learning to listen to lives not your own

Discriminating Discrimination

A few days ago a good friend and former partner of mine posted to her Facebook an article addressing the recent Sterling debacle. Not sure what I’m talking about? Neither was I, frankly. I didn’t even hear about it at all until I read the post. As an aside, that’s  a nice habit to get into if you’re addicted to the news cycle; go cold turkey, and rely on the fact that if anything important happens, your friends will let you know. Takes the pressure off you, and also gets you interacting with your friends more. They think you’re smarter, too, because you’re listening to them more. Winners all around!

But I digress. The article is not for the faint of heart – it is entitled “Black People are Cowards“, and is written by Homeboy Sandman, a writer and hip-hop musician. The article is about his dissatisfaction with the social protest the players of Mr. Sterling’s basketball team staged against his blatant racism. Namely, they turned their jerseys inside out. As such things go, it’s actually a pretty effective way to get people talking, and they were certainly reaching a wide audience.

But Homeboy and others have noted that it might have been more effective for the players to just not play. Or for people to not come to the game. My read on the whole article was the idea that yes, it’s all well and good to make gestures, whether that’s clicking “Like” or publicly demonstrating against something. But where are the sit-ins? Where are the civilly disobedient? Why do we not take to the streets when things we don’t like happen? When things that are likely to destroy our entire country happen, at most there are a few indignant bloggers, pundits, and then some new celebrity video takes over the limelight.

Heck, by now you may have forgotten the original issue I was talking about. I got the gist of the article, but at the same time I wouldn’t say that I understood Homeboy’s point of view. How could I? While I’ve benefited from more exposure to Black culture than most of my local peers (thanks to being raised in a very ethnically diverse town) I would never pretend to understand what it’s like to be Black in this culture. My friend who posted the link in Facebook is currently living in a small Wisconsin town. She is regularly stopped by the police, far more than my other white male friend who lives in that town. Why is that, do you think?

I don’t pretend to know the answer. I have my suspicions, but I also don’t have any idea what it’s really like to be a racial minority. How could I? I listen, though, when people try to tell me. I am grateful for the slivers of their lives that they choose to share. I try to not be part of what is making their lives harder, though that’s pretty impossible.

The Honorable Opposition

Of course, shortly after I shared that article, another friend of mine posted a link to Kimberly Foster’s “Who’s the Coward? The Flawed Logic of Faux Revolutionaries.” It rebuts Mr. Sandman’s piece, among others who criticized the ball players’ protest, by pointing out that it’s easy to tell others what they should have done because the one doing the telling isn’t there. It’s social armchair quarterbacking with a side of moralistic backseat driving, the article says, and asks “…before you point to someone else’s inaction, be real about your own ability to make the hard decisions. Reflect honestly on what you’re willing to surrender and if you have the ability to do so.”

Good advice for anyone, but definitely relevant to the “Cowards” piece. Ms. Foster’s piece isn’t quite as viral because she wasn’t quite as inflammatory as Mr. Sandman. But it’s a good read, and a chastising one.

Choosing Sides

So which do I agree with, you ask?


I have feelings about the entire subject, and frankly both articles make me want to get off my chair and do something – but the thing is, the particular subject they’re talking about is not for me to decide. I can be an ally in a lot of ways, but one of those ways is not to weigh in on this as if I understand what it feels like to see those players taking a stand for what they think is right. I don’t, because I don’t live in a culture that uses the color of my skin as an excuse for stop & frisk, for paying me less than equally-qualified others, for reducing the property values of the places I live.

I can’t understand that. But it is my hope that by listening to these stories, trying hard to hear them, by watching how people point out the places that I also perpetuate that kind of discrimination – at least I can do less harm. It’s not about “white guilt”; I didn’t create the system, nor can I change it with a wave of my hand. Guilt would be useless. I’m talking about being realistic.

The Dark Green Marine

There are no black or white Marines. You’re all green! Some light green, some dark green… – a Well-Intentioned if Ineffective USMC Saying

When I was in Boot Camp I made the mistake of letting my Drill Instructors know that I was good at book learning. I became the “Prac Private” – in charge of quizzing the marines in my platoon about the “practical knowledge”. That was things like the Geneva conventions, the alphabet, the order of ranks, etc. It was not a prestigious post – in fact, it basically made me the nerd of the platoon (no joke, it carried over to the School of Infantry, where among nicknames like “Crusher” and “Killer” I was known as “Reader”).

Most of the jarheads were happy to have the help, though, even if they gave me a hard time about it. One recruit, though, refused any help. He didn’t want to talk to me, just glared at me when I asked if he wanted to go over things. This was actually a problem for me, though, because the D.I.’s knew his scores were low, and they expected me to get him to pass.

One day I had a rare opportunity to actually talk to him alone. I blurted it out: “What’s the problem? What’ve I ever done to you to make you treat me like this? Why won’t you let me help you?”

He glared and absolutely growled out a laugh. “Help me?” He spat out the words, and I’ve never felt so much hate from someone I didn’t really know. “When’s a white man every helped me?”

There’s no happy ending to this story. I can’t tell you we became buddies, I can’t tell you he passed the practical exams on his own. What I can tell you is that up until then, I thought I had some understanding of the racial problem in the land of my birth. After that moment, though, I realized I had no clue. I don’t try to pretend that I do.

But I listen, and I try to not be part of the problem. At some point, there may be a solution, and I’d love to be part of that. In the meantime, all I can say is: from my own perspective, these are some [CENSORED] brave men here.

What do you think? And more importantly: how does the life you live reflect that opinion?


2 thoughts on “learning to listen to lives not your own”

  1. Maybe it depends more on what you find important…I knew about this because I happen to loosely pay attention to sports news. And though I care little for basketball, the response was far reaching beyond the sports section.

    Interesting (though sadly, no surprise) how much airtime this got compared to this story:

    When armchair battles are primarily focused on the downfall of a single 1%-er for his racism, I’d say we have stopped seeing the forest for the trees…

    I’ll cast my ballot towards the side of Foster, yet with reluctance and sadness based on the knowledge that we have become sheep to our media outlets…

    Important considerations…

    Your third chair, though seemingly impartial, speaks for itself by way of position.

    1. I agree, the fact that the Sterling affair was such a big deal while the kidnapped Nigerian girls were ignored does not do either the media or the human race much credit. I wouldn’t call my third chair impartial, either. I have opinions that are definitely partial; they just don’t happen to agree with either Sandman or Foster. Frankly, I fall more in with Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s rebuttal Excerpt:

      The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart. We feel more comfortable around people of similar appearance, backgrounds, and experiences. But, as intelligent, educated and civilized humans, we fight our knee-jerk reactions because we recognize that those reactions are often wrong and ultimately harmful.

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