Monday, March 29, 2010

R is for Racism

One day, during Basic Training, we had to learn the low crawl. The DS's took us out to this enormous sandpit and we had to low crawl across it. All Day. Wanna learn?

Get on the floor, use your elbows to drag your body across the room. That's pretty much it. Nothin' to it, right? Yea, we thought so too. Keep your ass down and your face in the dirt, otherwise it may be shot off.

So we spent the whole day in that 30 yard long sandpit, getting yelled at and stepped on. If an ass was too high, the DS would push that bum down with their booted foot. Same for your head. Apparently, you don't need to see where you're going when you low crawl, you just go. And quickly! I got my head stepped on a lot that day. I kept trying to peek ahead to see where I was going and to see how much more of that interminably long sandpit I had left to navigate. The DS would step on my Kevlar helmet and shove my face into the sand.

Like Shock Treatment, my friend had warned me in advance of this lovely day so I didn't get mad or upset like I normally would if someone was continually stepping on me. I just told myself stupid jokes (in my head) and went to a happy place, right? I spent most of the day laughing my ass off at the absurdity of it all. Especially the repetitiveness of the exercise. I had to traverse that 30 yards of sand about 8 times that day. I was too exhausted to get angry!

When the day was done, they picked 4 of us to rake the pit. And by rake, they meant a soldier at each corner of a big chunk of chain-link fence and dragging it across the pit. Well, not each corner, that wouldn't work, two in front (Erica and Amy) and two another three feet down the sides (me and Schneider).

We're dragging this hulking piece of hot, scratchy metal across the pit. We're laughing and grumbling and generally trying to get it done so we can go eat. We are marvelling at our outstanding luck at being chosen for this detail since it means we'll get to eat our dinner at a slower pace then usually allowed in BT.

Then, out of the blue, Schneider says, "Erica, you must be used to this sort of thing, what with your people working in the cotton fields and all." Erica is black. Amy, Schneider and I are very white. Three of us froze dead in our tracks. I remember Schneider had her head down and kept trying to drag the fence, not even realizing the rest of us were staring at her in horror. Well, not the rest of us. Not Erica. She froze, dropped her head for a minute, then she straightened her back and let go of the fence. Amy and I were sure she was going to beat the shit out of Schneider. Erica was one of the most hardcore women I ever met in the Army and she never took shit from anyone.

She didn't beat Schneider. She didn't even leave the pit. She squared her shoulders and without a word picked up and started pulling the fence again.

Later that evening, Amy and I were consoling her. It's the only time I ever saw Erica even remotely upset during the whole 8 weeks of our BT. She was crying and she told us, "I thought this would be the one place I could get away from that shit." She told Amy and I not to say anything but I think y'all know me better then that.

Amy and I went together to the DS's and told them what had happened. There were 3 DS's per platoon, 4 platoons in our company and everyone of them except DS Ski are black. We only told our platoon's lead DS, DS McCoy. We knew she'd know what to do. And boy did she!

Erica was a great soldier. She was where she needed to be, doin' what she was supposed to do and a natural leader. Her only flaw as a soldier were her boots. They were a train wreck. She never shined them well and they always looked "ate up".

The DS's gave Schneider the job of shining Erica's boots every day until graduation. They also gave her the "shit-shift" of fire-watch every night. Fire-watch is a duty of having to stay awake for a few hours so that if a fire breaks out in the barracks, you can wake everyone and save the day. It's a rotating duty and the worst shift to get is the 12a-2a shift. We normally wouldn't get to fall into bed until 10p and we usually had to get up around 4a so 12-2 is brutal; you're just getting to sleep and you have to get up and do the shift, then you're just getting to sleep again and you have to get up to start your day. Shit-shift for Schneider for the rest of BT. Served her right!

Despite growing up in Redneck, CA (Clovis, CA, next to Fresno), I had never really encountered blatant racism like that. After what happened to Erica, I was talking to my Battle Buddy about it. (We are all assigned Battle Buddies in BT. It's the person in the bunk next to/above/below yours and you are responsible for each other.) My Battle Buddy is the one that used to fix my hair. She was 24 (I was 21) and she had two little boys at home with her husband. She joined the military to learn a skill and make a better life for her family. She was born and raised in the deep South.

She told me she'd never even touched a Black person until she shook her recruiters hand two months earlier! I asked her what she thought about all this and here's what she said...
My parents raised me to think that all Blacks were nothing but a bunch of stupid, lazy, criminals. Since being here I've realized that my parents are idiots. Everyone is the same! Some people are stupid, lazy, criminals and some people are smart hard-working heroes, but none of it has anything to do with the color of their skin.

I loved her!

Now here's a Tim Minchin video all about prejudice...

Still astounded by Schneider's thoughtless stupidity, Ruth!


k said...


Sharon said...

I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and remember the days of the civil rights marches and busing. Although great progress has been made in eliminating racism from our society, it unfortunately never goes away. I'm glad you reported the behavior and the person was dealt with.

I witnessed blatant, ugly racism only once. About 8 years ago I was an exchange student in Japan. I became friends with a fellow American student who happens to be black. We went into a coffee shop at Kyoto Station. I received service but my friend didn't. Even though the proprietor knew very little English, he made it abundantly clear that blacks weren't welcome in his establishment. I was shocked speechless. Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to him, unfortunately I'm not likely to get the chance to give him the cussing out he so richly deserves. So I'm especially glad to know that you spoke out against racist behavior!