Saturday, March 19, 2005

Race Relations

When I was a kid, I was prejudiced. In fact, I had a game I made up that I called "nigger." It was similar to "500" except, that the "it" player would kick up a soccer ball, and the other kids would try to catch it. If a kid let the ball slip through his arms, he was a nigger. If he blew it again, he was double-chocolaty. If he failed once more to catch the ball, he was triple-chocolaty. I don't know when I learned to be prejudiced, and I don't know where, but I'm pretty sure it was from my environment, not my parents. My mom and dad always showed respect for others, regardless of their race, sex, religion or whatever (though they're fairly intolerant of homosexuals). I suspect my bigotry was a product of being born in Kansas and living there until I was about 12. Kansas isn't quite the south, but when I lived there I was picking up a lot of good ol' boy habits.

Things started changing for me when I moved north, where the culture seems to respect diversity much better than what I had known in Kansas. I also actually got to know a few black people. Oh sure, black people looked a little different (big afros were in at the time), dressed a little different and spoke a little different than I did, but so did a lot of white folks. People dressed, groomed and spoke along socioeconomic lines in addition to racial and cultural lines, so as I started getting a little older, I realized that blacks were in some ways different than I was, but by no means were they inferior.

This doesn't mean that I was as aware -- both of myself, and of others -- as I am today. There was one short little black girl in my class who had a tough attitude; my friends and I referred to her as "hot chocolate." There was one black guy in my class that we referred to as "Toby." (As I admit this, realize that I didn't understand the social implications of calling a black person Toby at that time.) As we got older, one day he asked me to stop calling him Toby. I didn't understand why he didn't like his nickname, but I grasped that he didn't like it, so I stopped. The point here is that I was probably unknowingly perpetuating racism in some manner by calling him Toby, and I respected him enough as a friend to stop as soon as he asked.

I didn't really learn about different cultures until I joined the Marine Corps. And when I got there, I got a crash-course. I met black people from downtown L.A., southern belles from Texas, undereducated white men from Midwestern farms, Mexican-Americans from Arizona -- you name it, I experienced it. Some of these people were horrible people; they'd make no bones about undermining you both professionally and personally if it gave them a chance to get ahead. Others became lifelong friends. But the thing I started truly realizing was that race, creed, religion or sex didn't matter. People may look one way or another on the outside, but how a person looks has absolutely no bearing on what they're like inside.

This doesn't mean however, that I believe we're all the same on the inside. I am convinced that there are probably a lot of little innate differences based on our race, sex or whatever. For example, it's a biological fact that men are innately physically stronger than women. It's indisputable that sickle cell anemia is associated with blacks. Does that mean that one race, sex or whatever is superior? Absolutely not! It just means we're inherently wired a little differently. How a person is brought up has just as much to do with how intelligent, wise, athletic, spiritual or whatever as biology does -- maybe more. Unfortunately, in our current society, saying that biological differences exist is a taboo subject. If I were to say something like this in a public forum, I'd be decried as a racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic ignoramus. In fact, I suspect that a lot of people will get pissed at this most recent point, even though it's not really the theme of this entry. (I'll get to the point, but you're going to have to keep reading.)

When I moved to to my current domicile in 1996, I soon met one of my closest friends. Antoine happens to be black. Toine and I have been through a lot together, good times and bad. And we've helped each other out whenever the need arose, no questions asked, and without keeping track of who owes who what. We're friends in the truest sense. He's probably my twin, separated at birth... and by about 10 years... and he doesn't look like me... and we don't have the same parents... you get the idea. The point is, he's one of the people closest to me on the face of the planet.

Since we happen to be of different races, we've talked a lot about the state of race relations in society. (Usually it's to make fun of society's prejudice, or to talk to one another when we don't understand how something became a race-related issue.) The thing we always come back to, is that's almost exclusively about society. We agree that there are probably some inherent differences between the different races, but in the end, it's society that makes the difference.

I'll use a classic example -- getting pulled over for speeding. Am I a better driver than Antoine? Do I break fewer laws? No. But we talked about it one day and determined that he's pulled over roughly three times more frequently than me; when he gets pulled over, there's a higher likelihood that his vehicle will be searched, and I get off with a warning far more frequently than he does. The only thing we can figure is that it's because he's black and I'm white.

There are a lot of other little things too. When we go out, I catch people eying him all the time, as if they're intimidated by his presence. And in return, he's confided in me that he does a threat assessment when he goes to the bars. He checks to see how many hostile eyes are on him, and mentally figures how he'd defend himself if the shit hit the fan.

This isn't even the tip of the iceberg. As a black man in a white society, Toine has to deal with a lot of things on a daily basis that I don't have to deal with -- simply because he's black. Why? Because human beings are innately afraid of the unknown. I suspect that it goes back to the Neanderthal. Man wasn't always sure what was a predator and what was prey, so if he didn't recognize it, he was wary until he determined if it was a threat.

But the thing is, we've had thousands of years to prove that one certain race, creed, religion, sex or whatever, isn't more of a threat to society at large than another. A person is not more likely to be violent just because he's black any more than a person is more likely to be ignorant, brilliant, athletic or whatever, strictly because of the color of their skin, their country of origin, or whatever. Yes, there ARE biological differences; this has been proven. But it's impossible to determine where biology stops and sociology begins. And different does NOT mean inferior. It means different. From an evolutionary standpoint, difference is good. It will help ensure our survival as a species in the long run.

There's no way this article is going to come up with a magic answer that will suddenly end racism, sexism, homophobia or whatever. All of these things are far too ingrained in our society for one little comment from one little guy to magically make all of these "isms" disappear. But I DO hope that I'll get through to one person, somewhere on the planet, that hadn't thought about things from my perspective. Yes, there are innate differences based on race and sex. But different does not mean inferior. We don't need to fear someone just because they don't look like us. We don't have to hate someone simply because they don't think like us. The first step to eradicating the hatred is through understanding these cultural differences. Though I'll never completely understand what it's like to be black, because I'm NOT black, I can learn to appreciate what it's like. I can continue learning about cultural differences, and respect them. And in the immortal words of Toine, it's all about the respect. If you've got to hate someone, fine. But don't do it based on their ethnicity or gender or sexual preference, or whatever. Hate them because they're a crappy person. And even if you do that, remember, the hatred will still eat you up inside.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Wheaties-n-Beer... Breakfast of Champions

The other night I went to a hockey game with my kids. When the first period ended, and they brought out the zambonis to smooth the ice, I couldn't help but laugh. Advertising is everywhere in America, and sometimes the results are absolutely hysterical. When General Mills decided to put an advertisement on this zamboni, did they ever think of the consequences of their ad? Did the advertising executive ever consider the possibility of a "Wheaties" zamboni running alongside a "Bud Light" zamboni? Did he ever think that some smart-ass like me would put the two ads together and say "Mmmmmmmm... Wheaties & Beer, what better combination could man come up with?" I doubt it, but that's what happened.

Wheaties and beer... breakfast of champions!

Tuesday, March 8, 2005

Someone who Actually likes his Job (Most Days)

I like my job. There I've said it. I not only like my job, but I also like my bosses, my co-workers (for the most part) and the company I work for. Of course in this day and age, where companies consider their employees as disposable as paperclips and water cups, and where employees have little or no loyalty to their employers, I'm probably the gross exception. (I'd like to think that I'm more "exception" than "gross," but that's a topic for another day.)

As I say this, I realize that I'm in the same boat as all of you. I understand that my employment with my company is not set in stone. I'm not quite a commodity, but I'm not irreplaceable either. So it's not that I have an unrealiztic love for, or loyalty to my employer; it's more accurate to say that we're a good fit for the time being. Oh sure, the company and I don't see eye-to-eye on everything... they want too much of my time, I want too much of their money... I don't like the bureaucracy, they don't like my lack of tact... but in any relationship, there's give and take. And I think that treating your job like a relationship is one of the keys to being a successful, happy employee.

In interpersonal relationships, there are bad things and good things about the person with whom you're having the relationship. In a healthy association, you acknowledge both the good and the bad. As long as the positives outweigh the negatives, it's a good fit. But when the bad overrides the good, things get ugly. For example, when your employer starts requiring you to work overtime and doesn't compensate you accordingly; when your benefits get whittled away; when you report to an abusive or incompetent boss, the bad overrides the good. When this happens, it's time to consider leaving the unhealthy relationship.

And yes, this works both ways. Employees can develop bad habits and make the employer think the relationship isn't a good fit. Employees can badmouth the company, steal, carry a poor work ethic, etc. and make the employer rethink the association too. The big difference is that an employer is less likely to tolerate a substandard employee than a worker is likely to tolerate a poor company. I'm mentioning this because in today's society, it seems that people seem to have an entitlement mentality. They want great pay, great benefits, no overtime, more vacation... but they're not willing to give anything in return. I may be starting to sound "pro-business" or "anti-worker," but that's not the case. If there's any point to this post (and I'm not saying that there is a point), it's that a job is like any other relationship. There's good and there's bad to any relationship. In any relationship, you've got to work (no pun intended) to make it grow and thrive. If the negative aspects of the relationship outweigh the positives, then it's no longer a healthy relationship and it's time to look elsewhere. Fortunately, I happen to have a relatively healthy association with my company.

Friday, March 4, 2005

Boyz Poker Night

There's something inherently cool about boys' night in... kickin' back, talkin' smack, drinking a few beers, eating waaaaaayyy too much guy food (chips, brats, chili... you get the idea), and usually we get around to playing a few hands of poker.

I wouldn't call our group old-school, but we started playing before the Texas Hold 'Em craze started. I wouldn't call it a tight-knit group, but we all get along and always have a good time. We've all got our own family, but when it's poker night, it's truly just the boys. Sometimes there are females around, but they never stay. I guess they don't like the thick cloud of cigar smoke, the sight of one-too-many spilled beers**, or the stench that invariably results from a little too much chili. Nope, it's not that the women are unwelcome. It's just that if they hang around, they need to understand up front that we're going to bask in all of our glorious, unrefined, belching (or worse), crass, foul-mouthed manhood, and there are few women who are willing to tolerate our primitive demeanor. And that, my friends, is what's so special about the boys' night in.

**Don't worry ladies, we clean our own messes when we're done. We're men, not chauvinist pigs.