Hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, war, and disease are relentless. They sometimes destroy everything in their path, but through it all life survives. There are human storms that plague humanity. Everyone wants to be a success, but sometimes being a success is merely surviving . . . and helping others if we can.
I think World War II was the turning point and the catalyst for change in America. We saw our own citizens locked up and under guard because they merely looked like the enemy. We saw riots based on the color of our skin. In military service we saw discrimination based on color and gender. After the war we saw educational assistance given to veterans. We began to see an acceptance of people of color followed by acceptance of gender . . . and then of sex. Change continues. It is still a process.
Recently my day started off by reading an interesting Facebook post by Erica Norton, which she had written the night before. “I had the most embarrassing, humiliating moment today. I got to explain to my new employee who is not from the United States, why we had to stand outside a building and wait to be escorted in by management. It’s because the tenants of the building would call the police on me if I went in there without a manager. They’ve done it before. It’s because I’m black. Apparently I’m extremely scary and I look like I could be doing bad things at any moment. This building is in downtown Seattle, the most liberal city ever. So today I got to explain to someone about how black people aren’t free to walk around or be in certain places because our skin color is a dangerous thing for us. It would be nice to have skin that isn’t illegal.”
Well, of course, having black skin isn’t illegal, but sometimes it must seem that way. Her post drew another comment of someone else who had a similar problem and wrote it off originally because he thought it was because he was wearing a hard hat. Her comment made him stop and think. This of course wasn’t an isolated incident for Erica. She related a similar story. “I was walking out of a client’s office building, locking the door behind me, when a cop runs up, screaming in my face, with his gun drawn. “What are you doing in my town?” Over and over again, screaming non-stop, until I calmly asked him, ‘Why are you screaming at me?’ This was 3 years ago in Auburn, WA.”
I doubt that Auburn is any different from most other cities and towns in Western Washington, but we witnessed an incident there that ruined a really nice time. We were enjoying a meal at a small diner: “We both listened to the waitress and her customers. One of the older gentlemen at the counter was reading the sports page. The waitress asked if he was reading about basketball and he responded with “No, too many – – – -.” The final word was a racial slur I had not heard in thirty years. Peg and I looked at each other with mouths agape, while dinner service continued in the diner. Truly, dinner on Friday night was a step back in time. When people talk about the good old days and tradition, they often forget about the rudeness and hurtful words and gestures that accompanied those times. Or, perhaps they don’t.” You can read the entire article here – nwadventures.us/AuburnBackInTime.html
A recent Poll was published showing President Barack Obama as the worst U.S. president since World War II. I remarked to a friend, “The poll does not surprise me. People have prejudices and many white Americans (I am ashamed to say) look down their noses at anyone of color.” My friend said, “That is really offensive,” and he pointed out we’ve come a long way in regard to racial discrimination. That’s true but it seems obvious to me that discrimination is still with us, but goes well beyond race. People have prejudices. I posed a question on Facebook: “Anyone out there ever get treated differently because of your skin color, your age, your sex, or how you look? How, what and why?”
A friend started the discussion off with a personal message, “I can tell you for a FACT that every person of color has been discriminated against.” This was echoed by Michael Scheele who learned prejudice many years ago. He shared, “As a kid, I got blamed for Pearl Harbor. I learned a plethora of slurs meant for other Asian ethnicities.”
Sometimes just your clothing will trigger a problem. I stopped in at a new car dealership on South Tacoma Way. I must have been about twenty-five. I had just gotten off a shift at Boeing and was wearing jeans and a workman’s type jacket, but was otherwise presentable. It was just as the new year model cars were coming out. I was looking at the year old Chryslers. I asked a salesman about the costs and he simply replied, “Do you think you can afford it?” I paused a second, looked him in the eye and said “Well, not now.” and went down the street and bought the new year model at a different dealership from someone who didn’t look down on me.
Robin Jaquish sporting the hippie look of young people at the time confessed, “In the 70’s on a Spring break road trip with my roommates, we stopped at a small restaurant in northern California for dinner. It took us at least twenty minutes to realize that no one was going to wait on us (it was not crowded . . . just a few locals). We looked around and saw disgust on every face. We left.”
On the other hand, being white and affluent can help with problems as well. My friend Chris Free gave a great example: “I slid my car off the road once. No one was hurt, no damage to the car or other property. It was night time and raining. I called a tow truck hoping to get off the side of the road before a police officer arrived to ask questions. Unfortunately, a police officer did arrive . . . When he saw my car, he took a screeching u-turn, turned on his lights, blipped his siren, and zoomed over to me. I knew I was in trouble . . . Single car accident, etc . . . He walked over and asked if anyone was hurt. I said ‘No, everything is fine. Just went a little to fast through that curve.’ So, he points at my car and says. ‘335?’ He must have been a BMW guy to know that. I drive a BMW 335i with the numbers removed from the back. So, then he says, ‘Cool, I’ll go sit in my car with the flashing lights on so no one bothers you.’ He didn’t ask my name. He didn’t ask for insurance. He didn’t ask for registration. He didn’t ask for a license. He didn’t ask if I had anything to drink. He just offered to be my police lookout. To protect and serve. We’re talking educated, cis-het (an abbreviation of cisgendered heterosexual: a person that identifies as the sex they were born as and are attracted to the opposite), white, male, ceo, wearing a tie, in a BMW, in Seattle privilege. It was astounding.”
This is not unusual. In 1997 I was driving a brand new Chevy Camaro convertible with the top down to a Rotary meeting in the Bremerton area. I was dressed in slacks and a sport coat. I was the Rotary program. I had just passed through Gorst and was driving along the waterfront towards the ship yards. The car began handling sluggishly. I pulled over and got out of the car. As I stood looking at my left rear flat tire. A man in a pickup truck pulled over and offered to change my tire. Within minutes he was gone and I was on my way again. It happened so fast, it was almost like a pit stop. He wouldn’t take any money. He was just happy to help. I thought of the line from A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” I don’t know if being white and nicely dressed had anything to do with it, I don’t think so . . . but it probably didn’t hurt.
Being white also has its drawbacks. My buddy Paul Nimo shared this story: “I was young and pursuing my career choice. Myself and several friends had tested for some positions and I was really happy to learn that I was ranked #4 in the eligibility list. I waited for the call and yet several people I knew that were ranked behind me were getting calls for the next phase. I finally called the HR department to see if there was an issue with my contact number. After explaining why I was calling, I was told that although I had tested very high, they were interviewing candidates that met other criteria first. This was my first introduction to reverse discrimination. Two of my friends went further in the process but failed other parts.” I really feel for Paul, since I know his capabilities and work ethic, but things change?
Evelyn Fielding Lopez has been thinking about prejudice for some time and tells of early discrimination and preconceived notions. She revealed, “When I was a new attorney working as a contracts manager for a small public agency (1988/89), the director asked me to make coffee for everyone in a large development meeting (all men, mostly heads of large construction companies) and I didn’t think he would have asked this of a man in my position. And occasionally I was talked down to in court. But I grew up in the 70s and went to college and law school in the 80s, so that was fairly common. I had some annoying, but mild, sexual harassment when I worked at restaurant jobs in high school, but again that seemed normal (but unwelcome) for that time period. My professional life has been all in the public sector, and mostly at the AG’s office, and that has been remarkably egalitarian and fair for a white, cis (abbreviation for cisgender,a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth), woman, but there were times when I had concerns that others were not treated fairly or respectfully. Sometimes I was a strong ally, sometimes I was not. I read many stories now about fat people who are held back from promotions and opportunities, and I wonder if that ever happened to me, but I don’t think so. Maybe I’m not clued in to that. Today I recognize the enormous advantages I’ve had through my life, and my extreme privilege. I’ve been so lucky. I’m trying now to be more aware, more sensitive, more informed, and to use my privilege in helpful ways. I appreciate that we discuss these issues more openly and honestly.
Lopez was certainly not alone with her struggles for equal rights at work. Donna Templin responded with her memory: “When I graduated from college in 1973 with a degree in accounting I went looking for a job with what then was called one of the “Big Eight” accounting firms. While my male classmates were getting offers I was told by one firm ‘We tried a woman and it didn’t work.’ Then another firm ‘The wives of the male associates don’t like their husband’s traveling with a woman.’ I can’t believe now, that I let them get away with it!
Chris Free not only shared a story, but read the other posts and offered this advice, “Society is a better place for all of us when we have the patience and compassion to help our neighbors . . . and when we, ourselves, feel safe and welcome to ask for help when we need it. You can be more than a victim or a survivor. You can also be a change agent.”
Dr. Ana Maria Sierra has seen fixed attitudes that she would like to see changed, but through it all she still has hope, “I was brought up to treat people with respect, to show humility, to be grateful and to be supportive.”
I recommend the film RBG, the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She fought for gender recognition in the 1950s for herself and others at Harvard and then the Supreme Court. One victory leads to another, but there are still battles to be fought and won: immigration rights, Native American Rights, a rebirth of ethics, and the fight goes on for the right for women to govern their own bodies.
To paraphrase Hamlet, “we can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” Just because we live in an imperfect world, doesn’t mean we have to accept it as it is. We can all help. We can change America and our world.