Insensitive Questions About Race Still Need Answers

Updated: Jan 14

I wish that I could remember her name.

In my mind I can see her face clear as day. She was a great F-14 Plane Captain and a squared away sailor overall.

We were friendly, but not friends.

(You know what I'm talking about - you probably have a few dozen people like that where you work now.)

Her name may be lost in the jumble of names I've learned but can't recall, but the profound education she gave me on my misconceptions about race relations in America hasn't dimmed at all.

It was NAS Pt Mugu about 90 minutes north of LA on the PCH. The year was 1995 and all of the news was about the OJ Simpson murder trial. Racism was top of mind and news networks had just started using the phrase "the N word" to the point that it was getting absurd.

Meanwhile the colloquial term "nigga" was still being used as a term of endearment around the (mostly male junior enlisted) barracks. It was mostly from black sailors to other black sailors or sometimes from black sailors to their very close non-black friends but never as a term of agression or insult.

Now me, at the tender age of 20, having grown up in the south and raised mostly in a religious doomsday cult with racist dogma - I was rocking some PROFOUND confusion about race relations at the time.

So one day, I asked her. The woman whose name I can't remember now.

The answer I got back was FAR from what I expected.

I was naive enough and so VERY culture blind at the time, that I didn't see anything wrong with politely asking one of my squadron-mates, while we were taking a break waiting for the jets to come back home, what the actual rules were when it came to using that particular word that starts with the letter n and either ends with r or a depending on the situation in which it is being used.

Well, the very first thing that I learned was that it was ENTIRELY the wrong time and place to ask a question like that. Then I was EXPERTLY schooled on the fact that individual people of color do not want, need, or have to speak on behalf of their entire race.

My head started to spin so I went for a cigarette and a coke over in the smoke pit.

When I returned to the line shack, her individual tutorial of my utterly clueless ass resumed immediately with the revelation that I can't EVER understand what it is to be black. To which I responded with some amazingly bold stupidity.

"But if you explain it to me, then I would understand."

It took her a while to get it through my thick skull that I would sooner understand what it is like to be a random fish in the middle of the Pacific Ocean than to fully understand what it's like to live the life of a person of color anywhere in the United States.

Then the lesson was over.

It was time to go bring in the planes that were about to land and get them inspected, fueled, turned around and ready for the next flights the following morning.

I went back to my barracks that night and thought about what she had told me. It stayed on my mind for the next twenty-some-odd years.

It inspired me to read loads of amazing books and have hours of wonderful conversations with people from all over the world and all walks of life. When I took a job in Montgomery, Alabama and made it my home, suddenly Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, and Martin Luther King Jr became real people in my mind instead of just names in a book. The spectrum of what was, what is, and what could be in the realm of race relations was there for everyone to fully experience everyday.

And after decades of learning, living, and listening I can confidently say without a doubt ...that I still don't know what it's like to be black in America - and I never will.

But here's what I do know.

I know that when someone asks for my help, I should help them to the best of my ability.

If I know something is wrong in my community, I shouldn't ignore it and hope it just gets better on its own. When I hear someone refer to someone else as a "white nigger" because they emulate cultural aspects of African American communities, the "WHOA - NOT COOL, MAN" needs to come out of my mouth instead of just staying in my mind.

Everyone in my community should be treated fairly and respectfully, REGARDLESS of any differences we may have with each other.

The status quo just plain sucks and we've got to do better for and by each other sooner rather than later.

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Written by Ripley Johnson