There have been just two times in my life where I was in the minority.
I’m reading “White Fragility” and it’s brought a flood of memories to me regarding me, and race (a social construct) – and the two times I felt conspicuous as a minority.
I can attribute both of my experiences to a black shipmate, one directly and the other indirectly. MB and I met in boot camp in San Diego, and ended up on the same ship afterwards. We hated living on the ship while it was in dry dock in Long Beach, and so we and another shipmate rented a one bedroom apartment in town and took the bus to and from the ship, for just one month, until I was sent to my A-School in the suburbs of Indianapolis for 6 months.
When I returned to the ship in October 1973 it was at Subic Bay in The Philippines. I ran the ship’s closed circuit TV system (CCTV) along with a technician to entertain the 600 sailors and our 2400 Marine guests every evening after the work day on our helicopter carrier when out at sea.
During the day we’d tour the ship to check on our 75 TVs in the sleeping compartments, offices, and public areas and readjust the color, as inevitably people would mess with that and we’d field phone complaints. We’d play music across the system with a slide show so there’d be something to see and hear; and we’d entertain people in their office spaces and those cleaning the sleeping compartments as well.
One day in early 1974 MB showed up with an LP record album and said, “You need to expand your musical tastes and genre.” And he handed me “Pieces of Dreams” by Stanley Turrentine, a tenor sax jazz artist.
That became my also favorite album for the next few years – along with Working Man’s Dead by The Grateful Dead (yeah, go figure).
The First Time
Anyway, back in the states in late 1974, MB comes up to me and asks me if I’d like to go to LA to see a concert with War. So I’m thinking, Eric Burdon and War. “Sure,” I said. And we went.
Only Eric Burdon wasn’t there, it was his former backup band, after leaving The Animals, War.
And so MB and I sat on the floor of this indoor arena and watched the show. And I got stares, as I was one of a dozen or so white people in the auditorium crowded with thousands of black people. I don’t think I was uncomfortable until one man started pestering me, challenging me, about why am I there, etc. Others sitting nearby told him to shut up and be cool, etc. So I was a bit unnerved.
And the experience taught me what THAT felt like. It was more than an intellectual reckoning. And I had a new, fresh, deeper, appreciation of what MB and all my other black shipmates felt, every moment, of every day.
The Second Time
So I was a big fan of Mr T. The musician, fool! Stanley Turrentine the jazz great. Not some A-Team TV character.
I owned 33 LP albums and then 33 CDs. I had concert tickets to see him in KCMO in 1979 before I graduated from Kansas, but on one of my 3 job interviews in Saginaw Michigan in a 3 week period, my return flight got stuck in Detroit and I was late to Kansas City and late to Lawrence KS and my 3 friends went without me. It had been my idea and I arranged it all, but then missed it. I have a framed poster on my wall from that missed event.
Then in 1981 I saw Mr. T in Ann Arbor Michigan. That was a college audience. A mixed audience, racially.
And then in 1989 my wife and next door neighbors went with me to Chicago’s Cotton Club to see him. We were the only white people in the place, and the staff sat us right up front. 20-25 feet away from the musicians. I didn’t feel as uncomfortable as I felt conspicuous when I left our table to visit the restroom and I could see that we four were the only white people in the place. But besides some stares, no one hassled me. And I flashed back to that War concert with MB, who had turned me on to Mr T. back in the day.
Once when the waitress took our drink orders during a break in the music, I asked if she could get me one of the posters as a memento.
She came back with one with Stanley Turrentine’s autograph. I don’t know if my $40 tip after the show was enough. Mr T. and the band came back from the break and he gave our table a noticeable nod. I requested “Midnight and You” when he asked the audience for requests, and it was the third or fourth song he played afterwards.
Over the Years
I’ve thought a lot about my two experiences, as being the minority. One with someone hassling me, and the other not.
Two times … and not even two days. Out of 67 years.
24,455 days … plus.
And I’ve thought about my black shipmates, and the other minorities onboard the USS Okinawa. And my co-workers at Wickes Lumber in Saginaw MI, and at Motorola in Schaumburg IL, and on my staff at the first two of the three consulting firms where I was an equity owner.
And I feel saddened that they most likely have had those feelings of being conspicuously in the minority every single day. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
And I’ve had two experiences in 67 plus years.
MB and I got together last September, after losing track of each other since October 1975 when I got out of the Navy after having surgery while he was on leave. I was supposed to have gotten out earlier, but my exiting medical examination found that I had a hernia and they wouldn’t let me out until that was taken care of. We both thought I’d still be recovering when MB got back, but I was gone, catching a ride with my brother who was in town, and he could take me and my motorcycle back to Lawrence KS where I would finish my degree before heading to Saginaw for my first post-college job.
Addresses and phone numbers that we all exchanged weren’t valid when I went searching for MB afterwards. It wasn’t until August 2019 that I found him via the Internet, in some obscure newspaper article that had a photo. He was 44 years older and looked different. But then again, so did I.
I owe MB for getting me out of the deck force and sent off to A-School and then having the best job on my ship, according to the Captain. But that’s another story.
This story is about having a small taste of what it feels like to be the conspicuous minority, twice. And imagining what that must be like when it’s a daily occurrence. And knowing that I can’t even get close to really knowing.
And pondering all of that. And wanting to do something so that that might end, or ease off, if only just a little.
And feeling helpless. But hopeful. That someday…
Someday Seems Awfully Far Away
Today we are challenged. We white people, and others. The pandemic and all.
Others have been challenged … almost every waking hour of every day. A different kind of pandemic.
Pandemic – (of a disease) prevalent over a whole country or the world. That would be institutional racism.
And now this Covid-19 pandemic on top of it all.
The challenge for White People is to examine the issues of race – a social construct – as race doesn’t really exist per science, but does in a social context. And to find the truth and acknowledge it.
If you can’t hear BLM without coming back with ALM – then you are part of the problem – because you’re not part of the solution.
And if you are standing on the sidelines, not wishing to be involved, then you are not part of the solution … and you are part of the problem.
Add your voice. Demand an end to Institutional Racism.
Perhaps – by first ending your denial of it’s existence.
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