(unedited) I’ve had moments in my life that were like opening my eyes for the first time. Moments in which I felt I’d never before seen anything the way it really was. One of those moments, of course, was when I was reading the New Testament for the first time, and simultaneously reading Kierkegaard’s book Works of Love. It was like I’d been struggling with a maze, but the path was just suddenly illumined before me. I don’t say everything is clear during these moments. I don’t say everything is clear for a Christian either. In fact, I am careful about Christians who believe in such a black-and-white creation.
But the moments I’m talking about are when seemingly every thought and feeling is absent except this awareness of something that is true, and always has been true, even if you were oblivious. The first such moment that I mentioned just now actually happened in 2006, on a shabby old couch in the back room of my high school biology class room (with all the specimens in jars). During that moment, I just said to myself, “This is true.” It was like a light switch. A revelation. A light bulb. Really. It’s hard to describe. Maybe it is like in the movies when someone finds an incredible artifact. It seems too amazing, “the Holy Grail,” as it were… but then the archaeologist or treasure hunter or whatever verifies it’s the real deal. Wow.
But not all of these moments are happy. Sometimes you realize — or at least this was my experience — that your friend who tells racist jokes isn’t just joking. I know I’m writing on the Internet, but this is my journal, so I might as well write it all out matter-of-factly. I’ve told racist jokes. I’ve made fun of other cultures. I’ve categorized and stereotyped people. And most of what I said that was offensive… was actually totally empty. Previous generations grew up in a world where the n-word was okay (though, let me be clear, I don’t use that word; I really can’t do it). While I was growing up, of course black people could say “nigga,” and that was okay, except some other black people would argue that neither blacks nor whites should say the “-a” or “-er” variation at all. Ever seen that episode of “Girlfriends” in which the group gets a white friend, and everything’s cool until they’re all singing along with Jay-Z, and the white girl says, “nigga” with everybody else? Yeah.
Anyway, while I was growing up, and until this decade, in fact, it was pretty normal for people to say things like, “Well that’s gay,” meaning, “Well that’s stupid,” or something like that. Also “fag” and “faggot” were slung around a lot, and not even that often (in my experience) as a reference/denigration to homosexuals. Usually I’ve heard it said by one young white guy to another when he really things, “You’re making me uncomfortable by somehow ignoring a social expectation of masculinity.” Example: “You like Coldplay, bro? Does your mom know you’re a fag?” — because many men are embarrassed to like soft, emotional music.
Growing up is one thing. Fortunately I had parents who wouldn’t let me say a lot of things my friends said. Thank God I grew up in a diverse neighborhood and had friends of many races, nationalities, and income levels! Thank God my mother was always preaching pluralism, equality, etc. I’m serious. Would I believe in these things (which seem so obviously right) if I would’ve had parents who didn’t care to emphasize these points? Would I believe in these things if I hadn’t had teachers who always cautioned against prejudice?
But I joined the Navy. That’s where I heard the word, “beaner” for the first time. Two points on that: I’d never heard that epithet before, perhaps because I’m from Florida, where there are relatively few Mexican immigrants. Secondly, “beaner” is one of those words that people say all the time here in California. A socially acceptable slur, I guess, like “fag” used to be.
Back to the Navy though. For an organization that fights “for freedom and democracy for all,” and can kick you out for using hate speech, there’s a helluva lot of hate speech flying around in the military. And it wasn’t just words for Iraqis and Afghans either. Mostly, it was members razzing each other. It’d be hard to explain to a civilian. What do you do when you work/sleep/clean/eat/live in the same small space (on a ship, remember) with the same people 24/7 for months at a time? I’ll tell you. You come up with ways to cope with the various things bothering you. One of the popular methods is joking. Cruelly, mercilessly joking. Everybody gets it. You’re fat? Expect someone to say something. You’re slow? You woke up with a zit? You went back to your hotel room with a “ladyboy” because you were so drunk? You’re (fill in a race)? Your sister is a “web cam girl”? You cosplay? Expect ridicule.
It sounds terrible, I know. And for a lot of people, probably it is. Honestly, I had a great time joking on the ship. I got mine, trust me, but the worst thing, looking back, is that being ragged on made me feel justified in ragging on others. That’s how almost everyone I’ve known in the Navy feels. The attitude is that, “Look. We have to live together, so we’re going to laugh. You have to be strong. Everyone takes a joke. If you can’t take it, then don’t expect anybody to try to be sensitive to what might offend you. Get over it.”
That’s really the attitude. And some people come to the boat not wanting to or maybe not knowing how to joke like that. They might not feel really offended the first time someone makes fun of them, but they will be surprised that it happened. A lot of people are really quiet when at first, for this reason. They’re probably wondering if everybody in the Navy is so careless about giving offense. They probably don’t understand how necessary laughter is (though I don’t deny we ought to joke about better things).
The kind of sick thing is when that new, quiet person makes his or her first crack at someone else. It’s especially juicy if it’s a new airman/seaman, and he or she makes a sharp jibe at some PO3 who takes himself too seriously. We celebrate when it happens. We say, “Hey! Good one!” We’re happy the new person has entered our fold of friends-who-constantly-insult-each-other.
Isn’t that crazy? I know that it is, and I do have strong regrets about many things I said when I was in the Navy, but… God knows I did have fun, and I did enjoy incredible friendships and experiences.
I’m getting to the point though. There was this environment. Still is. Just because I’m not on a ship anymore, doesn’t mean it’s changed. My views started changing when I realized that two of my shipmates (one is a friend now, who also left active duty and now lives in San Diego) were actually racists. They weren’t just telling racist jokes. They really did think white people were superior to people of other races. Back to that whole thing about “moments.” I had this moment where I realized that what most of us thought were just jokes were, to some people, serious, humorless remarks, expressing extremely ugly feelings toward other people. It’s so funny, too, because I didn’t realize these jokes were bad because anyone ever said they’d been offended… In fact, it wasn’t just white people making jokes about blacks. It was Filipino, Vietnamese, Laos, white, Mexican, Puerto Rican, mixed, black, white, male, female… everybody made every type of inappropriate joke, and actually the only complaints I ever heard of had to do with sexism, not racism.
Sexism in the military, by the way, is a really complicate subject that I — as a female veteran, by the way — have neither time nor patience to write about right now.
So it wasn’t someone being offended or hurt that made me get it. It was not the realization (which came later) that words do hurt. It was actually the realization that some people actually say racist things seriously. There was an old joke, based on stereotype, about a black man not being able to feed a family of four. The joke itself is stupid and offensive. But I was only shocked when I realized that some people say that joke, but really do believe black men can’t feed their families! That moment I had, realizing not only that racism existed, but also that it wasn’t far away in some KKK meeting, but right there in the face of someone I know… that was just a moment of sadness and disgust and shock.
If any African Americans are reading this, they probably think I’m an idiot white person. That may be true. But having grown up with black neighbors, teachers, and friends, I guess I just… didn’t get it. I hadn’t known racists growing up. There were always people of different races around, and always a message about equality, justice, non-discrimination, etc., that I guess I didn’t realize what was really happening.
After realizing my friend was a racist, I had to think about a lot of things. This has happened over a few years, and I’ve actually had some similar thoughts and observations regarding sexism, too. As I’ve been trying to understand racism, part of it, of course is, “I’m not racist, am I?” After all, I did used to tell racist jokes, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t still laugh at one or tell one myself now and then. I try not to now, and I feel bad if I do. I try to imagine how one of my friends of whatever race/nationality/religion would feel if they heard that joke. And if they heard if from me, maybe they’d think I was just giving them shit, and it wouldn’t hurt them. But what if they heard it from someone, and they could see that person was serious? I guess it all falls into the whole “power of words” category of thought.
Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about it all. I felt so stupid one day when I realized that I don’t have any black friends anymore. I mean, I have black friends who live far away from me now, but none that I talk to all the time, let alone hang out with often. I don’t have a single one in San Diego, though two notes on that are: San Diego has a rather small black population, and also, I don’t have a lot of friends here period.
But I thought, Whoa, now I’m tallying the races of my friends? … and it’s like I’m paranoid of being racist. It’s tricky making race-related observations. The goal, of course, is just to make observations. To be honest. But it’s hard to determine people’s motivations, even your own, especially when it’s a human fucking fact that we often do things we object to, or say things we don’t mean.
I can’t say I’ve figured anything out about racism, except that I’m more aware than I ever was before that it’s real! I’m so sorry that it is, and I’m sorry for anything and everything I have said or done to give it life. I used to say that the only jokes I would not tell were Jew jokes. Reason being that as soon as we start making jokes about the Holocaust, that’s when we’re saying we don’t think such a thing could happen again. And as soon as we think of a second Holocaust as impossible, it will happen! How didn’t I realize what jokes about African-Americans and immigrants could mean?
I will probably be writing more about this sort of thing another time. It’s on my mind. I think a lot about how I got out of poverty, and some of the kids in my old neighborhood, black or white or Puerto Rican, you know, they didn’t even finish school. I don’t know where most of them are. Why me? Was it partly because of my race? The short answer, I think, is yes. But again, another post.