“It isn’t your fault you don’t understand Racism and Prejudice. It doesn’t make you a Bigot…”
Gideon D. Asche
Prejudice noun, an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
Racism noun, a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
Bigot noun, a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.
Those are three of the vilest words in the English language, and probably the most misunderstood terms in most of our vocabularies. Oh, we can all recite the definition of all three, and for years I thought I had an understanding of them.
I was wrong.
In about ’77, the Army gave me a new roommate. SP/4 Tyrone Young was the biggest, Baddest, blackest sombisch I had ever seen. Directly from the Philadelphia projects, Tyrone spent his youth in a street gang, and was a Black Panther disciple, until his granny convinced him that the Army was his only hope of not ending up in prison.
His 6’4″ and 300lbs frame and obvious dislike for “Honkey Motha F-ers,” made the situation slightly volatile. I’m pretty sure that there were a couple of officers betting which one of us would kill the other and eliminate both problems. I have no idea how, but Tyrone and I hit it off, and in a time of extreme racial tension, I was suddenly accepted by the most radical of Tyrone’s friends, based purely on his assessment.
Tyrone enjoyed the same with the Caucasian soldiers who knew me. The calm spread and in a matter of months there was relative racial harmony in our unit. The fact that Tyrone and I were forced to survive in close quarters to each other forced us to communicate. It forced us to accept who the other was on an intimate level.
I learned a lot from Ty, he introduced me to Rick James, and showed me that Disco could be tolerated if I put my mind to it. He listened to Ghetto Rap before rap music was a genre and always translated phrases and words that I didn’t understand into “White Boy,” as he put it. A kind gesture as far as I was concerned.
Tyrone taught me to ignore music that I didn’t like, and read the lyrics as prose or poetry instead. Dig out the message the lyricist was trying to get across – That one was a life changer; I still listen to some of the music Tyrone introduced me to.
I read my first black author, Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice), and took the time to educate myself about men like Carver and Fredrick Douglas. I owe much of my understanding of African American History to Tyrone, but there was one thing he tried his best to make me understand – Racism.
In this, he failed.
When he transferred out, one of the last things Ty told me was, “Gid; It isn’t your fault you don’t understand Racism and Prejudice. It doesn’t make you a Bigot. It just means you’re white, and you have never felt it.”
Over the years, his words faded from my memory, and I prided myself in being even-tempered about race and defiantly not a bigot. Every time a racial incident hit the news, I thanked my stars I was raised different, I wasn’t part of the problem.
What I missed was that I wasn’t part of the solution either.
I didn’t have any clue of the reality of racism, not until years later, when I inadvertently made my self the object of it. As a white Anglo European American from a privileged family, my only experience with Racism was as an observer.
About ten years ago, an officer I served under died of old age. My relationship with the Colonel was a bond that can only develop under enemy fire. The fact he saved my life and brought me home made the bond even stronger. His passing devastated me and, after walking around in a drunken haze for about a week asking, “How in the hell Old Age could kill Superman,” his tattoo came to mind.
It was just a letter and some numbers that looked like they had been carved into his left forearm, the tattooist wasn’t concerned with quality or pain.
Colonel Jakkob – יהי זכרו ברוך got the tattoo as a small boy, in a place of horrors called KZ Sachsenhausen. It always bothered me. I never understood why he didn’t have it removed or covered.
So, I covered it myself.
I had a 4″ Levite Blue Star of David and scripture
from the Torah, that the Colonel had asked me to memorize years ago, tattooed on my left forearm in the same place he and my Omi had their KZ tattoos.
The Rabbi, who wrote the text out for me in Hebrew, asked if I really wanted to put a mark on my body that would make 30% of the world hate me on sight.
I had no clue what he meant until – I felt it.
In the ten years since I put King David’s mark on my body, I have learned what racism is on a personal level. I’ve watched people change their attitude toward me on a dime; all I have to do is roll up my left sleeve, exposing my tattoo.
I finally understood what Tyrone couldn’t teach me – What it feels to enter a room or get in line at the store and notice the 3 or 4 people exuding hatred toward you based on nothing but what they were told to believe about your kind.
One night, I had three Skinheads follow me around the grocery store at about 3 AM, then all of a sudden, only one was stalking me, the others went outside. The cashier told me she was afraid I was gonna get jumped and called a large stock boy to escort me to my car. I declined and just had him put the two large cans of baked beans into five plastic bags. Then armed with my baked beans Shillelagh, I went out to meet my fate. Bear in mind I was in my sixties at the time, and these three clowns were in their early twenties. I figured I was going to need the baked beans.
When I got to my car, all three skinheads were there. One of them opened the encounter with “You F-ing Jew…,” at which time, I used the baked beans Shillelagh to give him a reason to back down, along with a pretty good bruise. The big stock clerk was watching from the door, he shouted that he called 911, then started running our direction to help me out.
The skinheads decided they weren’t interested in playing anymore. All three took off before I had a chance to tell them I’m not a Jew and point out they were wasting their hatred on a tattoo.
I can’t count the times since then, that I have experienced some level of automatic hatred on sight and I can assure you:
No matter how much time you spend observing;
No matter how many of your friends, or even your partner, are people of color;
No matter how hard you try to understand the plight of the average black man or Muslim or immigrant in the United States;
Until you feel it yourself;
Until you enter a room and that palatable hate hangs like a caustic cloud threatening to consume you… That understanding will never come.
Racism isn’t what we see on the news, that is just the end result.
Racism is quiet, stealthy and discrete. It acts in the dark to form our opinions for us, it poisons our spirit at the source, but there is a cure: KNOWLEDGE.
I wish I could go back and find Tyrone, grab him and shake him, I would tell him, I Finally understand and I will be part of the solution from this day forward.
SGT Tyrone Norman Young – if you are out there – Find me.