• How I learned I was a nigger

    How I learned Jesus loved kids

    Every summer, my mom would sign us up for vacation bible school (VBS) programs at a local church so we could experience Jesus. The summer I was seven, my sister and I attended VBS at an all-white church located near our elementary school. One afternoon during recess, my friend and I were so engrossed in “playing army” that we didn’t hear the teacher calling us to return to the class.

    Exasperated, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Get in here, you little niggers!!” Being seven I had no idea what the word nigger meant; I just knew that I had heard it used once by some old white men down at the VFW near our house and that it was negative. I ducked my head in embarrassment and ran back to class. The teacher’s words cruelly contradicted the VBS theme: “Jesus loves all the children in the world” and made me question whether Jesus’ love was meant for me too.

    White people taught me at age seven that Jesus’ love is only for white kids.

    How I learned that all blacks excel at sports

    Many people remember junior high as a positive point in the evolution of their identities. However, as one of roughly 25 or 30 black kids in my junior high, I stumbled clumsily into the task of figuring out who I was and where I belonged while surrounded by a sea of white classmates who interacted with me only long enough to ask to touch my hair.

    Feeling different and left out, I tried junior varsity (JV) football, hoping to find a place. And without even having to show up for the tryouts, the coach made me a fullback (I found out later it was with an almost total opposition from the white team members), saying, “Look, I’m counting on you. All you niggers run like hell, and you can too, right?” Nope, a Jesse Owens type track and field star, I was not.

    In my first game with the JV team, I was sitting on the sidelines besides another white team member when the kid turned to me and said: “Hey, you need to move seats – I just saw my dad in the stands, and if he sees me sitting next to a nigger, he’ll beat the shit out of me.”

    So since I couldn’t not fit in with the team, and desperate to prove that I belonged to the right social group – namely, all black people — I went along with all this and was awarded the distinction of being the JV “Nigger Tackle Dummy” for the 1968 Ridley South Football team.

    White people taught me that I belong nowhere – sometimes not even in the stereotypical box that they wanted to stuff me into.

    When I learned that racism was not sensitive

    In 1975, I was an Airman First Class in the Air Force and newly assigned to a unit in Florida. I walked into my new First Sergeant’s office and was immediately assaulted by a 4’ by 4’ confederate battle flag hanging on the wall.

    I swallowed hard before I spoke and asked him why he had a confederate flag and not the US flag hanging in his office. With disarming matter-of-factness, he told me that he was “doing it for the cultural impact” and that it went well with the hangman’s noose he kept dangling in the corner behind the door to his office.

    I choked on the meaning of his message because I knew I was in the Deep South, where the images of black men swinging from trees were not ancient history, but RECENT history.

    After reading me the riot act, he eventually threw me out of his office, and reminded me that I could forget about being treated like his “regular troops,” and that I had “better watch your ass around here, watermelon.” That incident, and the flag it epitomized, remains burned in my memory forty plus years later.

    White people taught me that my perspective is invalid and that the pain of my people, past or present, is unimportant.

    When I learned that racism is hilarious

    Years later as a junior NCO, I volunteered for overseas duty and was posted to the United Kingdom. Every year at the unit Christmas party, the NCOs were responsible for setting up the entertainment. In 1980, two white staff sergeants who worked in another shop dressed up as “bro’s from the ‘hood’” and performed a thoroughly degrading and unamusing skit that exploited virtually every negative black male stereotype I knew of for well over twenty minutes. Just for laughs.

    I also remember getting super pissed that the predominantly white group of airmen (some of whom were allegedly friends) were especially delighted at one staff sergeant’s impersonation of a black guy doing an detestable imitation of animal-like sexual behavior with a blow-up sex doll. I remember looking around the room full of my white colleagues, seeing the tears flow from their eyes as they laughed deafeningly at the racist skit.

    When I told our maintenance officer (and the staff sergeant’s boss) I didn’t get what was so funny about the skit, he agreed that it was “mildly offensive”. But he failed to confront either the issue or his NCOs; explaining that a variation of the same skit had been performed every year for the last five years. And that “no other coloreds here ever complained about it before, so what makes you special?”

    White people taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s “just for laughs.”

    When I learned that racism is a figment of my imagination

    As an field service engineer, I spent a year working for a world-respected and well-known Japanese electronics manufacturing firm on the East Coast. On an individual basis, my majority white colleagues were pleasant, for the most part. However, in an intangible way, the organizational culture marginalized and silently held back the numerous ethnic minorities and women in the global services division I worked in.

    The evaluation processes, promotion opportunities, social configurations, and just the way they talked about people of color and women worked to support mainly those from the majority white male culture and alienate everyone who wasn’t. As a result, I often found myself working my assigned tasks in isolation.

    When I finally summoned the courage and brought my concerns about what I felt was an evident absence of promotion opportunity to the director of the global services division, I was shocked at how immediately aggressive he became. He instantly accused me of playing the race card and hotly denied that any racism or sexism whatsoever was at work anywhere in “his corporate sphere.”

    Indeed, one person of color who worked there eventually filed an EEOC suit claiming she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, a diagnosis that she was able to prove was directly linked to the way that the organization marginalized its minority female employees. I moved on after another six months.

    White people taught me that my experience of racism is only real if the majority culture says it is.

    These stories are just a fraction of the many stories I could tell about my personal experiences of racism in the workplace and frankly, they bring up painful memories that I would prefer to keep dormant. But I share them to:

    a) Affirm the voices and stories of those of us who have been on the receiving end of racism in life and in the workplace. You are not crazy and it is not a figment of your imagination!

    b) Assault your consciousness with this reminder that everyday white privilege and color blindness continues to be the most powerful agent of racism in our world.

    Those of us who are aware of individual and structural cases of racism in American society must continue to point it out, facilitate discussions, speak the truth and call out our leaders to work for justice.



    • WOW. Keep writing and sharing your truth. We need this.


      • Maya Spier Stiles North

      • August 15, 2018 at 10:09 pm
      • Reply

      If humans were as they should be, the very existence of racism should be enough to make it stop. No education should be necessary and you sure don’t owe anyone your story. But I am convinced if those of us marginalized for whatever reason — race, size, orientation, religion — need to speak out about how it feels to be us. Those innately without empathy will not change, but I’ve reached a surprising number of people just by showing them my human face. Which makes your beautiful column a powerful weapon in this war humans have been waging against themselves for far, far too long. <3


      • Harold

      • September 20, 2018 at 6:30 pm
      • Reply

      The similarities in our experiences are there, however many differences are too. Mine are vastly different overall. I will offer another perspective and another pattern of behavior that is quite different than yours. The contrast is dramatic. The reasons, I suspect, are equally as dramatic. Other readers may be able to grasp how the earliest years and the entirety of a child’s milieu can shape their lives well into adulthood. More importantly, the contrast should serve to demonstrate that there is no singular black mentality, experience or philosophy.
      As it is yet unwritten, I will attempt to construct it in parallel experiences based on your sequences. I’m not sure when I’ll do it but I will.



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