Not Quite Colorblind


Not Quite Colorblind

There were quite a few times that I nearly failed to make it through BUD/S, Navy SEAL School. Of all things, one of these was for the test for colorblindness. Turns out, I have a hard time distinguishing some yellows from oranges and a little difficulty with purples and blues. Although this handicap wasn’t significant enough to bar me from the SEAL Teams, it has affected me in subtle ways.

One sunny summer day in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, a couple years before joining the Navy, I called my friend to ask if he wanted to go to the pool and lay out to tan in the sun. There was a pause in his response and it was during this pause in which I instantly remembered that Jerome is a relatively dark skinned black kid. I embarrassingly attempted to modify the invitation to swimming instead of tanning. Being that Jerome, a sports teammate of mine, was one of only a very few nonwhite kids at my high school, one might assume his “blackness” would have defined his identity, at least to me. I suppose I was so “colorblind” that I subconsciously assumed, or wanted, him to be no different from me; I was too ignorant to acknowledge that we were not the same.
There has been a prevailing sentiment that when it comes to race relations we should only look towards our similarities, that which we all share in common. It is thought that by accentuating our commonalities we will better identify with one another and, ideally, empathize with each other. But I’m not quite convinced. For me, I have developed a deep and genuine respect for the myriad different ethnic and racial peoples, not through searching for what makes us the same, but through an acknowledgement of our differences. Does that seem strange?

Close friends of mine whom I have the utmost regard for have suggested that this thought process goes against the grain of common public parlance, that we can only improve our less-than-ideal race relations by finding commonalities. Yet, after deep contemplation, I must stand steadfast with my belief, if only that it has greatly helped me to develop a tremendous respect and appreciation for others.

I can look back in my life and recognize the times that I have had negative thoughts about someone due to ignorant stereotyping, where I have said things that are insensitive or downright racist. Perhaps I am fortunate not to have had social media at my fingertips earlier in my life when I very well could have written something that I would later regret. Part of my transcendent understanding today surely comes from a natural maturation, but it also comes from patient listening and accepting people for who they are, not who I wish them to be.

During my protracted wrongful incarceration, I have lived with and in close proximity to a great diversity of men. Although in here there are no fellow incarcerated women, children and few senior citizens, there is a myriad of racially, ethnically and religiously diverse men. I have had many diverse cell-partners. What is a cell-partner? Its the person whom I share a 7×12 foot concrete box with, sink-toilet combo included. You may be able to boast about having a friend or two of a different race or religion, but can you contemplate having a random stranger as a cell-partner, one who may have racial, cultural, religious and/or other differences?
Racial tensions traditionally become much more intense when forced into the unnatural environment of prison. It is an interesting phenomenon that seems to be quite geographically universal. The typical racial or religious or other coalescing factors in the incarcerated environment often lead men to tribalism. Overwhelmingly, this is an attempt to satisfy a deep human yearning for community, a need for belonging to a group in which one can feel a connection. The notion that incarcerated (or free) people commonly join gangs for protection may be true, but I believe it is driven more so by a desire to belong.

Although I have managed to completely avoid partaking in any gangs and have largely avoided any conflict with gang members, perhaps if I was incarcerated in another state things would be different. From discussions with people who have been incarcerated in other state and federal institutions, racial conflict seems to be relatively low in the Virginia DOC. Friends and advocates of mine seemed surprised that, as tensions mounted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, things in here were relatively peaceful. However, that is not to say that racial tension is nonexistent.

Aside from the fact that many incarcerated men are in prison for very serious crimes, many also have very radical ideologies. I have encountered people who believe that those with blue eyes are the devil, people who had tattoos glorifying Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, one whose name translates to “kill all non-Muslim believers”, people who believe that white folks were created in a botched laboratory experiment, others who are convinced that Jewish people are the spawn of Satan, plus many who buy into a host of governmental and other conspiracies. Prison, too, is a haven for those with obsessive or addictive characteristics.

I try to model positive thoughts and behaviors, but I am imperfect myself. I have helped countless men become better sons, brothers and husbands, but I am plagued by those whom I have spent time working with and later went terribly downhill. One fellow, for example, whom I befriended and helped overcome his substance abuse problems, soon after being released from custody committed despicable federal conspiracy crimes. Another, whom I was kind to committed robberies after being released and in an attempt to mitigate his punishment, told authorities that he had important information on a high profile case: mine. He tried to convince them that he and I were best of friends whilst he was in prison and that I confessed to him that I was the perpetrator of the crime I was convicted of. Although there was an attempt to use this information against me, it was realized after a cursory investigation that this guy was simply an opportunist career criminal.

I had surprisingly few racially or religiously diverse friends neither growing up nor when I was in the military. My hometown was relatively homogeneous: middle-class Hoosier WASPs. My real introduction to racial diversity came when I was thrown in jail, where black men are disproportionately overrepresented. In fact, there were times in which I was the only white man in the whole cellblock. My understanding of race and my relationships with people of diverse races, has evolved throughout my life. Because of my unique experiences, I believe I have a perspective that could help others in their own understanding and relationships with diverse people.
Of course all humans have plenty in common. If you need to search for similarities in order to improve your own race relations, you might have greater problems than you realize. Instead, I recommend that you look for the uniqueness of people, and when you find it, appreciate it. Appreciate that everyone has different experiences that shape them. Become conscious of your own subtle notions that we should all be the same, dress the same, act the same, talk the same or have the same beliefs – whether religious, political or otherwise. Such a worldview, even if it be subconscious, leads only to intolerance.

If you are as colorblind as I used to be, its time to remove the monochromatic-lenses. Recognize and accept that people are different and have completely unique experiences throughout life which has formed their worldview. Do so and I’m convinced that your respect for diversity and your relationships shall deepen.