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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

I.T. Training - It's not what you think

DO NOT READ THIS POSTING... if you have not read the prior blog entry. If you did read the last entry, then read on.

So, I was talking w/a couple of buddies, friends from my high school days about being one of a kind in a crowd and what that is like and the kinds of feelings it can generate. No doubt we all have a story or two or 10 about how we were not treated well because of something different about us.

I remember a kid in elementary school who had a kidney ailment that required medicine that made him smell fishy, literally. It wasn't nice, but the other kids used to tease him and call him and call him all sorts of cruel seafood-related nicknames. He stood out. There was the girl with the long neck. She stood out. There was the kid in the wheel chair. He stood out. And I remember being one of maybe two or three black kids in an entire school. And yes, I stood out. What each of these stories has in common is that the folks who stood out did so 'cause of something they had no control over. And there's no debating or talking logic to someone who teases you because of how you look. I remember when my older sister, a star basketball player at her private high school (where she too was one of just two or three black kids), had a slumber party of sorts. And I remember vividly that night - I was in 5th grade - when one of the other girls told my sister that she was really cool "because she didn't seem black." My sister didn't know what to say. How do you respond to that kind of nonsense? "Well, that's a relief! For a minute there I was worried I would actually fit into the broad behavioral stereotype you have about people with brown skin!"

Anyway, my guys read Melissa's comments and naturally, given situations each of us has experienced, they felt sympathy and empathy. "Tell her welcome to the club," one of them said.

The other though laughed wryly and brought up what we used to call "I.T." Not information technology, but something my guys and I used to jokingly call "Integration Training." Every black person under the age of 40 who is leading even a partially productive life has undergone I.T. It's something our parents and grandparents hammered into us like drill instructors.

I.T. comprised our "lessons" on how to maintain your dignity and still get along in a crowd where you're one of a kind and where the rest of the crowd makes that fact an issue. There are exceptions where no amount of "training" you get is gonna matter. Melissa's story - last blog entry - is a perfect example of that. People in her old neighborhood were clearly going to treat her badly just because of the color of her skin, and there was nothing she could do about it. Again, I know the feeling.

But our parents, being wiser than us, knew that throughout most of our lives we would be in the minority in so many ways and in so many places. And I don't care what anyone says - being one of a kind in a crowd is always potentially uncomfortable. It just is. So our folks gave us subtle instructions about when to grin and bear silly comments, how to answer potentially offensive (but possibly innocent) questions, basically when to put folks in check and when to let things slide.

So when a female classmate asked to touch my hair and said it felt like a brillow pad to her, I knew to bite my tongue and write it off as ignorance. But when a "buddy" felt so comfortable with me that he thought he could tell an N-word joke, I knew to put him in check and explain that that type of joke was not cool under any circumstances.

When I started a new high school looking to join the debate team but was immediately discouraged from doing that and confronted by everyone from the principal down to a math teacher about joining the basketball team, I knew to chalk it up to assumptions related to my height. Sure, they assumed that I was a great hoops player because I was 14, 6'2" and black. But what did I have to prove by calling them out over those assumptions? I was a pretty good basketball player, but they didn't know that. So I chose not to play, instead putting my energies into debate and singing. Just demonstrating that I was as good or better than the other kids who participated in the academic and "artistic" extracurriculars said more for my argument than any speech I could've given.

But you better believe when I heard a classmate making a disparaging comment about black women - in general, not one woman in particular that he had an issue with - I put him in check quick, fast, and in a hurry.

During college, when I was on the way to visit a tax accountant in an office tower in downtown Norfolk, Va., near my campus, there was the elderly white woman on the elevator who clutched her purse and scooted to the other side of the lift when I stepped in. Nevermind that my watch alone could easily have been worth more than everything she was wearing. I might have snapped at her and told her "Lady I don't want you or that raggedy purse!" But my I.T. had prepared me for this. I kept to my side of the elevator car, and when I stepped off before her moments later I smiled, said "Have a nice day" and moved on. That might not have changed her world view. But if she had any sense at all, maybe it planted a seed of doubt in her mind over what she'd assumed about me just minutes earlier.

My guys and I learned through I.T. that sometimes you make more of a statement to an ignorant person by how you don't respond to them, than if you preached an extra hole into their heads.

Maybe we could all use some I.T.

OK, I'm in danger of rambling. I'm gonna sign off now and do some real reporting.

Think this over before commenting. But please do respond.


  • You're previous comment about the "cornholes" sums it up perfectly.

    When I was a youngin', I used to be called a Cuban meatball by the "white" gringo bullies in my Coral Gables after school park ... and I'm so white, I'm the blandest Cuban meatball, trust me.

    I think I commented elsewhere before if not here that my friends and I in high school strongly suspected that our guidance counselors at Coral Gables High purposefully segregated the Hispanics/Blacks from the Whites by placing people in different classes. It's a long story ... we sort of figured out it wasn't just because of education levels.

    I sometimes feel I got lucky not only because I came from hard-working family that supported a good education, but also because I happened to be a good shade of light blue on a good day.

    I hope things are different for kids today.

    By Blogger Manola Blablablanik, at 11:51 PM  

  • What's up MB? I hear ya. It sucks that kids are subject to this kind of stuff. You felt it. I felt it. No doubt tons and tons of others felt it. Melissa caught it in reverse as an adult living in Miami. I have a buddy, one I met in college, who lived in a predominantly black neighborhood growing up and suffered the same kind of teasing and torture for being the only white kid around. There's general bullying that we all dealt with. And then there's this kind - which, unfortunately, I think, is a learned behavior. And who do kids learn most of their biases and prejudices from? Their parents. I think maybe it is a little different, a little better for kids today. Or maybe I'm just dense.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 12:28 AM  

  • Respect to your parents & their I.T. training. Guess we could all do with that.

    Come to think of it, if the News reports are to be believed, we could all do with some I.T. training. Intermittent Explosive Disorder my eye! Learning how to control your temper & that you are NOT the centre of the universe more like.

    It's tough being a kid these days, specially with some parents out there. But then again, it's tough being a parent these days too, & for some of the same reasons!

    By Anonymous Bronchitikat, at 3:03 AM  

  • MB: When did you go to Gables High? I went there, too, and have no recollection of anyone ever referring to a Cuban as a "meatball."

    When I was there, people were definitely separated socially, but not in classrooms.

    By Anonymous Suzy Q, at 11:51 AM  

  • Being different is hard no matter who you are or where you are.

    I have lots more to say, but honestly my brain is mush right now and I need a minute to process.

    By Blogger Melissa, at 4:02 PM  

  • I think it's worth pointing out that while it is difficult being racially one of a kind in a group, it can be equally difficult to being amongst the bretheren. I've recently started a new job and the overwhelming majority of my co-workers are black. One could argue that I should feel more comfortable there, but I don't. I'm not street enough for them or whatever. I was also one of those two or three black kids in school. While the whites felt like I was a "safe" black to be around, the blacks picked on my proper English, my not liking rap anymore (all those bitches and ho's) and a host of other things. I guess my point is that you can't please everyone everytime and everywhere. A person is nice, people are ignorant. You have to be ready for that.

    and that's my story.

    By Anonymous Michelle, at 1:52 PM  

  • I love reading through your blog, I wanted to leave a little comment to support you and wish you a good continuation.

    By Anonymous ict training, at 10:47 AM  

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