Monday, January 19, 2009

American History, Generation X

Today is January 19th, my 35th birthday. I joke with people to enjoy their day off, due to my birthday being a national holiday.

Everybody knows better.

I’m nobody special. I’m a white, working-class, thirty-something suburbanite, just like almost everybody else. Regardless, I’ve spent my life trying to be someone special, using every medium my generation has embraced. I write blog posts. I make YouTube videos. I write and play music. All with the hopes of leaving some mark on the world.

Just like almost everybody else.

I grew up in North Idaho, a million miles away from the Mexican border, the south, and the culture of the east and west coast. The only culture I experienced was what was spewed from MTV and evening cop dramas. Apparently, “culture” meant gangster rappers and drug-dealing Mexicans. If that was it, I was glad to be tucked safely away among my fellow white people in the mountains of the Northwest.

Unfortunately, it also made a convenient hideaway for a little group of haters, called the Aryan Nations.

They would occasionally have parades through downtown Coeur d’Alene, sporting swastikas and young children. It was a confusing time for a white community, who knew that hatred for different cultures was wrong… but had never really personally experienced exactly why. So, they whole-heartedly tried to ignore the escapade, but wanted the world to know it was being ignored… which ultimately resulted in the national media focusing on “those racist bastards” who dominated North Idaho.

It never really made sense to me. You might as well parade around the desert, and tell a herd of cattle how much you hate dolphins. The Aryan Nations eventually went away, but their stigma stained North Idaho for years to come.

When I joined the Marines at age 19, I looked forward to leaving North Idaho, and meeting people of varied cultures. I wanted to find out for myself if what I grew up watching on TV was true. At that point in my life, I had never even met a person who wasn’t white. I stepped on a plane and bid farewell to my white safety, at least for awhile. On the plane, I sat next to someone who was flying back to California. He asked me where I was from, and I proudly stated that I was from North Idaho. His response? “Oh, nice. At least you don’t have to worry about niggers up there.”

I was speechless. I realized that being from Idaho, I was going to be perceived as racist. I was also saddened to realize not all “haters” wore swastikas, but sometimes sported briefcases and business suits.

In boot camp, I was excited to be placed in a culturally diverse platoon. Although, it made me nervous. I wasn’t sure how to act. If I asked innocent questions, like “if your skin is black, can you still get sun burnt?”, would I get my teeth knocked out? In the end, it didn’t really matter. Boot camp wasn’t exactly conducive to dinnertime conversation. We were lucky to have time to polish our boots. And besides, Marine Corps boot camp was not the place to examine equality. We were all treated equally worthless, regardless of race.

After graduating, I was shipped to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma for artillery school. Once again, I was glad to see several African-American Marines. And here, I thought I would have time to maybe get to know some of them. I never had the chance.

As soon as we arrived, they all segregated themselves to the corner of the room. It was deemed “the ghetto”, and unfortunately for the rest of us… was located right at the entrance to the head (bathroom). Any white guy who had the misfortune of needing to go to the bathroom, had to weave through the taunts and insults of the ghetto. To make it worse, while the rest of us cleaned the barracks to get the weekend off, the ghetto was busy wrestling around, trashing the place. One time, we didn’t get the weekend off. Because of the ghetto.

I started to wonder if what I saw on TV as a kid was, in fact, a true reality. I went back to the white safety of Idaho, and several years went by.

I lived in Portland for awhile, in the predominately caucasion suburb of Beaverton. One night, I drove through the “black” part of downtown, out of curiosity. I was later told if I wanted to live, I better stay the hell out of there. I did. I once again returned to the white safety of Idaho, and several years went by.

A few years ago, I went to visit my aunt in St. Louis. I was excited to visit the University district, after hearing it was culturally diverse. I found my way there, and for the first time in my life, experienced what I had always wondered possible.

There were Muslims. Latinos. African Americans. Everything I’d never seen in Idaho. They were all shopping, walking among each other, and surprisingly… talking to each other. And the best part?

Nobody seemed to really think anything of it. Just the naïve white guy from Idaho.

I felt hope for America. At the same time, I also wondered why this wasn’t the norm for America. I returned to the boring, white safety of Idaho. Several years went by.

Before Obama, I had never voted for a President. Ever. I was committed to holding out for someone who inspired me, who I thought would change the world for the better. Obama did that to me. He seemed like an inspiring leader, a refreshing new way of thinking. Honestly, the fact that he’s black wasn’t really a factor. I wanted to focus on the man, not the origin. But you know what?

I’m proud to say that the first man to excite me enough to vote is, in fact, black.

It’s about damn time.

Last night, I saw Clint Eastwood’s new movie, “Gran Torino”. He plays an old war vet, whose neighborhood is overrun with foreigners. The same people he was raised to hate, and ordered to kill as a soldier. From the beginning of the movie, he calls them every horrible, derogatory slang term you can imagine… and the audience laughed. Initially, I cringed, and was reminded that I was still in my naïve, white Idaho.

Eventually, I found myself laughing, too. Most of the terms he uses are so old-fashioned, so ridiculous. And I realized that with the election of a black President, we are that much closer to those words being exactly what they should be - laughable ignorance. It was an incredible movie, that everyone should see. I won’t give it away, but in the end… you’re blown away by what Clint Eastwood does to protect the very people he was bred to hate.

Today, I watched another fitting Martin Luther King Day movie, “Crash”. Another great example of people wanting so bad to hate , while continuously “crashing” into each other lives. And finally realizing they all depend on each other.

Tomorrow, we’ll have a new President.

Best of luck to you, President Obama. Make jobs. Fix the economy. Figure out what’s supposed to happen in Iraq.

And make this white, working-class, thirty-something nobody from North Idaho feel like he left a mark on the world… by voting for you.

Embrace this opportunity, America. Remember why it’s a big deal, and think about why it shouldn’t be.


Anonymous said...

Ryan, Happy Birthday! This is good writing! You are awesome.

Big Mike

Anonymous said...

I have to say I agree with Shannon... this is one of the best!

Anonymous said...

It is with little surprise that I find myself smiling at the sincere, warm and heartfelt thoughts of this thirty-something, working-class somebody from North Idaho. Ryan, it is only people who think like this that allow great things to happen. For change to be possible. Great men are not born, they are made by choice. Choices they make. Choices to want to see life a different way. You want to see life in a different way. Whether it is to not see the color of someone's skin or to see past it, or to be able to laugh at us and ourselves, it it this type of thought that sets you apart from people who conform because they can not see a different way. You leave your mark on the world every day, by thinking, feeling and growing. and I didn't way growing up. Thanks. Donna

Anonymous said...

Hey, new reader here.
I've enjoyed reading many of your past posts. Your writing is top notch. I'm a fan.

Jennifer Chronicles ( said...

Hello there -
I just wanted to stop by and let you know I linked to this terrific post yesterday? (Day before yesterday??) Anyway, I try to serve as a generation x news aggregate every week or so - culling the best gen x stuff that's out there in the Blogosphere and WWW. This was great.

Anonymous said...

You are not a nobody. You've made your mark on my mind, anyway. As a 30-year-old white female southerner, I feel like I've spent my life in some of these odd race/gender crosswinds...seen sad crap from both sides. And still, I can totally relate to wanting to vote for Obama because of his good qualities...but also excited to be promoting diversity so profoundly. The way you feel is not only totally understandable, but also GREAT. I think that even though times are uneasy right now, it's also an invigorating and inspiring tie to be alive. I look forward to seeing how our generation rises to these opportunities.