and the visitor center at the op of the hill. It was miserable.

Booker T. Washington was no descendent of our first president. He impulsively gave himself that last name once he finally attended school and realized everyone else had two names. I have read his works, thought about his philosophy and even lightly participated in the still ongoing debate between his and Du Bois’s ideas. I have usually sided with Du Bois. I have read and listened as he was criticized for being on the payroll of large white organizations while preaching concessions. I have disagreed with his “let’s just do the best we can with how things are,” leaning. I have always been in the Du Bois camp.

Standing in front of the building he lived in I was ashamed that I even had an opinion. I was tired having driven from West Virginia in bad weather, Washington had walked it.
I was born the child of parents who both had masters’ degrees, I coasted through school, and find some pride in that I worked my own way through college. That pride is gone.

Sometimes you have an intellectual knowledge of something. You read. Listen, and learn about history and ideas. You think critically and strain to come up with new ideas, better ideas, and progress. You can gain all this knowledge and learning and still not know anything. Standing there alone in the snow I felt something. I looked at a place that was worse than humble even in its own time period, and yet I have studied his writings 200 years later. What have I, or anyone I know, done worth studying 200 years from now? What would be expected from me if raised in this place? What would we expect from anyone? What were others able to do who came up similarly?
Mr. Washington turned schools into Universities. Mr. Washington stood up and spoke when others were content to listen. He thought and taught, and better yet, he did.

It doesn’t matter what I think of his ideas because 200 years later my kids, like him, have a white father and a black mother. But in some way thanks to him, my children’s lives and the circumstances of their creation are absolutely nothing alike.

I drove away without the radio on. I was still feeling things. I came to that place because of proximity to where I was and a sense of historical responsibility. I went there not as a real fan of the man. I left there touched. I, a person largely in control of my own emotions, was moved unexpectedly. I went, looked around, and left with a little perspective. That is what is missing in the debates of today, perspective. Not just the kind of perspective where one looks at things from all angles, but the kind that comes from feeling something. The kind that comes from the chest and not from text.

Happy Black History Month.