A great story about identity and race.
Yes, it’s true. I’m white, 56 years old, and nerdy.
To further establish my whiteness:
Raised in Utah and Wyoming where we had only one black guy in my high school.
His name was Michael Jackson — REALLY.
But I’m writing to tell a different story…
Flash backward to after college, almost 30 years ago…
I’m in my first job as a computer scientist working in Provo Utah (this should further reinforce my white cred).
In a company of software engineers with about 300 employees at the time.
If you threw a rock in the sea of cubicles you would likely hit a Phd, but most assuredly you would hit a nerd.
A new hire moved into the cube next to mine.Wow, he’s black, I thought. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a black person that wasn’t on TV.
I wonder what he does here? He sure looks nerd. white shirt, black plastic glasses (the Clark Kent style), black wingtips…
We introduce ourselves:
me: Hi, I’m Ed.
Steven : I’m Steven
me: I work on WMCS (ed note: WMCS is.a long extinct OS)
Steven: I’m working on the Unix port.
me: Cool! I heard they hired a replacement for the old engineers that left. Welcome.
Steven: Yes, I was doing this same work at Bell Labs before I joined the company.
…(other nerd speak omitted for brevity sake)…
me (thinking to myself): wow, this guy sure isn’t stereotypical, BS. Math, MS CompSci, Cal Berkley, Bell Labs,…
…later that week I overhear the following conversation in Steven’s cube between Steven and the VP of Engineering…
VP: So how’s it going?
Steven : I’m having trouble making tapes on MOFO
VP(disturbed): Did you try a different machine?
Steven : Yes, but they wouldn’t make on BUFU either
VP (looking slightly disturbed responds with “OK” and then leaves)
Ouch! What had I just heard? Did not Steven know that those machine were named using black slang?Those names were given before he joined the company by his predecessors in that job.These names were an inside joke, never to be spoken in public AND certainly not in the presence of “the suits”.
So there I sat in my black/white dilemma:
Do I forget that I overheard that conversation?Do I inform Steven of the true meaning of MOFO and BUFU?How do I inform Steven of the origins of MOFO and BUFU?Who am I to give a black man lessons on black slang anyway?I could claim I didn’t know, no one would ever doubt me.As with most questions of this kind, the answer becomes obvious when you ask the question, “How would I want to be treated if I was [$other_person]”Where [$other_person] = StevenSo I walked into his cube and asked, “Steven, if I had a big piece of food hanging in my beard, would you tell me about it?”After a little thought he responded, “Probably”
- me: Do you know what MOFO and BUFU mean?Steven: Nome: MOFO is black slang for “yo mama”Steven:(after a short delay and look of shock turning to anger): Did those guys make up those names as a joke on me?!!me: No, the machines have had those names for years.Steven: Oh, ….. thanks for telling me.So that began a friendship between two nerds and their families….The strange relationship of a white guy from rural Wyoming teaching a black man from LA to be black.Steven, being the nerdy son of a doctor and a lawyer in an upscale LA neighborhood, never learned how to be black.I even took Steven to the gym on occasion to teach him to play basketball.Imagine the stares of everyone watching a 20+ 6’-8” white guy teaching a 20+ 5’-10” black guy how to play basketball.He shared a story about meeting William Shockley once at Bell Labs.William Shockley—Winner of Nobel Prize, Inventor of the Transistor. Yes, that W. Shockley.I asked Steven if he ever challenged Shockley on his racist views?Steven replied, “Yes, I challenged him just by being there, a software engineer, in his presence” — he smiled.I did argue once that there are some family traits that do seem to following families.6’-2” is considered short in my family.Maybe to some degree we might expect certain traits to follow in ethnic races also."Like I had heard that black weren’t generally good swimmers because they had a lower fat/muscle ratio causing less buoyancy, resulting in more water resistance, leading to poorer swimming results."He responded with, “That’s a bunch of crap Ed!”I replied, “Ok”Months later our families got together for an outing at the local water park.While at the top of a platform, Steve and I decided to race each other to the bottom of two adjacent water slides.We both started at the same time.I arrived with a huge entry splash at the bottom and then stood waiting for Steven.After several seconds (seemed like minutes) he trickled out of the slide and moved slowly towards me.I asked, “What happened?”He answered, “Blacks don’t float”(actually we later attributed his performance to his jean shorts — not really the best water slide apparel)I probably don’t get the black thing, I probably never will, but the proudest vote I ever cast was for Barack Obama.I still feel this way almost 4 years later and I’ll be doing it again this time.Not because he is black man, but because he is a black swan.Ed Lane