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True Crime Tales
I went through a short spell as a mid-level shoplifter in my teenage years, because I had few friends and yearned to fit in.
Plus minor dare-heists are quite the adrenaline buzz for boys who can’t do BMX tricks or get a girlfriend. It was the early days of Nike, and their fluorescent gear held an electric allure after the fall of the Adidas Rome.
I never got to the next level of retailing ‘hot’ stock, but I had the skills to keep me ahead of distracted shopkeepers. To this day I feel like an absolute dog for taking advantage of those hardworking small-business folk, but teenagers have sociopath levels of empathy for the problems of adults.
The kinda-friends I did it with were bigger fish than I, bringing home hauls so large they presented storage problems, in the manner of drug cartel cash. They could only hide so much before parents would start asking questions.
We lived in a border town, adjoining a hillbilly dictator state where all illicit fun was banned. Each day, bus coaches loaded with pleasure-seekers rolled into our town, our massive clubs bloated with cash from the poker machines banned across the border.
The main street was like an old Wild West movie set, only instead of saloons, it was wall-to-wall ‘adult’ shops.
Taking It A Step Too Far
The pimpled mastermind behind our gang had a taste for adult media, which was made of paper at the time, and he and two others lifted a rich harvest of it from the X-rated district. Impressive work given they looked well short of the 18 years required to get through the door.
They asked me to help stash part of a particularly large haul. I agreed. I was pretty pleased with my spy-grade concealment, unscrewing the back of the speakers in my – nerd alert – Pioneer “hi-fi” system, an invisible cavity the KGB couldn’t crack.
(Note to Scene Change clients, I no longer do this.)
Next weekend the teen porno gang got nabbed by an irate merchant. The store was fifty metres from the police station, and the game was over.
Did they rat me out? Damn right they did.
The Law At The Door
My mother got a visit from a policeman named Brendan, who gave her the lowdown on her beloved boy’s criminal exploits. “Is this true?” she asked the son who had showed so much promise in his school reports.
She sent me to my crusty bedroom to empty out the speakers, head bowed with shame over my crimes and the tawdry nature of the merchandise.
Constable Brendan made me promise not to do this sort of thing again, and left to reunite the magazines with their rightful owner. Luckily Dad wasn’t home at the time, and we never spoke of it again*.
I knuckled down to my studies, and did well enough to qualify for a top-level veterinary school, which I also fucked up.
I have not committed any more crimes.
I believe the gang mastermind became a lawyer, because everyone deserves a second chance. And they all lived happily ever after.
The Secret Of My Success
I’d suppressed the whole hideous memory, in the way you do so you can live with yourself, but it popped up last week as George Floyd’s public execution and the Black Lives Matter protests filled my news feeds.
I started doing some reading.
I like to think of myself as a tolerant guy, not at all racist. I’m nice to people. I’m enjoying a very comfortable life because frankly I’ve worked harder for it than most, with no starter-funding from parents or well-off connections to give me inside running on that early career ladder. We employ 65 people.
I’ve told the tale of coming up from being a cab driver, because it gives me some kind of cheap street cred compared to those who just cruised into their career via an education system that’s basically a business-class check-in line.
I look at the racist Facebook cesspool and the parade of smug white troll hosts on Fox/Sky News, and think:
I’m not the problem here.
And guess what? I am part of the problem. And being “nice” is nowhere near good enough.
Turns out I’ve made little effort to understand a large proportion of my fellow humans.
What I thought was a personal triumph of effort, risk and reward turns out to have been helped very much indeed by being lifted up on an invisible fluffy cloud of unquestioned acceptance.
I had the golden ticket. As a middle-class straight white guy, I wasn’t fighting a massive preconception handicap every inch of the way.
Nobody binned my rental application just because of my surname. Nobody ever edged away from me in an elevator. Nobody ever walked up to me in a convenience store and just assumed I worked there.
White people: if someone who isn’t white is in the same gig as you, safe bet they had to work ten times harder to get there. While getting eye-rolls about ‘reverse discrimination’ and ‘political correctness’ at every promotion.
I’ve got a long history of getting the project or contract because I seemed up to the task. And now I have a much clearer idea of why that is.
It’s like being a president and thinking:
Why are people so annoyed by traffic lights? I have lots of experience with them in my motorcades and there’s no waiting at all.
What if I wasn’t a “nice” white teenager with a lovely white mother getting cautioned by a tolerant white policeman back then? What if my whole family was terrified of calling the police, no matter what danger they were in?
Pretty sure that wouldn’t have been happily ever after.
I have a lot of useful thoughts about my business when I’m out in my car. I can focus, because I’m not nervous every moment I’m driving around, hoping I’m not going to be pulled over just for … looking like I’m in the wrong area. That’s pretty helpful for me.
And let’s not just dump all the blame on police here. Sweeping generalisations about police are as unhelpful as those based on race.
I know a few cops. Spare us your ACAB memes unless you’ve personally experienced the tension of turning up to a scene and wondering if this is the time you get your face shredded by a mild-looking person who turns out to be full of ice?
Blame me, I’m a big beneficiary of this system, and odds are so are you. If we don’t do better, we’re effectively enabling things to be swept under the carpet as they have been forever.
So What Should You Do?
Big question, and I have no definitive answer. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself.
There are lots of people out there yelling and screaming, and they are absolutely justified in that because they are in pain and have been fucked over their entire lives. Will their voices change anything?
I hope so, but the hardest thing in the world is making people change their behaviour. I’m pretty certain no active racist has ever stopped being racist after being called out as that. They’re not changing.
Change will come from the much greater number of ‘nice’ people who are not active racists, but who make all sorts of subconscious decisions from being raised in a world of white.
Like choosing a project team at work and instinctively choosing people all the same as you.
Because your subconscious says different people are more likely to disagree, and you don’t have time for disagreement on this particular brutal deadline. Certainly next time though! Conscious mind says: I’m not racist, just really busy right now.
We need to understand other people’s experiences a lot better. Enough to acknowledge that others have a perfect right to be really angry right now.
Could I suggest the best thing to do right now is devote some time to learning?
Handy Places To Start Learning
Start here: Autumn Gupta and Bryanna Wallace have put together an great resource called Justice In June, a daily program of links to stories that will help you understand, and help you become a better ally to the black community.
It’s brought some needed reality to my “I’m not the problem” smugness, and they’ve set it up with options that take as little as 10 minutes a day. Not much to ask.
It’s from the US, so Australian readers will need to seek out specific material on our own unacceptable record. If you’re looking for somewhere to start your understanding, Stan Grant’s Talking To My Country is well worth it.
Lay off the Netflix for a week and watch some of these: 10 Documentaries To Watch About Race Instead Of Asking A Person Of Colour To Explain Things For You.
(If you have friends or workmates who are people of colour, don’t be burdening them with responsibility for your educational needs right now).
Why not share these links with people you know who are not racists and would like to do something?
Like, “Hey I’m not a screaming activist but I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history on this and I don’t think you do either, check it out.”
It’s large numbers of moderate people standing up in lots of small ways that will make the world a better place.
Why not do it now?
I’m pretty sure that after a month or so of regular reading and viewing, you’ll be instinctively better in lots of small ways.
It will stop you forgetting about this issue when the headlines fade.
You’ll be more up for calling out the jokes. You won’t automatically address the white person when you’re looking for the person in charge. You’ll understand why saying All Lives Matter is a massive dick move.
But We’ve Acted, We Posted A Black Square Last Week
If you’re a business owner or CEO, you have to stand up.
This is not about getting the comms department to slap on a thin layer of short-lifespan, black-square PR gloss. If you’re even thinking about the marketing side of this, shame on you.
As much as anything, it’s about your staff. You have a responsibility to show them you’ve got their backs. All of them. They’re looking to you to show you have some understanding of their lives, outside the white boardroom bubble.
And if I have to put in terms of pure self-interest for you: learning to understand the lives of people different to you will make you better at business.
Listen, learn and do something about it.
Business people talk a good game about leadership.
* Until last night, I thought I’d better warn her I was going public with it.
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