Sunday, November 09, 2014

Some thoughts on matters serious.

It is a poorly kept secret that I seek to live my life in as unserious a manner as circumstances allow.

Yet, sometimes, the circs, well, don't allow. This is, more or less, one such instance.

Via the lovely and gracious Mrs. Dorian Grey Lisa Birnbach I found this piece in The Washington Post.

And it got me thinking.

(Go, read it. I'll still be here. In fact, I'll go put on some tea. Orange Pekoe suggests itself.)

First, there are some nitpicky things I'd bring up, but won't because a) it's ungracious, and b) these nitpicky things are merely tangential to my larger set of points.

One of my fears when a piece like this comes out, detailing a lamentable episode such as this, is that it's publication is like a starting gun to the "Who's had it worse?" steeplechase. (This, incidentally, drives me up the bloody wall.)

As Graham himself notes: "Try as I may to see things from the perspective of a white person, I can see them only from the experience that I have as a black man and had as a black boy." Translation: "You can only see things from your perspective." That perspective may be somewhat closer or much further from someone else's, but it'll never be exactly The Other Person's. So, on the one hand, I have no idea what it's like to be a black man in 2014 America...but I know what it's like to be a Hispanic man in 2014 America.

So I have that going for me.

Anyway, my reaction to Graham's piece was "So what are we going to do?"

While it's true that racism isn't nearly what it was when I was a little kid, it's also not completely eradicated, refusing to go extinct like a vile sort of coelacanth. "So what are we going to do?"

It's also true that certain people have very unfair socio-economic advantages due to their ethnicity. "So what are we going to do?"

I can't tell you what to do with your life or the upbringing of your children, I can only tell you what I've done with my life, with my kids, and remind you how much money my perspective cost you to read.

My father (and there's a LOT of my ol' man in this) was a managing partner for [Insert Global Region here.] of a then-Big Eight accounting firm. By every metric, his office was the best for that entire firm, year-after-year. And year after year, he kept getting passed up in favor of other partners who were, let's face it, Anglo-er than he. After the third such instance, we went out to lunch where a man-to-man talk ensued.

He explained that in this world, with a name like mine, even if I had every single achievement and accolade that existed, some people would treat me unfairly and some could even hate* me; and I had better well get used to it. He also said it would likely come from "different places** than you may be led to believe."

With this, he didn't mean so much "resign yourself to your fate" as "figure out how to overcome this situation." Because to him, and to me, quiet resignation in the face of injustice gave him a pain as if he were passing a faming porcupine sideways.

By the time he retired from the then-Big Eight firm, he was acknowledged for his expertise, skill, and wisdom. At his retirement party, many of the people*** who passed him up, quietly contrite, came up to him and tried to half-explain, half-apologize for their actions and decisions of so many years prior. My dad just smiled and said "I hope you learned to not let that happen again, and to make sure your people don't let that happen again."

And that brings up the main thrust of my post. "So what are we going to do?"

The idea, as I see it, is to eradicate racism and hatred and bigotry.

"So what are we going to do?"

Of course, my dad made sure I went to The Right Schools, that I spoke at least three (OK, 2½)languages without a trace of accent, that I behaved with kindness and charity and courtesy to everyone. What I was going to do was make sure that I would only treat people as individuals and not as _______-Americans.

I would tell my sons that while they were expected to do likewise, they were also to expect that not everyone would be so kind. "Some people, as your grandfather would say, will spot your name on a list and just from that, hate you."

As my dad told me -- and this story shall the good man teach his son -- I was not to let that hate dwell and grow within me. My soul was to be "a rocky place where the seed of hatred could find no purchase."  His phrase was always "God doesn't hear accents and God doesn't see skin color."

Next, I caution them, as I was cautioned, that they have to go twice as far and twice as fast just to keep up with their Anglo counterparts. It's not fair, but it has to be done. This is the only way to make sure that their children "only" have to go 50% further and faster than their Anglo contemporaries. It shouldn't be this way, but it is and you might as well argue against gravity.

Is it fair that my sons will have to climb a steeper hill in many aspects of life that would their Anglo counterparts? No. It isn't fair. It's emphatically, outrageously unfair. But that's the current reality with which they must live, but they can derive some measure of comfort from the fact that due to their grandfather's effort and example (and, I'd like to think Graham's kids can draw the same from his and his wife's) it's not as unfair as it used to be.

Lastly, what to do when the inevitable slur is flung at them? Partly, in my case at least, it's been important to brace them for the inevitability. We live in a world which still bears the marks of the darker side of human nature. To steel them against such expressions of hatred, while simultaneously seeking to minimize the opportunities for hatred to happen, has been a crucial aspect of my role as father. "This is going to happen. It happens because there is evil and brokenness in the world, and not because of anything you did. These people who might say these things, or similar things to your Jewish friends, or your black friends are poisoned inside and slowly dying from that poison. And these things are the effects of that poison."

It's not easy, it's not pretty and it's not fair. But all you can do to make things better is press forward**** regardless.
Just my 2¢.


* He used to say "There are people who only need to see your name in the phonebook to hate you."
** This was during the Boston Busing Riots. As he said: "Those weren't Goldwater fans beating up those black kids." True to his words, even though I attended college in the Very Deep South, I've only been called a "spic" three times: In NYC, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

*** It was gratifying that when Dad died in 2012 from Alzheimer's, almost all of these people -- themselves retired and therefore with nothing to either prove or gain -- traveled to attend the funeral.

**** There is a great phrase in Spanish which, natch, translates very poorly, that goes something like: "Never go back, not even to gather momentum."


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