Dean M. Chriss
Photography

Land of the Free
Moving Beyond Racism
Written on February 14, 2021

Teton Mountains, Sunset Storm

America began with what is among the largest genocides in world history, though this fact is seldom acknowledged. White Europeans invaded, taking the land and exterminating roughly 10 million Native Americans in the process. America is perhaps the only nation that made it a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. By the end of the Indian Wars in 1924 nearly 98% of all Native Americans were killed, leaving a scant 238,000 alive. Many Hollywood westerns, the most popular film genre from the 1930s through the 1960s, celebrated this genocide. The White invaders referred to the Native Americans they slaughtered as "savages".

The White invaders imported Africans. Millions of Africans died during their capture, while being marched to the coasts of Africa from the interior, and in the an endless series of wars produced in Africa by the constant hunger for new slaves. Millions more died in concentration camps at each end of the sea journey to America, and up to a third died due to the appalling conditions on the slave ships. In all as many as 60 million Africans were killed for the profit of White Christian imperialism. Today there are still 1,712 Confederate statues standing in America. They glorify the atrocity of slavery and depict those who fought to continue it as heroes. Until very recently the Confederate flag was flown at major sporting events, and it was flown during the the breaching of America's Capitol by White Republican seditionists who call themselves "patriots".

Once in America the surviving Africans served as machinery that was bought, sold, traded and used to build "the land of the free". These reprehensible acts, that America has never truly recognized, dealt with, or overcome, left the nation's population 86% White in a world that is only about 16% White. America's White majority has since declined to about 61% and is on track to hit 50% before 2045. The trend scares some White people who probably fear that a non-White majority may treat them like they treat others.

I grew up knowing nothing about Native Americans, slavery, or America's true history, on a farm in what used to be rural Ohio. Like most rural Midwestern towns in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a 100% White monoculture. I do not recall any mention of race or racism in my very early years, probably because there was only one race in the area. In school we had to stand and recite the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. I believed the "with liberty and justice for all" part, which was even less true back then than it is today. A few years later the racial unrest of the 1960s, which was only seen on televisions across our town, confirmed that nearly everyone in my town was a hard core racist. That was, and often still is, the norm in rural White America. I heard the N-word countless times from lots of people, but never once heard my parents say it. Their avoidance gave me the impression the N-word was worse than all of the other words that kids are told not to use, but sometimes hear their parents say. Perhaps that is why the word never became part of my vocabulary. Before going to college in the big city, the only Black people I saw were on television. A few were celebrities but most were doing something illegal and violent in the news. In my world there were no examples of Black people who were normal and peaceful. In college there were very few Blacks on campus and none were in my classes, but there were plenty in the city where the university was located. Knowing only what television, news papers, and rural society had taught me, I avoided them. I didn't hate these people, but I was afraid of them and felt threatened by them, even though none of them ever threatened me.

After college I worked at a large corporation, and not long after I started they had a massive labor union strike. Management decisions forced various non-union employees who would not normally work together to do so for the duration of the strike. I worked with a Black woman named Betty, whose normal job was copying documents. I was in my middle 20s and I suppose Betty was in her late 50s or early 60s. She was the first Black person I ever actually knew. She was very affable and I was comfortable around her. One day Betty said something about fixing a meal at home. I stupidly but seriously asked if she made "soul food". I had heard about it but had no idea what it was, and that is what she was making. She explained a couple of the dishes to me and then cut our conversation short because she had to get back to work. I thought that was the end of it until she came in the next day with a soul food dinner, all nicely packaged for me to take home! That was completely unexpected and I thanked her for it. My tastes back then were not very adventurous, and I wasn't sure whether I could eat it, but I took it home and tried. There were stewed mustard greens with ham, black eyed peas with rice, and a piece of corn bread. To my surprise it was great, but the mustard greens with ham were way too hot for me to handle. The next day I told Betty that all of the food was wonderful, but "the greens were pretty hot for my White mouth". Betty laughed out loud, saying she makes hers "nice and spicy".

After a week or two a Black accountant named Wendell was assigned to work with us. He was perhaps a year or two older than I, and could have been a stand-up comedian. Wendell never failed to brighten our days. Out of the blue he would say something that made me laugh spontaneously, sometimes until I was actually crying. Occasionally the humor would flow from him like water from a fire hose. Betty, who was a very hard and diligent worker, used to scold us. She'd say "Y'all need to stop shuckin' and jivin' and get back to work!" Wendell would then say something that made everyone laugh, and we'd all get back to our respective tasks. No one ever had a quicker wit than Wendell.

Betty, Wendell, and I became friends, and knowing them permanently changed my views about race. Even so, I did not think about, or truly understand, White privilege and institutionalized or systemic racism until later. Unbeknownst to him, my teacher was a Black man named Victor, who I met through an unlikely series of circumstances during lunchtime walks at a public park. I noticed Victor many times before we met. He is a very large and very fit man who is just two years younger than I. He always looked a little tired and more than a little disheveled, like he just got out of bed. He often wore a very loose fitting hoodie with the hood up, even on warm days. He looked out of place among the lunchtime walkers in their business clothing and fancy jogging outfits. When I cross paths with people on any of my walks, I typically offer a short greeting like "Hi" or "Great weather", or just raise my hand or give them a nod. I did the same with Victor, who at first did not respond. After a couple of times he would say something like "How ya doin' brotha?" or give me a nod or raise his hand if he was talking on his phone. Then one day I saw him leaving the parking lot in a big, fancy, customized, and spotless SUV that had to cost more than $80,000. I waved as he passed. Victor smiled and waved back. At the time we did not know one another's names, and never expected to.

Some months later on one of those same lunchtime walks, I first met a different friend named Dave. He's a White guy, a former military pilot, and the current owner of an international corporation. We rapidly became good friends and have such similar viewpoints that we sometimes actually finished one another's sentences. We ended up walking together countless times, always trying to solve the world's environmental problems as we got some exercise. Sometimes we'd walk for a couple of hours because we were so engrossed in a conversation about the environment and the politics affecting it. Fortunately each of us could make our own working hours. One day on one of these walks Dave and I crossed paths with Victor, who Dave obviously already knew very well. That was a surprise. When Dave introduced Victor, he said Victor saved his life some months earlier when he had a medical problem on that same path. It turns out that Victor lives nearby and stops to walk in the park on his way home from his job. He works all of the overtime he can get, and he gets lots of it, especially on holidays and weekends when the pay is much higher. With all of that overtime Victor can afford the things he wants, including that SUV. He's a good guy who works harder than most, including me, would be willing to.

Victor and I once talked about our lives as kids, which are surprisingly similar, but only to a point. We talked and laughed about how we both loved watching the old Andy Griffith Show when we were little kids. Victor loved the deputy Barney Fife character and can even repeat some of his funniest lines. He said that one time his mother walked into the room while he was watching and he said "Momma, where are all the black people?". Victor laughed, obviously meaning his childhood recollection to be humorous in light of today's realities. Because he laughed I chuckled too, but inside I felt like I was punched in the stomach. In that instant understood how growing up Black is very different, and much less privileged, than growing up White. We both watched the same television shows, but I saw countless examples of good and successful people that looked like me or my parents. Victor saw none of that. Especially in those days, Whites controlled the media and people of color were almost never presented as examples of good or successful people. In fact the opposite was true. Over a lifetime that alters the self image of Blacks and other people of color, and the image Whites, like me when I was young, toward them. Those others also include employers and police. That has kept many people of color from attaining what they otherwise might, and undoubtedly played at least some role in the disproportionate police violence against people of color that we see so often in the news. I think the way people of color are portrayed in television shows and the media in general is changing for the better, but those changes take a generation to work their way through society. Things like police reform need to happen much sooner than that.

I recall a study done many years ago where pairs of identical resumes were sent out to various companies. One resume in each pair had a "Black-sounding" name and the other had a "White-sounding" name. As expected, fewer resumes with "Black-sounding" names got a call back. A much more recent study shows the same results. In part it says "Since 1989, Whites receive on average 36% more callbacks than African Americans, and 24% more callbacks than Latinos. We observe no change in the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans over the past 25 years, although we find modest evidence of a decline in discrimination against Latinos." In addition to often being paid less for the same job, that's what faces people of color when they look for work. That's also the White privilege that I have enjoyed since birth. People of color always have to work harder than their White counterparts for a comparable lifestyle. The question Victor asked his mother over fifty years ago instantly brought the meaning of "systemic racism" and "White privilege" into clear focus.

It seems to me that Native Americans are the most forgotten people in America. Their problems are in some ways greater than those of any other group, but the rest of America knows and hears little about them. For instance, Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups. The nature of some problems may relate to their population being widely dispersed on 326 reservations, some of which are located in very remote regions of the country, and the way those reservations are governed. I know only one Native American family from spending lots of time in a motel they run, and eating many meals at the adjacent restaurant, which they also run. Over the years my wife and I have seen their children grow into adults who left the reservation, and we have met a few of their other relatives. "Uncle Charlie" has told us much of his life's story in several installments. They give some insight into Navajo (they prefer Diné) life. The family has worked incredibly hard. Based on other experiences in the Navajo Nation they are certainly among the most fortunate. The last time we saw them the kids were back home for Thanksgiving and they invited us to Thanksgiving dinner with their extended family. We regarded that as a great honor. It made me wonder if, in their shoes and with their history, I would have done the same. By their example, this Diné family provided a beautiful lesson in graciousness.

Believe it or not, the term race has had many different meanings over the centuries, and at no point have scientists ever agreed on any specific meaning, or even the number of races of humankind that exist. Genetic studies have now refuted the the very existence of biogenetically distinct races, and the notion of race has become mostly a social construct. Many people still do not realize that no one can define precisely what race means, and the race a person belongs to is as much a matter of self-identification with a given culture as anything else. This all gets pretty interesting, and I have included a few additional reference links below this article for anyone interested.

A White acquaintance once started talking about "the Muslim problem" as if everyone must realize that every Muslim is bad1. His comments made me think about a Malaysian Muslim physician who has been a good friend for over 20 years. He has done countless things for my wife and I, including giving us a wedding reception. I also thought about the Black Nigerian Muslim family two houses away. They are the nicest neighbors anyone could want, and their children are the most polite and well behaved I've seen in a while. I thought about Victor and his SUV when the same acquaintance talked about a Black couple getting out of a "big and expensive SUV" that parked next to he and his wife at a store. He asked his wife "How's that White privilege working for you?" as if White privilege doesn't exist, or Black people shouldn't be allowed to have nice vehicles and must come by them easily. The same person also talked about the "problem" of Whites becoming a minority in America, blaming (for just being here, I guess) every non-white group he could think of including Hispanics, Blacks, and after a brief pause adding "Asians". That made me think about my Asian wife, who is my life's greatest treasure, and all of the relatives who have always treated me like family. The most hurtful and uncomfortable moments in my life have not come from Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, or Native Americans. They have happened when White colleagues and people I thought were friends have shared their racist feelings, mistakenly assuming I am also a racist because their skin and mine are the same color. Racism always hurtful to someone, and it hurts more when it comes from a betrayed trust or friendship than when it comes from hate.

There are obviously a range of incredibly good to incredibly bad individuals of every race, religion, and other stripe. I can't describe how lucky I feel to have met so many of the incredibly good ones, but frankly I have met some bad ones too, and maybe luck has nothing to do with it. If I hated whole groups of people for the misdeeds of some who look like them, or who have the same religion, I would never have met any of the people I've mentioned. The deeds of a particular individual are all that matter. If you think about it, categorizing someone as good or bad based on anything else is nonsensical, unfair, and stupid.

Having people of diverse cultures within our society can enrich the lives of everyone. That can only happen if we are willing to learn from and explore cultures other than our own, and sometimes go outside of our respective comfort zones. Other cultures are not something we should put up with, they are something we should encourage and embrace. I could never again live in a town like the one I grew up in. I would miss interacting with and hearing the perspectives of people like those I have described. I would greatly miss the festive Nigerian music and brightly colored clothing of our neighbors when their family has a celebration. Things like this always make us smile, even when they're a little noisy. I'd miss Lion Dances on the lunar New Year, Chinese dim sum, and foods like Indian chicken tikka masala with fresh naan, hot Vietnamese Pho (pronounced “fuh”), Italian eggplant parmesan, Korean Bulgogi, Greek Baklava, and Middle Eastern baba ghanoush or hummus on a fresh piece of pita bread. I'd also miss occasionally having stewed mustard greens with ham along with some beans with rice for dinner, and remembering Betty when we do. You haven't lived until you've had a good soul food dinner, but be careful with the spice! 

Poet Maya Angelou was right when she said, "In diversity there is beauty and there is strength". We have existential problems that affect all life on our planet. The energy wasted by people trying to lift themselves up by pushing other people down would go a long way toward solving them. It is long past time for America to reconcile its past with its present, and move everyone on to a better future together.

Dean

1 Religious discrimination is not racism but both share a common and mistaken thought process. For instance, consider the following mistaken and religiously discriminative sentence. "The fact that some Catholics have bombed abortion clinics means that all Catholics would commit similar criminal acts." We could replace the word "Catholics" with the name of a race, and the phrase "bombed abortion clinics" with any despicable act that someone of the race has committed, and come up with a comparable racist fallacy. As with every religion, Muslims, range from very liberal to very conservative. The most conservative extremists have committed the violent acts we have all seen on television. The same could be said of American politics.

The experiences I have written about here are true, but I have altered names and circumstances so the individuals cannot be personally identified by anyone except themselves.

In the early years of Australia it was not policy to exterminate the Aboriginal people. Instead, between the 1910s and 1970s the goal was their assimilation into the White Australian culture, which obviously eliminates the aboriginal culture. That resulted in many aboriginal children being literally taken from their parents to be raised and schooled in the ways of the White Australians. There were other abuses that were even worse. In February of 2008, after a years long examination and tracing of laws, practices and policies, the Australian government publicly acknowledged what happened, told of the devastating effects on Aboriginal Australians, and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples. You can view this apology in an 8 minute video here. In addition some provisions for assistance and reparations to the Aboriginal people were made. A similar acknowledgement of what happened in America and elimination of symbols that continue to glorify atrocities of the past would go a long way to promote healing. Building some schools and hospitals on Native American reservations and providing college tuition assistance for impoverished minorities would help too. It's impossible to move past such huge issues without acknowledging that they exist, apologizing, and providing some meaningful help for the affected people.

See also:

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferraff/2019/04/25/what-does-dna-tell-us-about-race/?sh=5387e1ab57b3

https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human