Friday, January 23, 2009

Racism isn't a problem for Black people in America

This is a story from a NBMBAA conference in 1994.

The main speaker at the lunch that year was Lloyd Ward one of the first black people to reach the VP level at Pepsi. At the time, he was the President of Frito Lay's Central Division, an entity with sales of $1.3 billion. At that point, in his mid 50s, he had achieved the kind of career that most MBA students were aspiring to, so he was an eagerly anticipated speaker.

He opened his talk with the phrase "racism is not a problem for Black people in America."

At the National Black MBA Association, a statement like that is sure to get attention, and it certainly got mine. At first I thought he must be kidding, but I certainly paid very close attention to what he had to say.

He went on to tell a few anecdotes about how he had been treated badly based on his race. But he ended each one with that phrase - racism is not a problem for Black people in America. After the second one, I was getting pretty pissed and I was thinking this must be some Uncle Tom, house Negro wannabe. I was just about ready to make my loud exit in protest when he started his third story, and it really nailed me to my chair.

He explained how he was the first black plant manager in the South. When he arrived for his first day at work, he pulled his car into one of the parking spots reserved for management, and the security guard walked up to him, pointed his revolver at him and said "boy, you can't park here." With the gun pointed at his face, he asked the security guard "where would you like me to park." the guard told him where to park, and he followed the guard's instructions.

And then he said it again, "but I'm here to tell you that racism is not a problem for Black people in America, and here's why: because problems are things we are taught to solve, and racism is not something that Black people can solve." He went on to say that racism creates situations for Black folks, like being on the subway next to someone who has a cold. If the guy with the cold starts coughing in your direction, you can hand him a tissue, or ask that he cover his mouth, or move to another car, or whatever works. But he's the one with the sickness, not you. And you can't make him well, so there's no point in trying.

He circled back to the situation with guard calling him boy and pointing a .38 in his face. In that situation, he could have angrily pointed out that he was the new manager. But we all know that expressions of anger towards people holding guns are not usually a good way of making it home in one piece. So he did as he was told. But in his first official act as plant manager, he fired the security guard and made sure that his replacement would not be authorized to carry a gun.

Personally, I think that many of us Black folks have, to some degree or other, caught the virus that is racism, and need to do some self healing. I also think that providing some level of "assistance" to those of our White bretheren who wish to be helped, is in our best interest.

But in the end, I agree with his central thesis, that for Black folks, solving racism would be like trying to boil the ocean. And that our efforts are generally better used in fighting battles that either can be, or must be, won.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Malia's Camera

During the pre-inauguration festivities, I saw something that caught my eye. Malia Obama was sitting on the dais next to the stage with her soon-to-be President father, her soon to be First Lady mother, her little sister and the rest of a very distinguished group. They were there as the honored guests of a major performance, and all eyes were on them.

Barack had his normal placid but happy expression, Michelle had a slightly more serious looking expression that was certainly appropriate for being the honored guest. Sasha seemed to be having a good time, but was having some difficulty sitting still. Malia was staring intently into her digital camera, apparently filming the scene.

Initially, I thought this was sorta funny. I mean she is not going to need a camera for the next 8 (we hope) years to document the public aspects of her life. There will be photographs, official and unofficial, aplenty to do that for her. And it seemed a little odd, perhaps even inappropriate for the circumstances. But she's a kid, so I figured that it was just a little amusing.

Then today at the inauguration, I saw the same thing. Malia with her camera, seeming serious, and peering frequently into the little electronic box. So now I have a different theory: Malia is using her camera to avoid being overwhelmed by the whole experience. It's sort of like how you see people partially covering their eyes when they go to a scary movie. They still see the movie, but the act of blocking out some of the additional visuals helps them control the experience a bit.

Now I can imagine that many parents in Michelle and Barack's circumstances (or even circumstance way less formal and important) would tell their 10 year daughter old that it would not look right if she were up on the dais taking pictures. That it would be undignified, or even silly. I can imagine parents not knowing why they want to say no, but saying it anyway, and being quite rigid about it.

But Barack and Michelle, in the midst of this most important day for themselves and for our country, made the right decision to let Malia do what she needed to do to be OK.

Maybe this had been the subject of a long and difficult conversation, one of those dragged out conflicts we parents can get into with our kids as they struggle to become the adults they want to be. Maybe the Obamas have been searching for a way to give Malia some space while living in the crazy world that they are living in. Perhaps a professional therapist suggested this to the Obamas and they took the advice.

Of course, it's completely possible that I'm reading the situation all wrong. That Malia is doing this for her school project, or is really just interested in photography, or who knows.

Or just maybe, Malia said she wanted to bring her camera, and her parents had the right mix of instinct and knowledge to understand that she needed to take a little more control of her environment, and quietly just said yes.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Changing the name

After such a long absence from posting, this next post is going to be really lame. The campaign is over, we won the election and Barack is going to be president in just a few days (eight to be exact).

So I guess that means that I should change the name of my blog to something else. I'm thinking "bitter and murky." This comes from the movie "The Edge" with Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Harold Perrineau. Baldwin's character is asked how he like is coffee. He responds, in Airplane fashion "I like my coffee like I like my women" Perrineau's character adds "bitter and murky." That sort of captures how I feel at the moment, but it's, hopefully, not a permanent condition. In any case, the quote is funny, so it could work.

Another possibility is to snag part of Pulp Fiction, and call the blog twentyfiveseventeen. That's a reference to my favorite quote from that movie, the Samuel L Jackson monologue about the bible passage Ezekiel 25:17. (Note: the movie passage is not exactly as it appears in the actual bible, a fact about which Quentin Tarantino may have some explaining to do when he reaches the hereafter. I think he hopes that God has a sense of humor. I guess we'll see...)

The third and final option comes from a consistent frustration that I had during the campaign. Some people kept saying that we should stop saying that Barack is black, since he is half white. As if being half white precludes someone from being black. The name that came from that frustration is halfwhite-allblack.

So, there it is. Three names: bitterandmurky, twentyfiveseventeen and halfwhite-allblack. Please express an opinion.