On Racism

Forest for the Trees
There’s a forest around here somewhere…

The only part I’m hazy about is the year. I think it was 1995. The location was the town of Warrensburg, Missouri, where I attended what is now called the University of Central Missouri. The town is not near Ferguson and the recent issues they’ve been having there, but at that time it was only a few years removed from a night of looting and vandalism in the downtown area that was sparked by the infamous Rodney King verdict in California. The town had to call in the National Guard.

Like many college students, I needed money. So I took a job at a local moving and storage company. If you are a young man in college whose purpose in life, other than graduating without a mountain of debt, is to meet young college girls, a moving company is not the place to work. On the other hand, it was a full-time job in the summer and it worked with my schedule during school.

The moving company had just moved their offices to a shiny new complex just outside of town, but they maintained the main storage facilities and a lot at the old warehouse location where I usually worked. The warehouse had a long, concrete loading dock in the back that several trucks could back up to for loading and unloading. Many of the clients were military from nearby Whiteman Air Force Base, with few major possessions that needed storing or shipping while they deployed, but we received long-haul trucks regularly moving whole houses-worth of furniture.

It had been a relatively easy day. I had just finished stenciling crates for a military job and helped place them off the ground in long-term storage. As I walked back across the loading dock, flipping my blue-handled Estwing hammer around my fingers like it was a six-shooter and I was in a Western (I was just cool like that), two of my co-workers came in from the front offices. They were practically falling over with laughter. I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be so funny, but, if you read this blog regularly, you know that I live for humor, so I immediately inquired.

Between wheezing breaths, one guy said, “You have to go in there.” He pointed to the front office.

The other guy said, “She looks like a monkey, I swear.” Then he scratched at his armpits and danced around while making monkey sounds.

That made the first guy laugh harder.

It doesn’t take a college education to figure out what they were referring to when they said, “She looks like a monkey.” Especially when you’re white. So, of course, I made my way to the front office.

The front offices where the warehouse manager would meet with potential customers wasn’t a large space. I only had to walk about twenty feet from the door separating the front from the warehouse floor to get to the manager’s office. His door was open. Sure enough, the manager was sitting behind his desk discussing the cost of a move with an African woman. I saw African because, at the time, she didn’t have her U.S. citizenship. How I knew that is kind of interesting.

I nodded and said hello. She said hello back and we exchanged a few other pleasantries. Then I felt a sharp pain in my hand. I looked down and realized I was squeezing the Estwing’s handle so hard my knuckles had turned white. I politely took my leave so she and the manager could talk business.

I walked back to the loading dock, hammer in hand, knowing full well I wasn’t going to use it for anything, but not 100% sure…

“What’d I tell you,” said the first guy.  “Have you ever seen anything like that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Actually, I’ve seen her before.  She’s my sister-in-law.”

And that’s when the air got sucked out of the room.

It’s true. She was, and is, my sister-in-law.

The first guy didn’t believe me, even as we briefly argued about it. He turned around and exited to the back lot. The other guy had the decency to look horrified. We spoke about it for a few minutes. He apologized profusely and I think he meant it. He looked like he was going to throw up on himself.

My sister-in-law is now a U.S. citizen. She earned a PhD and became the principal of a school. Her husband (my brother, of course) serves our country in the Army. Their kids are geniuses. My oldest niece plays several instruments and is studying Asian languages in college. My nephew recently earned a black belt in Taekwondo. They started with nothing and have built an enviable life. They’ve literally lived the American dream of working hard and actually having it pay off.

How does someone reduce all of that to “She looks like a monkey?”

Racism is racism. But there’s a little matter of perspective. American Indians are not thrilled with the NFL team name “Redskins.” I think that goes beyond the derogatory nature of the word. In America’s past, Indians had just about everything taken away from them, now let’s just take their dignity to. The word is bad because there’s history behind it.

Similarly, when a black person is the victim of racism from a white person, there is the crushing weight of hundreds of years of oppressive and violent history added to the deed. I don’t think I can ever relate to that. I can only hope to gain perspective on it.

No one can know everything about everyone. It’s human nature to make quick, subjective judgments in a given situation. We all do it every day. You don’t have to like everyone. Love and peace isn’t always realistic. But we, as human beings, have the ability to treat others, even those we don’t agree with, with dignity and respect. By respecting people and allowing them their dignity, you’ll never even have the chance to reduce them to nothing.

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