Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Confrontation with Racism

In my writing I shy away from controversy, and lean towards the warm fuzzies. I enjoy writing things that make people feel good about what they are reading, regardless if we share the same viewpoints on environmental, social, spiritual or political issues.  

Recently something happened that I simply have to write about: a racist comment. It was late night, two in the morning, and I was at the home of some close friends. There were some people I didn’t know as well, but as it goes it Durango, new faces often become new friends. Then the comment happened. It was about black people. I looked across the room to see if anyone was as offended as I was, and sure enough my buddy spoke up and said, “I have black people in my family.”

The guy followed that up with another racist comment. My buzz was instantly killed, and my blood boiled. I was absolutely shocked to think that a person within my circle of friends could be so blatantly racist. I mean after all it is 2013, and we’ve had a black president for over four years.  

Later I talked about the event with my friend who spoke up. He offered, “Man I’m from the south and used to racism, but to say something like that here in Durango, that surprised me.”

Thinking about the event more, I suspect the guy was just trying to act tough to impress his friends. I guarantee the guy would have not made the comment if there were black people hanging out with us. And why did the comment upset me so much?

Comedian Dave Chappelle is one of the most hilarious and genius minds of my generation. Before disappearing out of the spotlight he made two and a half seasons of the “Chappelle Show,” where he often made skits that covered racism in a comedic and unique way.

The most brilliant skit was, “The Black White Supremacist,” about a blind black man who was a leader in the white supremacist movement, able to hide his skin color under the guise of a KKK outfit. Blind and surrounded by racist white people, no one ever told him he was black. This skit was so genius because it nailed the absurdity of racism. Why does the color of one’s skin matter? We may be of different hues, but we are all human.

Reflecting on the situation some more I wondered why I was so upset about the racist remarks by a stranger, even if we did share some of the same friends. I started thinking back to my childhood, and ever since then there has always been a black person I’ve looked up to as a hero. As a child it was Michael Jordan. When I grew up into a man, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Learning about Dr. King and the civil rights era made me realize the importance of non-violence and love. I felt connected to that struggle even though I wasn’t even born yet during King’s time. Today I feel many of our country’s most brilliant minds are from hip-hop, an art born in the black community. Hip-hop represents my generation, and is the daily soundtrack to my existence. Black culture has always been part of my life, and will continue to be. I’m actually looking forward to being an old man, rolling up to some youngsters at a stoplight and bumping some 2Pac. God knows what the kids will be listening to then.

Last month, while working on the alumni magazine for my alma mater, Western State Colorado University, I interviewed a gentleman named Melvin Foote, who is the president of the Constituency for Africa, based in Washington D.C. Coincidentally Foote, who is black, is from Rockford, Illinois, the same town where most of my family lives. Before moving to Colorado he grew up poor and didn’t even know a single college graduate prior to attending Western. After college he joined the Peace Corps, went to Ethiopia, and has spent the rest of his life dedicated to helping the people of Africa. He’s rubbed shoulders with many influential leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Colin Powell. I reached out to Melvin earlier this week while working on this piece to discuss racism.

Nelson Mandela and Melvin Foote
Most of what we discussed I expected. Of course we talked about slavery, and how everything is tied back to that. Foote shared with me that racism is less direct now than it was in the 60s when he was in college, and more institutional.

Then he talked about those younger than me. He spoke of his daughter, who is 17 years old, and her group of friends, who are both white and black. “They don’t judge each other by their skin color, but rather the content of one’s character,” he said, quoting Dr. King. “They treat each other like sisters.”

Then he talked about children, even younger than her. “In a few years there are going to be kids that are 7-8 years old that have never known anything other than a black president.”

When he said that it made me think of my own life, and what I’ve known and seen in my very short 34 years. I wasn’t brought up in a racist environment, and that is probably why I am not racist. I was raised in a time where black people were not inferior, but where they were my peers, and even my heroes. I didn’t live through the civil rights movement of the 60s, but rather the aftermath, the path towards equality of all human beings, and that is something to be proud of.

So, I think that’s what pissed me off and shocked me the most, that someone could blatantly make racist comments in front of several people he did not know. In retrospect though, forty or fifty years ago it may have been commonplace for a white man to make such comments about black people. Today it is not. That alone is a small victory.

In closing, I wish I had a few thousand more words to reflect on this issue. There is a very similar struggle for equal rights going on for those who love the same sex. I can only hope my children grow up in time where everyone who loves each other can get married and share their love openly, regardless if they are homosexual or heterosexual. After all, God is love.

And wishing I had more time, more words, I’ll just leave you with a few that I first heard from a rapper, Andre 3000 of Outkast, “No one is free when others are oppressed.” 

This piece appears in this week's Durango Telegraph. 

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