Warning: You may be more racist than you think. Erasing the lines that divide us.

Khalil and AmirahRace in America. Black and white. Christians and Muslims. Gays and straights. Rich and poor. We live in a society where we draw dividing lines based on all manner of arbitrary classifications. For most average middle class whites, we probably don’t even think about it at all, until suddenly something hits us in the face. A teenager in a hoodie is murdered walking home with a bag of skittles because he looks dangerous. A leading politician cuts himself of mid-word as he is calling the President of the United States a nigger.

Today in America, it is taboo to be a racist, and that is a good thing.  But we still see it: covert racism, overt sexism, and blatant homophobia.  Our dividing lines are still strong and pervasive.

This is on my mind right now because of a number of things that have randomly come together in recent weeks: the Trayvon Martin killing, a viral blog post on Jezebel about so-called “hipster racism,” the passage of the constitutional amendment in North Carolina banning marriage and civil unions between same sex couples.

More than anything, it’s on my mind because I have a young daughter who is growing up a black woman in a society that places less value on black women than it should. It’s on my mind because I want her to grow up in a society which values her just as much as white men, I want her to grow up in a society where, as Doctor King so eloquently put it, people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Google Search: Black Women
Is this really the society we want?

This may be a bit of a long post, but I hope you’ll stay with me for the whole thing. I’m going to talk a little bit about my own upbringing, about what I’ve discovered about my own attitudes about race and other dividing lines, and I’m also going to write a little but about what I think you and I can do about it.

I’d like to open by attacking racists.  By condemning the George Zimmerman’s of the world; by attacking the racists and homophobes and misogynists who are tearing apart our society.

I’m not going to do that.  That’s too easy.  It’s really easy to sit here and pass judgment on someone who is overtly racist; it’s all too easy to attack the people who voted for North Carolina’s marriage amendment; it’s trivial to say that the people who murdered Matthew Shephard or Brandon Teena are monsters. It’s too easy to say that Fred Phelps and his evil Westboro Baptist Church are monsters.

It’s not so easy to look at my own attitudes. It’s not so comfortable to look deep inside and turn over the beliefs, attitudes and wrongs in my own psyche.  But isn’t that the place to start? Isn’t that the place where we should all start? If you want to erase dividing lines, the place to start is the lines within yourself, not by simply drawing new lines.

Georgia in the 1970s

So. I grew up in Georgia in the 1970s. Segregation was a thing of the past legally, but in reality, it was still part of our lives. And when I look back to my own past, I’m going to tell you there are things I’m ashamed of.  My parents weren’t particularly racists – I don’t recall, ever, hearing the “N” word in my house. Race wasn’t particularly discussed at all. But we lived in a white neighborhood, and until I hit elementary school, I don’t think I’d ever met an African American. There were few blacks on television (probably none in the limited television I saw, but I don’t really remember).  My first concrete experience that I can recall in my life of meeting an African American was in the second grade.  What do I remember about that incident?  I got in trouble because I said she looked like a “burnt tootsie roll.” A couple years later, we were living in Roswell, Georgia, and I remember cracking up as a friend stuck out his tongue to make his upper lip look huge, then said “I be’be a jigaboo.”

Today I’m embarrassed and horrified to write this and publish it. But I also ask myself – where did I get the idea that this stuff was funny?  It’s not like I knew any black people. The fact is, I’d absorbed attitudes and ideas from everyone around me.  No one had directly taught me to be racist. It was just accepted. It was who we were. I took it for granted, and never really thought it until years later.

In middle school, however, my parents moved into the city. I ended up going to a middle school and a high school that was fifty percent black.  My high school was the Performing Arts magnet. That was the beginning of the changes in my own attitudes, attitudes I wasn’t even consciously aware that I had.

Chuck, I have to tell you something. I’m gay.

The eighth grade was the first time I was faced with a crack in my own attitudes about people on the other side of dividing lines.

I want to tell you about my friend, who I’m going to call Mark for purposes of this blog entry.  Mark and I were both in the eight grade chorus and musical, Meridith Wilson’s The Music Man. I played Tommy Djilas, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Mark and I were tight. We snuck out at night and hung out near the Peachtree Battle shopping center, then the home of Oxford Books.  We got sick drunk on his grandfather’s rum during the dress rehearsal. One night, sitting at a table in front of the closed Burger King, he made a confession to me. He was gay.

At that point I was faced with a simple choice.  I could move my own dividing lines, or I could give up my best friend.  Honestly it wasn’t a difficult choice. I wasn’t going to lose my best friend over that. No way. So my internal dividing lines shifted a little bit, and all of the sudden gay people were okay. Why? Because of Mark. And that’s the first point I want to really drive home here.  It’s one thing to hate someone who is abstract. It’s another thing to suddenly hate someone you care about, someone you love, because of a part of their character. When I visited him in the hospital after he tried to kill himself late in the eighth grade, I remember desperately trying to understand and grasp how isolated he must have felt in an environment where “fag” was a commonly thrown out word; in an environment where part of his own family rejected him. And I promised myself I’d never be the person who did that to someone else.

Why we think black people are thugs and criminals

Not long ago I started to re-read one my childhood favorite sci-fi series, Philip Jose Farmer’s “The World of Tiers.” In the fifth book of the series, Farmer introduces the first black character we encounter, Angus McKay: a professional thug, a hired killer.  I was disappointed, to say the least. As a pre-teen reading the series for the first time I didn’t even notice it, but now, it stuck out like a sore thumb.  Why was the only black character in the entire series a criminal from Watts?

As I noted earlier, growing up, I simply didn’t know any black people. So my only encounters with blacks were in popular culture. And overwhelmingly, blacks in popular culture are poor, criminals, drug addicts, people to be feared. Thank God it’s not as bad as it was thirty years ago, but it’s still there.  After all, there was a spate of twitter outrage over casting a black actress as Rue in the Hunger Games.  If you’ve read the books, you’ll sense the irony here. OMG – they cast a little black girl to play a part that was intended for a little black girl? Shock! Horror!

As I noted earlier, in retrospect and looking at my own upbringing and history, there have been things I’ve said and done, mostly as a child, that I find shameful now. I don’t bring these up to vilify myself, which would be stupid, but to point out that in order to fight racism, in order to truly be open, we have to examine our own attitudes and ideas. We have to genuinely assess who we are, what we believe.

My seventh grade homeroom teacher, Mr. David Rector, was African American. He was the first person who really encouraged me to follow my dream of writing. He was someone I admired and looked up to. But even so, as late as high school, I still had some attitudes that I look back at with a little embarrassment.  There’s a scene I described in my diary from junior year of how I felt bad about not remembering to save a seat at an assembly for my ex-girlfriend, who ended up having to “sit with a bunch of ‘home boys.’”  By then I knew plenty of African Americans, and had made some friends. But there was still some distance, some attitudes I’m not so proud of.  There were differences in culture and language that I wasn’t able to get past then.

I can thank the United States Army for permanently purging me of those kinds of ideas. Whatever else you might say about war, the fact is that when your life depends on someone, you start to forget all about race. And, in my small part of the Army, we were as multicultural as you can get. My tank crew consisted of me (white-bread mostly European mutt), Sergeant John Lino (Hawaiian), Chuck Griego (Apache), and Sean Day (African American).

I’ve lost touch with a lot of those guys. But they changed my life. They opened up my eyes to a much wider world.

How to build a better world

Want to know how to eliminate racism and hate from our society?

It’s simple. Make friends. Reach out. Love people. Treat other people right. Find out who they really are: not just the color of their skin, but who they are inside. Value them.

The place to start isn’t by attacking the racists.  The place to start is with ourselves.  Start by reaching out to someone and being their friend. Don’t start with “tolerance,” because tolerance implies that there is something to tolerate. Instead, start with embracing what is different from you. Reach out and touch something outside your comfort zone. Make a friend with someone who is gay or black or white or transgender or bisexual or whatever.

It is the ties that bind us together that erase the lines that divide us.

Confront your own attitudes. Erase the lines in your own heart that divide you from other people. Then, together, we can work to become a better society.

A world where the Trayvon Martin’s aren’t afraid to walk home from the store at night.

A world where my friend wouldn’t have felt the need to end everything because the pain was just so bad.

A world where people who love each other can get married, no matter what their gender is.

A world where my daughter can grow up, knowing that she matters, knowing that being a young black woman won’t hinder her career and life prospects.

I want to live in that world. I want to help create that world. Will you help?

    • Chris Kovarovic

       I have friends and family that are affected but still do not support same sex marriage, marriage as traditionally defined and still held in churches across America. I do support civil unions and all the perks of a wed couple, but you cannot tell a church to marry a same sex couple as that is a violation of the first amendment.  That is a stance, not in emotion, but as a rule of law.

      • Charles Sheehan-Miles

        Yeah of course you can’t tell a church to marry someone.  Churches don’t have to marry heterosexual couples either. But what if the church thinks it’s okay? Why should the law prevent that?

        • Chris Kovarovic

           Because if it becomes a law it applies to all, even the ones who do not believe in same sex marriage. We have more laws on the books than any one person could ever keep up with. Just get rid of marriage licenses all together and you wont have any of these issues any longer.

          • Charles Sheehan-Miles

            Here’s the problem. What you’ve written simply isn’t true. Religious institutions are not required to perform marriages for _anyone_. They currently have the right to discriminate based on their religious grounds and no one disputes that. The issue is, we have laws specifically excluding _just certain people_ from getting married–anywhere, by anyone. And these are the issues those people face:

            Who gets the kids when one partner dies?
            Who gets to visit in the hospital?
            Who makes a decision when one partner is dying or needs a medical procedure?
            Who files joint taxes?
            How do you dispose of joint property if one dies?

            Because I’m married, the law is on my side on all of those things.

          • Chris Kovarovic

             Thus the request to remove the need for marriage licenses, then a partnership could be between anyone. Common law partnerships comes to mind here. As for taxes they only need to change one word on the forms ” Married filing jointly” to “filing jointly”,  simple, right? The issue our liberties face IS the fact there is a law for everything. Do we really need a new law? Couldn’t we just remove the old laws and let people just live freely? If a church wont partner a same sex couple a magistrate can. One argument I am hearing is in the states that do have civil unions they are complaining that it is being called a civil union instead of marriage…. isn’t that splitting hairs? Who cares what it is called so long as your partnership is recognized?

      • Chris Kovarovic

         I’m talking about a civil union through a magistrate. The church cannot be forced to support a same sex union under our first amendment.

  1. Chris Kovarovic

    I’m just going to start where I left off. I was not saying the shooting itself was justified, that’s for the courts to decide, what I was stating is that the law enforcement behaved correctly. Looking at the evidence, there is no racism, and they will not be able to show malice nor malicious aforethought. What happened that night has come down to the courts and testimony. No one knows what happened when he hung up with 911. What we do know is that the media altered the 911 tapes deliberately for a chosen effect, and it worked. I will wager that when all the facts of this case are out it will look much differently than it was portrayed through public opinion. Emotion is a dangerous thing that often has us jumping to conclusions that are not justifiable.

    • Charles Sheehan-Miles

      Part of the point I was trying to make earlier in our discussion on Facebook is that the specific details of the Zimmerman case really aren’t that relevant to what I’m writing about here.  Yes we can argue the fact of that one case.  You can do that about _any_ individual case.  But that doesn’t negate the fact that some self-reflection on all sides of these issues is really important. Whether it’s race, class, gender, religion, whatever, as soon as I start to think “all people who are ___ are ____” then I’m probably wrong.

      • Chris Kovarovic

         Exactly right, and the presumption that the case was racially motivated sort of  proves the point. “To all the George Zimmermans of the world….” we should act as a nation of laws before we act as a nation of public opinion. I’m an American, not a Czechoslovakian American, not a White American, not a Male American, not a Christian American, nor a Heterosexual American… just an American. I can agree with the premise of the article, just not the examples and points of today’s current events. I believe it would have been much more powerful as a personal look within. Once we see people as nothing more than people, then we can begin the discussion of equality.  Lastly, “There were differences in culture and language that I wasn’t able to get past then,” this statement is more a matter of personal preference than any act of bigotry. There are some cultures that I could never accept, do I hate them, no, I just do not care for them.

        • Charles Sheehan-Miles

          I’d be curious what you think of John Scalzi’s blog post today about racism. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/05/15/straight-white-male-the-lowest-difficulty-setting-there-is/

          • Chris Kovarovic

             I think that it is that type of thinking that keeps people on the lowest rung of success. If you think so lowly of yourself that you believe that life comes to those of “privilege” you will never get anywhere. We have successful people of all races , sexes and sexual orientation. I’ve been poor, so poor as to survive off of Ramen diets, as I am sure many have been, but I have also seen success. The success never came from my gender, race or sexual orientation because most of my interviews were over the phone from across the country. I sold myself, and sometimes over sold myself, but I always studied and educated myself to persevere. As for sexuality…. I bet most people have no clue what preferences I have. Why? Because I dont flaunt it, I don’t feel entitled and therefore become an activist to make myself overtly public. Here is the gist of my thoughts: I couldn’t give less of a fuck what people think of me, therefore I strive to do the best I can and with the right attitude, typically succeed.  My advice to people : Every morning look in the mirror and tell yourself how EFFIN AWESOME you are.

    • Chris Kovarovic

      No he did not admit to that, please get facts and do not assume what was in someone’s heart . You are going off of the 911 tape that NBC purposefully edited and admitted to . 

  2. Hugh Tiny Hogg via Facebook

    I see nothing in your blog to invoke criticism, let alone negative comments! Obviously, some readers have a hard time with introspection. I do not. I, too, have done some ‘questionable’ things in my past, also as a youth, but, luckily, have never encountered racism in my daily life. My claim to infamy was ‘queer bashing’, now consigned to distant memory, but something I still regret intensely. It was ‘the done thing’ for lads (15-16yrs) in Scotland. At 17, I joined up, and was quickly purged of such childish things. Now, I count a same sex couple amongst my best friends, so radical change is possible! Your blog is succinct, and in no way offensive. I pity those who see it as such. Thank you for posting.
    Tiny, ex-Sgt. Parachute Regiment, anf 22 SAS.

  3. Heath

    Chuck, this is my first visit to your blog, but not the last. Kudos on a searingly honest look at our own deep-seated irrationalities. And on such a well-done essay.

  4. Simon

    If you want to look at some high profile racism issues check out the coverage of the European cup football tournament

    example http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/18363736

    The difficulty of sports people coming out as gay too is probably the same in the US as England

    There are no openly gay footballers in the top league – few if any in the lower leagues

  5. Peggy Browning

    I was born in 1955 and came of age during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle. I, like you, had never met an African American until I was older…a teenager. Although I like to think I’m not racist, I know I am in some ways. This is a great, thoughtful post. I had hoped that my children’s generation would see the end of racism, but now I think it will be longer than that.
    Peggy Browning

    • Charles Sheehan-Miles

      Thanks so much for dropping in. And yes, I agree it will take time, but I also think there’s no question that things have improved.

  6. Brandi Wa via Facebook

    This is a good post Charles.

  7. “It’s one thing to hate someone who is abstract. It’s another thing to suddenly hate someone you care about, someone you love, because of a part of their character.” Great point, well made. Do you ever notice, though, that this is the exact strategy used to divide people? By making them “other” and stripping away their humanity, it makes it easier to believe things about them that aren’t true. You see this quite often…too often. This is why I think words matter. Language matters.

    Love the post, Charles. I’m going to share. 🙂

  8. Lara Bagdes Kimber via Facebook

    Such great advice and insight!

  9. Dawnita Kiefer via Facebook

    Thank you for this! My kids are also bi-racial and I agree with this sentiment with all my heart.

  10. I love the photo and I have never doubted Amirah will accomplish great things in this world with you and Veronica as parents she is growing into an amazing young lady!

  11. Alina Stoica-Man via Facebook

    What a beautiful post.

  12. Marta

    “Don’t start with “tolerance,” because tolerance implies that there is something to tolerate.”

    I love that particular line. People think they’re doing so well as a nation because they’re tolerant, but tolerance in itself implies discrimination and racism. I would love to quote you for a review I’m going to write for Americanah. I strongly recommend that book. It’s written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and perfectly illustrates racism, discrimination and the struggle that comes with immigration. Plus it’s wrapped around a beautiful second-chance love story, which is always a plus.

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