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In a time of highlighted racism and the protests in the streets, I think its time we think about our own path, and our duty to break our own silence.
There comes a time when silence is a betrayal.
I grew up a white, heterosexual male in rural Oregon with only one black family in our community. I was raised by my grandparents who lived through the depression, WWII, Civil Rights Era of the ’60s, Vietnam, Kent State, the Reagan ’80s, and so much more. They would describe other races in the ugliest terms and never tried to hide it in front of the kids. Despite this behaviour, they were good people and I loved them very much. I grew up knowing that saying those words is wrong, but was raised to believe it was acceptable.
I joined the Army infantry after high school and was submerged in the melting pot that the Founding Fathers meant our country to be. The Army and Marine infantry are filled with the poorest class because it is the hardest job in the military. For the first time in my life, I was the minority. My inherited prejudices melted away when I was forced to trust my Mexican, African American, and Korean squadmates (who were also my roommates in the barracks). Well, I thought they had melted away, but my first deployment was to Haiti during their revolution in 1994-5.
In Haiti, I found that I wasn’t as enlightened as I believed myself to be. The military only gave us a fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation on cultural awareness and most of the slides told us to stay away from the local population because of sexually transmitted diseases. A big part of our job was crowd control and the Army added pepper spray to our load out (but no bayonets like they had in Lafayette Park).
To borrow from Orwell: in Port au Prince, I was hated by a large group of people, the only time in my life I have been important enough for this to happen to me. The job was very hard and every time I didn’t get enough food or sleep, every month without a shower, every time I hurt from all the continuous patrols, I blamed the people until I hated them. They were easy to hate. They didn’t look anything like me and were darker than I had ever seen. They didn’t speak my language or worship any god I knew. They let their government collapse. To my great regret, I demonized them. I stood by when other soldiers I knew did horrible things, like degrade them, push them around, or trade sexual favors for trivial things like C batteries. My complacency still haunts me.
I will tell you that, when we were called up to go to Iraq, I swore that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to anyone around me, if I could help it. I read the Quran, I learned about the Mandate System, I learned Arabic enough to communicate. So, when we landed in Iraq, I knew the culture of the people and could talk to them. While I look back and hate the violence of war, I still have great memories of the Iraqi people I got to know on the battlefield. The two experiences could not be any different.
I still don’t know what my voice will add, but the time for sitting by and being silent has passed.
So, I’ve sat and watched these atrocities happen on television, white cops killing unarmed African Americans, and I haven’t said anything because I felt it’s not my time to talk. I’m a white male who hates what he sees, who wants Black Lives Matter to march, to protest, but I haven’t said anything. What would my voice add?
I don’t know. But I do know that many other white people have been throwing up excuses or have been apathetic to what has turned into a movement over the past two weeks. I still don’t know what my voice will add, but the time for sitting by and being silent has passed. If you don’t believe in white privilege, look up the Peter Burnett Lash Law, it’s a law that passed in the Oregon Territory in 1844 that gave black people three years to get out of the state or they would be whipped publicly every six months until they did. The object of the law, Burnett wrote, “is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population. We are in a new world, under the most favourable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.’’
Peter Burnett was on the very first legislative body in the state. A little later, he was the very first judge in Oregon. President James Polk appointed him to the Oregon Supreme Court. This law lived on in the Black Exclusion Law that was written into our State Constitution and stayed there until 1922. This law made it illegal for African Americans to live in Oregon. And we think of ourselves as progressive in my home state, the state that only 98 years ago made it illegal for African Americans to exist here.
Even those of us who believe that we aren’t racist have it ingrained in us. I don’t believe a white person can grow up in this country without being racist, at least on a subconscious level. It’s written into our Constitution. It’s on display on our street corners where we memorialize people who owned other people. It’s in our media and entertainment. It’s even in our religion. I hate to break this to you, but Jesus didn’t look like Obi-Wan Kenobi. In fact, there was not a single white person in the Old or New Testament. The whitest person in the bible was Pontius Pilate, the man who sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. He was a Samite. The Samites were descendants of the Italic people, distant relatives of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. In short, they were short Eurasians with olive skin. Can you imagine how it feels to have the holy book, filled with people of colour like you, white-washed? And then have the same people, that bleached your saviour and all the apostles, teach the new Caucasian version of that faith is the only way to salvation?
I don’t know how to help solve racism. I do know that fear and ignorance fuel it. So, I’m going to try to be courageous and help change come. I’m going to do my best to learn and look at the world from the perspective of people other than me. And I’m going to keep doing this even when I feel like I’m not part of the problem, because, today, being silent, like Martin Luther King famously said, is a betrayal.