I understood, but barely experienced racism while in Wisconsin. I think my first encounter was approaching 2 young blacks when I was 6. They looked so different from myself and I had a need to approach them for a closer inspection. Their mom yelled at them within a couple minutes, from a distance, like they did something wrong. I felt a little guilty like I got them in trouble for something.
Flash forward to the Air Force when I started seeing more black people around. They look quite peculiar to me. I was always amazed at how physically strong they tend to look. I love fitness and it takes a lot of effort for me to put on muscle, but black people seem to put on strength effortlessly.
When it came time to decide where to get stationed, I got about 5 choices. I wanted to make sure that my choice was very different from Wisconsin. I needed to see a very different culture. So, I chose Florida, Germany, and anywhere south. My last choice was Barksdale AB, near Shreveport. I wasn’t too enthused about the choice, but didn’t know enough about it to be too wary.
I drove for 26 hours and only stopped for gas from Rice Lake, WI to Shreveport, LA. I was impressed that I could do it. My excitement and lots of caffeine kept me awake. I made the trip about May, so the summer heat was really picking up. I thought it was nice that there weren’t as many cold nights in Louisiana as there were in Wisconsin in the Spring time.
While in Shreveport and Bossier City, I could see that there were a lot of black people around. The racial makeup was 50% white and 50% black! roughly. I felt a little bit more scared of the city. I was warned to avoid ghettos outside of the base. In fact, within a couple months of being stationed there, I noticed a black soldier who started using crutches. I overheard him explaining to his friends that he was using a pay phone and someone else wanted to make a call. He got shot in the leg for taking too long.
I heard the word, Nigger used a lot. I decided to use the word with a friendlier black guy. He clammed up and told me never to use that word again because it’s racist. He didn’t allow for white guys to use the word, it was only to be a black guy thing.
When I would be stationed at a guard house with another black guy, who was well-liked by his peers, they would all hang out with him and talk to him, while I was left to mind my own business. When we switched duties where I would come inside to write passes, the group would move outside with him. They were all black and really conversed well with each other. I felt like a very odd duck in their group.
I didn’t understand people very well because I was trained to see everyone as equal. If I couldn’t get along with one group, try as I might, I didn’t even want to bother getting along well with another group. I wanted my affiliations to be equal across the board, if I couldn’t establish rapport with groups I thought to be important, then in would give up and not give much effort for any groups.
I didn’t get the black people. I laughed at many of the funny black guys jokes. But I still couldn’t keep up a good conversation with them. My interests were too different, but my sense of humor was strong enough to react to their jokes.
However, not all of their culture was very welcoming to me. I came from a city that has a very boring radio channel that plays the same ten songs every day in the 1990s. I think they are still going to keep that model going until they run our of business. But in Shreveport there was a rap station that the black people reveled in. They loved to play the music very load in their cars and it tended to common rap beats found on the radio station. I never heard as many loud cars as I have in Shreveport. Most people in Wisconsin kept the radio volume low and respectable.
I had a little fight with a black guy in the cop car one day. He wanted his rap station with the volume turned up. I wanted the rock station, or at least the rap turned down. It was another hot day and I was fed up. I got very angry with his behavior, but he was able to maintain his cool behavior. I didn’t know how he was able to keep his cool so well listening to loud rap music on a hot day. But I understand now.
The military leaders worked hard to prevent racism, and I think some did an ok job. But the racist mannerisms and culture from the city still bled very thickly onto the base. You could see some favoritism control the behaviors of some. Groups of friends did form and that will always exclude particular people. I just avoided groups all around and did my own thing. I felt like if I got too comfortable in one group, then that might cause me to exclude another group at a stronger level. Maintaining neutrality felt very important to me then, just as much as it does now.