Monday, February 25, 2013

Don't Assume You "Know" Someone Just Because of their Skin Color (or Eyebrows)

TV's J.R. Ewing: would you really trust those eyebrows?

What lens do you use to look at people when it comes to deciding what kind of person they are? That is, how do you decide who someone really is, especially when first meeting them? It's true that groups of people seem to possess certain similar characteristics. At least they do on the surface. Like most folks, I pride myself on being fair-minded and slow to jump to conclusions regarding how someone appears to be based on outward appearances. But sometimes I find myself unwittingly wearing ‘glasses’ that make me look at people in ways that ultimately leave me feeling like Boo Boo the Fool.
               One day a long while back, I needed to store my belongings for a time at one of those storage rental places. Helping me check in at the front desk was a pleasant elderly lady. She held a warm smile and kindly demeanor. As we conducted business, I noticed the man at the desk behind her. As I examined him, I made several grave assumptions. Like the woman at the desk, he was elderly and I assumed he was the business owner. His hair was gray and thinning. He also had bushy eyebrows that grew in a way that gave him a rather sinister look. He was on the phone and judging from his clipped tone, his snarly expression and those eyebrows, I was certain he was not a pleasant person.
               Around his desk space and on the wall was golf memorabilia. There were photos of him with golf celebrities, golf tees, golf balls, and other trappings that I presumed were souvenirs of country club living. Those items, combined with my perception of him based on the way his eyebrows were arched like the bad guys in movies, reinforced my initial impression of him. I grew convinced he was prejudiced against black people. He hadn’t uttered a word to me or even looked my way, but he didn’t have to. After all, those menacing eyebrows… Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Okay, so maybe they weren't this bushy. But still...
               When he got off the phone, he muttered to himself, “Dang pushy salesman.” Then he looked my way and did something I'll never forget: he smiled. It was one of the most kindly expressions I've ever received. He rose from behind the desk and, eyebrows and all, stepped to the counter to introduce himself. Of course, I was stunned. As I listened to him talk with me about how he and his wife managed the storage facility, I silently struggled in my mind, trying to come to terms with who this man really was.
               I worked to hide my embarrassment as he shared with me what used to be one of his greatest passions: golf. After a few minutes of his praising the sport and diminishing his own level of play, he began proudly sharing how he used to volunteer at pro and semi-pro golf tournaments that happened annually in the community.
               Those eyebrows still were a major distraction but I listened. Then his face grew dark. A-ha, I thought mentally; here it comes. Of course, I was wrong again.
               “They used to treat me like dirt,” he said almost at a whisper. “The golfers acted like prima donnas and I was less than nothing.” He fingered at the counter. “Here I was in awe of them and all they could do was complain about the service they received.”
               It’s easy to be fooled by superficial things like skin color, manner of dress, the way a person speaks. Or evil eyebrows. So next time you feel yourself judging someone based on assumptions, stop.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

During Black History Month Listen with your Heart to Stories of Racism


Throughout her life my mom has experienced all manners of career success. As an elementary school educator, she forever touched the lives of countless Battle Creek residents. She was awarded the prestigious Excellence in Education award in 1986. Mom also served on the boards of several organizations, traveled to Japan as part of a state-sponsored cultural exchange program, and hosted educators from Japan here. These and her many other achievements warm me with pride. There's a lesser known side of mom’s history she rarely discusses. It involves prejudice, racism and discrimination inflicted on her.
What makes her story so disturbing is that what she experienced didn’t occur in the Deep South. Rather, it was in Ohio. The North, where racism of the kind typically associated with former slave states of the South supposedly did not exist. But in fact, America’s dirty little secret is that in the North, racism was/is all too alive and well.
During a recent road trip, my mom shared with me some things that happened in her childhood. These events helped frame her perception of race and racism in America. It also blew the door open on some of my own misconceptions of what I thought was her largely ideal upbringing in a small coal mining town.
As mom entered grade school, she increasingly noticed that her own mother (my Gram’) complained about the way she was treated by some of the white folks in town. Gram’ had a darker complexion than my very fair-skinned mom. The people about whom Gram’ railed typically took the form of people who possessed institutional forms of power. One day at the general store, mom was with her father (who also possessed a very fair complexion). During the visit, mom observed how welcoming the store owner was to her father. On subsequent trips there with Gram’ however, mom noticed Gram’ was treated consistently with a coolness that was the opposite of what happened when with her father. It was then that mom started realizing some white people treated people of color differently. Initially, she shrugged off the difference to ‘personalities’ and ‘bad attitudes’ of a non-specific nature. That soon changed.
That's mom, far left.
Things crystallized for mom when she started middle school. See, mom had to commute one town over (maybe a mile) where the only middle school in the area was located. On her arrival and to her pre-adolescent shock, it was in that small Ohio (Ohio!) town that she saw first-hand, posted outside stores, restrooms, water fountains and other public places, signs that restricted access to whites only. Mom found this initially confusing, then ultimately humiliating. It was then that she began to understand the anger Gram’ held. That my mom is able to carry these hurtful memories yet not bear similar malice is beyond me.
As America recognizes Black History Month, for those who do not believe racism plays a significant factor today for African American, I urge you to seek out a person of color; one you trust. Ask them if they might be willing to share stories of racism with you, for the purpose of understanding. Try and listen with an open heart. Work to refrain from mentally dismissing their truth as mere paranoia or innocent misunderstandings. Engaging in this very simple act, listening to another human being tell their truth (and not actively judging or contradicting), can go a long way in promoting the healing process that must occur around this historic scourge. Yes white people, it might be painful to hear but remember: you only have to listen to it; the black person talking had/has to live it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Look Beneath the Skin for Real Beauty

Laila Ali: more than meets the eye

You know on Facebook how some folks like to post photos of celebrities and other famous people? Well, how come when the photo is of a female, most of the comments center on how good (or bad) she looks?
Recently, someone posted a picture of celebrity sports figure Laila Ali. Like her father, former heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali, Laila was also a title winning boxer. During her career, Laila racked up 24 wins, with no losses or draws. That’s no small feat. Yet on Facebook, the majority of the people commenting on her photo spouted rhetoric normally reserved for beauty queens, not retired professional boxers.
Now admittedly, Laila is a looker. But this particular photograph was no glamour shot. Yes it was a professional studio portrait, but she wasn’t in the least dolled up. She wore minimal makeup, and sported a simple casual outfit: t-shirt, Capri pants and some sneakers. There was nothing remotely jazzy, or in my opinion, sensual about the photo. Think, girl-next-door. All that was with her in the shot was the giant exercise ball she sat on, along with a pair of dumbbells stacked next to her.
“Va-voom,” “So sexy,” “Just beautiful…,” “I’ll be your punching bag…” Those were typical among the comments about Laila’s photo. I didn’t disagree with any of the observations or sentiments. It’s just I was disappointed by the lack of respect paid to what she achieved as a boxing professional. This person was instrumental in advancing women’s boxing from mere spectacle to legitimate sport. Though no one would compare her skills to her father’s (who arguably was the greatest), Laila pulled in thousands of fans to the female version of the sport during her sports career.
Laila she was a champion, but was not without her critics. According to sources, other top woman boxers, including Vonda Ward, Ann Wolfe and Leatitia Robinson claimed in interviews that they had challenged Leila many times over the years but she found ways to avoid meeting them in the ring. Press quotes from Leila and her manager claim the reverse. At the same time, some boxing writers and fans repeatedly expressed disappointment in her ducking top contenders throughout her career. Great fighter? Maybe. Great ambassador for the sport? Absolutely.
Ali: champion boxer
Whatever the truth is, that Laila was a media magnet for her sport there is no doubt. Her famous father, solid boxing skills, charismatic personality and good looks all helped bolster women’s boxing. And that’s the problem. There were a number of dimensions to Laila that she should be credited for. Sadly, the first things out of the mouths of men and women are references to her looks.
Remember poor Anna Kournikova, the latter day tennis star? She will forever be known for her legs, rather than her legacy as a former Top 10 WTA player. Though she never won a Women’s Tennis Association tournament, people forget she went 209-129 career. Then again, Anna was always putting herself out there as the steamy sexpot – focusing more on photo shoots than winning championships. Okay, bad example.
Still, it all begs the question: why do statements about looks tend to be the go-to comment when referring to women, celebrity or not? Is it easier to take on a woman’s looks rather than reflect on her as an individual or address her position on a topic? Focusing too much on outward looks belittles the rich distinctiveness that makes up a woman. It’s time to stop marginalizing half the human beings on Earth. Instead, let’s dig a little deeper and celebrate all that women offer. That’s where the real beauty is.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Female Soldiers Finally Get the Right to Bear Arms

Training. U.S.Army photo: SSG. Russell Lee Klika

“You’ve come a long way, baby.” That was the battle cry of the 1960s Virginia Slims cigarette brand. Now, courtesy of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, women can get their own M-16. Or F-18, depending on which military branch they serve. Panetta, in a joint statement with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rescinded the 1994 Pentagon policy that effectively banned women from direct combat. If this reads like a celebration, it is – but only in the narrowest terms. Here’s why.
At a practical level, the policy change merely updates on paper what already was happening to female military personnel in the field. The dirty little secret is that in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers of both genders have been serving in combat environments. Gone are the days in which battle lines were drawn with the good guys on one side and the enemy on the other. In the war on terror, the bad guys are everywhere. Snipers, roadside bombs and suicide attacks place all American soldiers at risk, not just the ones assigned combat duty. For females, it all put a whole new twist on the term, ‘right to bear arms’. And the toll has been significant.
Women make up about 14 percent of active-duty personnel in America’s armed forces, and to date, 152 of them have perished in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 1,000 more have been wounded. If those factoids are upsetting, they should be. It’s what happens in war. Military policy has just finally caught up to the realities found in modern-day war zones.
This begs an important question: who in their right mind would want to fight for the right to fight when they didn’t have to? Um, let’s see: African Americans and gay Americans immediately come to mind. So do Japanese Americans. Each of these groups were either banned or otherwise restricted from combat duty, or serving outright. In each case though, they proved themselves capable, patriotic and willing to die for their country – despite the dehumanizing segregation and humiliating discrimination policies they faced. So how did this latest battle, the one centered on gender exclusion, come to a head? Job opportunity.
Sgt. Jennifer Hunt receives a Purple Heart for combat wounds 
suffered during her deployment in Iraq. (photo: Handout)
Last year, four female soldiers filed a lawsuit seeking to end the Pentagon’s ban on women serving in direct combat jobs. All the women involved served tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Among other things, the suit contended that women who were ‘attached’ in support roles of male-only combat units but fought in battles alongside men were unable to attend combat leadership schools, and/or they were denied assignment to positions that were pathways to promotions. The suit also contended that 80 percent of Army general officers rise from combat arms positions, which women were barred from holding. In short, their argument was essentially this: what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.
As this whole affair continues to unfold, I can’t help but reflect on how central the armed services has been in helping change the policies, laws, perceptions and attitudes of Americans around social justice issues relating to race, sexual orientation and now gender roles. Interesting how the military, one of our oldest, most conservative institutions, has revolutionized the way the American mainstream thinks about some of the most important and culturally relevant matters. I wonder if such profound change occurs there first because it’s one of the few places where life and death situations force people to recognize what really matters – like the fundamental similarities we share as human beings. A pity it takes national security issues to recognize that truth.