Back in the wonderful Nineties (Nirvana, 2Pac, The Matrix, Fight Club, etc…), I took a break from my normal Navy telecommunications gig to spend a few years in a special assignment as an Equal Opportunity Advisor.
To become qualified as an EOA, I had to attend three months of very intense and in-depth training at the military’s Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute at Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
Let’s just say becoming an EOA is not the typical choice of an extremely White and WASPy dude like myself; so, due to the lack of other white, WASPy dudes like myself enrolled at the institute, it was one of those rare times in my life where I was in both the racial and gender minority for any significant amount of time.
Ergo, while at DEOMI for the three months, I stood out in the crowd. Literally — not just from my pasty-ness in skin tone but also from an excessive vertical-ness in height.
Needless to say, I was one, easy-to-locate, vulnerable dude.
Ergo again, I tended to get called out often to “volunteer” whenever an instructor or guest lecturer needed [to make an example of] a white dude to illustrate an instructional example. Of course it was always done for a very good purpose and in very good taste.
I learned so much from the experience.
For certain, the most powerful, poignant, and achingly indelible experience I had as the (proud to be) Duty White Dude was when visiting The African American Museum of the Arts in DeLand, Florida.
One of the exhibits there at the time was a full set of iron shackles that African slaves had worn.
Just looking at them on display was a heavy experience.
I could almost feel their weight physically — they were made of iron and, if I remember correctly, the weight of the full set — ankle, wrist, and neck shackles and chains — weighed over fifty pounds.
And I could definitely feel their weight historically. What would our existence be like today had there never been the human scourge of human slavery? It’s incomprehensible for me to imagine for the foundation of so much of what we enjoy in life today has been built upon and from the backs and blood of slaves.
Just as the institution of slavery itself has become the seemingly indestructible foundation upon which our pervasive institution of racism was built.
The museum’s curator let us ponder the shackles in silence for a moment.
It was quite a moment.
Then, with a warm smile, he tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to “try the shackles on for size.”
And I did.
I’m not going to try to explain how I felt after the he put me in chains and had me shuffle awkwardly around the room as he explained to our group what a typical slave market was like to an African who had been shipped over in bondage.
Words would be inadequate.
I’ll just invite you to try to imagine a 6’5″ blond-haired, self-entitled white dude like myself walking around in fifty-pound chains… me, a temporary exhibit before a crowd of friendly colleagues and peers.
And then try to imagine a young, scared girl from Africa, probably starving, probably dehydrated, and probably naked, wearing those same fifty-pound chains and placed as an exhibit for sale before an indifferent, foreign-looking crowd looking to purchase her as new stock.
Yeah… a weighty memory, indeed.
Again, all this took place back in the grand Nineties before everyone carried miniaturized photo-processing centers in their pockets and purses, so unfortunately I have no pictures to remember the experience by or with which to share with you.
But I do have my memories of the experience. I am shackled to it, so to speak.
And because I am, I have no choice but to be influenced by it — a positive, yet restraining influence perhaps for one with an identity such as mine — in my thoughts and in my actions for as long as I remain able to think and to act.