I often get a little introspective about kayaking on this blog. I believe that reviewing what we've done and learned in the past helps us learn more and make better decisions in the future. This is true of life as well as paddling and sometimes the two intersect, sometimes life seems more important than paddling. In this current moment of increased attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, with hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in the streets to fight for justice, I think it's important we all take the time to reflect on ourselves. Who we are. How we got here. What role we play in society and what we can do to help others, whether they are paddlers or not. Because the kayaking community has a great tradition of helping its own, but who gets to be in our group reflects manner of the same prejudices and disparities as the rest of the world. If nothing else, let's increase our awareness of that reality.
[1970’s] I grew up a white boy in a white farm town in Minnesota. There was literally one Black kid in school. The only other Black people I saw were on TV. Race wasn’t an issue because it didn’t seem to exist. Racism was an abstract concept, like an alligator, or monsoon. I was happy in a selfish way like all children should be.
That isn’t to say it was ideal. Far from it. My lack of personal interactions with People of Color made them something foreign. Not to be feared or looked down upon - my parents made it clear everyone was inherently worthy of my respect and friendship regardless of their skin color - but simply something unknown. And if you don’t know something it’s hard to care about it.
[1980’s] When I got to a larger high school which was slightly more diverse, I was still surrounded by whiteness. I took AP classes and played on the tennis team - no People of Color so no racism to be found (I’ve later learned how absence can be the best proof of existence). By this point I realized some people were racist, but it seemed like an isolated, individual thing. Not my concern. My social studies and history classes taught us the evils of slavery and segregation, but they were clearly THINGS IN THE PAST. So much real history and current events which would have revealed a darker, less flattering picture of my country and peers was left out without comment.
I’m not sure how much the lack of color in the student body directly related to the slant of the curriculum. I’m sure some, but I also think the historical failings of America are always taught as someone else’s fault - for us we were the good northern whites, for others they were the noble southerners who opposed slavery but revered states’ rights. Whatever the excuse, nothing and no one ever really opened me up to the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed. All my education came from white people and was geared to assuage White Guilt. At the time it seemed simple truth. Only a sheltered high school kid would think truth was simple.
[1990’s] After growing up in a small town, I moved to the big city of St. Paul for college. A liberal school with a large international population nestled in among old mansions and a growing Hmong community. Much more diverse than where I grew up, but not in a representative way. My dorm neighbor freshman year was a Black guy from Chicago. He was also wealthy, came from an elite private academy, a hell of a sharp dresser and made the ladies swoon. He seemed better off than me. I studied physics and continued playing tennis and was mostly surrounded by white people much like myself. The one Black kid on the tennis team had grown up around the world with diplomat parents. He had attended famous tennis academies, had private coaches, and was the #1 player on the team whereas I was a scrub on the bench. He wasn’t my equal - he was my better. Racism didn’t seem to have had much effect on those around me.
Of course, this wasn’t true. I never really bothered to learn the whole stories of those two gentlemen, or any of the other People of Color at my school, but in retrospect I’m sure they faced all kinds of challenges which would have stopped me cold. I failed to grasp that perhaps the reason why those Black students seemed so exceptional was because it took exceptional circumstances and character for them to make it to the same place where my generic, middle-class, white-ass education had brought me. A same result isn’t proof of similar ability if the testing conditions aren’t equal.
Graduate school brought me to Los Angeles, a more diverse city overall but not necessarily where I landed. My physics program had no Black students or instructors and campus was across the street from Bel Air. While the neighborhood had many more shades of brown, it didn’t have much Black. For the most part everyone I knew seemed colorblind and accepting of others and there just wasn’t any pressing need for me to look beyond my own experience.
After graduate school I eventually landed in middle management in a private education company in the same neighborhood. I was in charge of hiring instructors and part time staff and I never once considered race when interviewing. I made decisions based on experience and credentials - and gut instinct. Let’s not forget that every hiring manager knows they have to trust their gut when considering candidates. I didn’t really consider how my ‘gut’ always seemed to favor people who looked like me and came from similar circumstances. Those with a shared community and vocabulary. But I wasn’t racist, so that was fine, right? Implicit bias is a hell of a drug.
Looking back I think my track record on dealing with the people who showed up for jobs was fine. But I never really questioned exactly how those people made it in the door and why so few Black people even applied. I certainly never did anything to expand our pool of applicants. I never did any outreach to the Black community or sought to make our company’s services more readily available to the disadvantaged. We helped people get into schools, but only if they could afford us. That’s capitalism and I was there to make money for the company.
I never looked at how centuries of systemic racism, redlining, school segregation, and just plain racist people have greatly limited wealth and economic opportunity in the Black community. I looked at what was in front of me and tried to treat everyone equally without stepping back to see the inequality which starts at the beginning of every Black life and which I perpetuated. Making society better, more fair, was extra work and no one paid me to do it so I didn’t even think of the option. It’s so easy to be a good guy in a bad system as long as you aren’t the one being harmed.
[2000’s] Nearing my thirties, working in middle management for a company focused on helping mostly the privileged, and with lots of opportunities for advancement - I bailed on my career. Capitalism wasn’t my thing so I pursued my new sport: kayaking. If anything, kayaking is whiter than the tennis I had played in high school and college. Kayaking became my job (instructor), my hobby, and my source of friends and acquaintances. All white. My holdover connections from the past were overly educated white people or tenuous connections to my childhood white farming community. I didn’t have any personal connections to the Black community or any compelling reason to learn about it.
A solid decade of pursuing my self interest led to very little interest in the rest of society. But it’s not like I wasn’t aware. The internet really changed how information came in, and even before our current overload of social media it was impossible for me not to soak up what was happening in the rest of the world. It was impossible to live in society, interacting with others, catching snippets of the news, having small talk with random people, and not see the truth. In politics, social justice, economic welfare, racial equality - they were all a hot mess where those with advantage used it to take more advantage. Inequality, discrimination, and injustice were everywhere and obvious and I no longer wanted to be a part of such a stupid and cruel system. I bailed on society.
Of course, that’s perhaps the greatest example of privilege there is. I had the resources to do nothing but eke by a meager living and spend only on myself. The freedom to ignore the evils of society because they weren’t visited upon me. Some years I technically lived in poverty, but I never felt poor. I was a well-educated white guy and if I wanted to make money I could always get a job. If I really needed something I had family and friends who would help me (and could afford to). It wasn’t that I had done anything special to have such resources available. Just by who I was born to and how my skin color had smoothed my way through life, flowing around obstacles and intermingling with other like-colored individuals, I accumulated a vast wealth of social capital that allowed me to step away from any responsibility to anyone outside my insular bubble. I could afford to be selfish. The world doesn’t give that same opportunity to everyone and eventually I’d have to confront that fact.
[2010’s] My life changed in many ways when I hit my forties and decided to turn my hobby of writing into a new career. I studied the craft of writing, and that included reading widely and listening to different voices. In the past, the stories I read were often centered on straight, white, male heroes. People like me. And the authors who wrote those stories were usually the same. As I branched out, I discovered so many new stories and perspectives. So much wonderful talent and humanity. And if I wanted to write more than self-insert hero fantasies, I needed to understand and appreciate the full diversity of real-world people in order to bring it to my characters and books.
But what started as an effort to improve my work became a chance to improve myself. Fiction tends to hold the truth up in a way that makes it clearer than reality. It also led me to many great people who happened to be authors of color. I became aware of marginalized communities as individual people, and once you start to see people it’s hard not to listen to them. And I heard the same stories of discrimination and prejudice over and over again. Black kids who had no access to decent textbooks, much less AP courses. Black authors who continually get praised for speaking so well, as if it’s a surprise someone with their skin color can be eloquent. Black physicists who still get mistaken for waiters when they show up at a fancy dinner in a tuxedo. In a myriad of ways, in every aspect of life, the experience of being Black in America was so much different from my own, with so many more obstacles that no one should have to overcome.
But those were just stories. Still a scientist at heart, I wanted data. I read articles and books, both scholarly and journalistic. I followed modern Black activists and learned more about their predecessors. I paid attention to the details. What I found didn’t just confirm the stories but expanded on the injustice in deeper ways. From the implicit bias which makes white educators look at Black children as more responsible for their actions compared to white kids, and white doctors believe Black patients are more pain tolerant so they under-prescribe painkillers. To the explicit bias of racial profiling in everything from traffic stops to mortgage loans. I learned about redlining and how our capitalistic system allowed the white people with money to force segregation upon Blacks while making a profit from it (segregation which is actually getting worse today). I learned about the Tulsa massacre, the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, and the Jon Burge scandal in the Chicago PD. I learned how the Black Panthers started the idea of free breakfasts for school children while the FBI worked hard to get them killed. Through it all I found statistic after statistic that showed Black Americans were behind in nearly every measure of success, from wealth to health, from crime to education, and even in simple human respect.
And if Black Americans are behind, the obvious question is why? What could explain such discrepancies? I could only come up with two general answers:
1. Systemic racism. If our society has a racial bias that exists in the majority group, the ones who currently hold, and have always held, wealth, power, and influence, then it would create an uneven playing field which would result in unequal results.
2. Black people are somehow inferior. Whether it’s genetics or culture, it would take some across-the-board fundamental deficiency in Black people to explain why they are behind in so many areas of life.
When looking for an answer, my training has taught me to go for the simplest theory which explains all the data. That led me to number one. Because there are all kinds of problems and deficiencies with number two. Aside from being the basic definition of racism, blaming Black people for their problems doesn’t really explain a lot of the data. It doesn’t explain why police arrest Blacks at three times the rate of whites for marijuana possession even though they both use it at the same rate. It doesn’t explain why Black women with the same education and experience get paid less for doing the same job as white women, even if the Black women score better on every job metric. It doesn’t explain why so many people believed a Harvard educated American Christian was a Kenyan Muslim simply because he became President (and had brown skin).
But racism explains it all. Subtle racism like we see in our everyday lives and on social media. Overt racism like we saw in Charlottesville. Institutional racism like we see our criminal justice and healthcare systems. The truth is we all know racism was prevalent in the founding of our country. We all know it existed in law and practice well after the Civil War. We certainly didn’t end it in a generation - most of today’s political leaders were born before the Civil Rights Act was passed. In America, racism is the default and it should be assumed until someone can present a ton of evidence showing it no longer exists. I’ve never seen that evidence. Racism is the inescapable truth at the end of the road.
I’m still not done with my journey. I’m not perfect. I don’t know it all and I don’t do enough to help fight injustice. I have racist thoughts and say racist things without knowing it. But I’m trying to be better. I try to fight my implicit biases and listen to others when I’m called out. I try to be anti-racist instead of silently complicit. I try to be an ally and raise up voices from the Black community. I think less of myself than I used to but I’m more at peace with who I am, flaws and all. And that is what I’d like people to take away from my journey. Not so much about me and where I’m at, but that it’s worthwhile to do the work. It’s worth it to admit ignorance and be uncomfortable around a topic. It’s time well spent listening to others, especially those who are different from you, and offering them the basic kindness of understanding. It’s worth it to enrich ourselves but more importantly it’s necessary for the well-being of our Black brothers and sisters. We owe it to them because Black Lives Matter. Always.
We can’t change where we started but we don’t have to be stuck where we are. We all have a journey and it starts with one step. Be brave. Listen.