My grandfather was Black. I still had to be taught how not to be racist

In seventh or eighth grade, I was given a writing assignment that must have had something to do with prejudice in American history. I have long since forgotten the details. All I remember is what I wrote for the conclusion:

Black people worked for generations to earn their equality, which they have finally achieved today.

I handed the paper to my dad to proofread. He seemed to like it, but he quietly made one change to the ending.

Black people worked for generations to earn their equality, which they have finally achieved continue to work for today.

CNN recently published an op-ed by author Jennifer Harvey titled, “How not to raise a racist White kid.” I am not a parent, but I’m sure my White friends who are have been pondering this very question, perhaps even feeling some guilt for it — because, come on, shouldn’t not being racist be easy?

The problem is, in our society, it’s not — or at least, it’s not automatic.

I don’t know what it’s like to raise a child, but I remember being one. My father’s edit was a subtle nudge that made me aware of my ignorance without making me ashamed of it. It confused me at first, but I grasped that I had more to learn about a topic I thought I understood. It was the first time I had a hint that racism wasn’t just in history books, and that equality on paper did not mean equal treatment in society.

History, however, is often the only lens through which White children are taught about racism. Through high school, I learned about slavery and the Civil War. I learned about the KKK and “separate but equal.” I learned about the civil rights movement. I did not learn about privilege, nor the many smaller ways in which racism presents itself.

As a prospective college student, I attended an on-campus competitive scholarship of which one component was a group problem-solving exercise. We — a handful of White people, if memory servers me — were tasked with determining the efficacy of affirmative action in college admissions. It went about as well as you’re thinking it did, which is to say, yikes.

No one in that group was overtly racist. We were, however, all woefully misinformed on the nature of affirmative action and the mechanisms by which it operates. Our suggestions, as thoughtful as they were, would only have contributed further to higher education’s racial divide.

Fortunately, this exercise had no bearing on real-world college admissions, but it brought up a scary truth: You don’t have to be taught to be racist in order to be racist. You can act according to your best knowledge, with good intentions, and still stumble into a racist action without even realizing it. This is, perhaps, more dangerous than overt racism for the simple fact that you don’t know you’re being racist. And when you’re in this position, you may be more likely to get defensive when somebody calls you out on your racism.

That’s a problem.

Years later, in graduate school, I learned about diversity in management. Namely, about how I could better supervise a multiracial staff. What I did not learn was how to be a better employee of a predominantly White staff led by a Black manager, nor what such a manager might have to go through and the unique pressure they might be under. That was the position my granddad, born to a Black father and White mother, found himself in when he managed some 500 engineers and other employees at a rocket company.

My grandfather, Willis Sprattling, was featured in the May 1964 issue of Ebony. The article immediately following this one was about police violence during civil rights protests.

Sadly, he died when I was a teenager, before I knew this story. I remember him being quiet, with a love for technology and gadgets. He was always behind the camera.

He also carried a stress ball in his hand.

Yes, I have Black ancestry. Yes, I look White. And yes, I can still hide behind my Whiteness and be racist toward Black people without even knowing it. Just as the excuse “But I have Black friends!” doesn’t hold up, nor does “But I have Black family!” I’ve had to learn a lot from outside sources.

To be sure, my parents did an admirable job of raising me to be kind, open, and accepting. My dad’s subtle change to my essay so many years ago clearly had a profound impact on me — I remember it to this day, even though I’ve forgotten nearly everything else about grade school. I could point to countless other teachable moments from my childhood that my parents handled masterfully. But the systems of racism present in this country are dug in. I have fallen into their traps before; I may yet again.

But my parents also taught me to be a good listener. Above all else, this has been the most important tool in my arsenal against racism. While I’m not sure I’m qualified to do so, I’m going to offer some advice to White parents: Listen to Black people. Listen if it frustrates you. Listen if you’ve already listened. Listen even when you see the same information re-shared a hundred times on social media. If you feel defensive, keep listening. And make sure your kids see you.

Be patient with your children, but also with yourself. Nobody expects anyone to achieve enlightenment overnight. You will never know everything there is to know and you will never understand someone else completely. But you can understand yourself. Learn the limits of your knowledge. Learn where your blind spots are. For as important as it is to know when to speak up, it’s equally important to know when to shut up.

The coronavirus means business as usual for me, and that’s weird

It sounds a little absurd, but my life has literally not changed in the wake of closed schools, shuttered businesses, and social distancing following the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a freelance writer working for a major online publisher, it’s business as usual. I already worked from home and am well-practiced in social distancing (or, as I previously called it, being an introvert).

This has made me acutely aware of a certain privilege I have. Unlike many people who find themselves working reduced hours or being laid off completely, my job is not at risk (yet, anyway). In fact, the more people stay home, the more time they spend on the internet — a good thing for an online media business.

I also don’t have children — I don’t even have pets — which means I have no additional obstruction to getting my work done. (Yes, I know, I’m also missing out on the joys of parenthood). Many of my friends are single parents, and with Oregon schools closed until at least April 28, even those who can work from home are going to struggle to be productive as they balance work with caring for their children full time. (Of course, I also don’t have a good excuse for getting out of work, yet here I am writing a personal blog rather than working on an a story for the company that pays my bills).

Then there is the privilege of location, and I don’t just mean living in a developed country with (hopefully, maybe) access to good healthcare (sometimes, if you can afford it, if we #flattenthecurve). I live in a somewhat rural area, away from the crowds but not so far from civilization that I don’t have easy access to, well, everything. There is a hiking trail right across the street from my apartment. I can get outside, enjoy the sun, go for a walk, and potentially still not see another person. I’m a little bummed about not being able to hang out at a bar or coffee shop — locations where I tend to be more productive than when I work from home — but that is such an incredibly minor sacrifice that it doesn’t bear mentioning. But I already mentioned it, so…

Even as it feels like business as usual for me, I feel conflicted about wanting to get back to business as usual for the rest of the world. Gosh, that sounds horrendously selfish. Obviously, I want people to be able to work, to be able to care for themselves and their families, and even to go to escape rooms or whatever it is social people do. But the skies have cleared in China. The waters have cleared in Venice.

From an outside perspective, it’s impossible to not see the positive effects brought on by this global change in behavior. But China and Italy have been hit hard by the coronavirus, and if you lost a loved one to it, cleaner air or water is of little respite.

Yet this shows that we do have the power to make a positive effect on the environment when we come together. And this, too, can save lives. Ambient air pollution causes more than 4 million deaths per year, according to WHO. Yet we’ve never treated it like a pandemic; we’ve never changed behavior on a global scale to combat it. This is to say nothing of the looming threat of climate change.

I don’t say this to diminish the weight of the coronavirus. It, too, could cause millions of death in the U.S. alone if we don’t take drastic steps to limit its spread. But recent events have proven that despite everything — the enormity of the human population, the divisive political era we find ourselves in — we can still come together for the benefit of all.

And if we can do it to face the coronavirus, we can do it for other threats. Many people have said this recently, but I’ll say it again: We’re in this together. Let’s not forget that once we make it to the other side of this particularly dark tunnel.

2018 by the numbers

On the whole, last year didn’t seem overly positive, but there were several very big spikes in the excitement graph, like my first time traveling out of the country in a decade and a couple cool press trips. Here are some of the numbers.

  • 102-ish articles published in total
  • 36 product reviews/impressions published
  • 15 nerdy YouTube videos produced
  • 10 pounds inexplicably, but with appreciation, lost
  • 5 countries visited
  • 4 video documentaries produced for my artist series
  • 2 bad colds endured (OK, technically one started on Jan 1, 2019)
  • 1 absolutely delicious vegan shepherd’s pie baked and consumed in one sitting
  • Net 0 Instagram followers gained

For 2019, I would like to write a play and start a video game company. Nbd.

2017 in review, sort of

Last year, I talked about all the words I wrote in 2016 for my year in review. I also mentioned wanting to finish my book. Well, for 2017 I have no idea how many words I wrote. It took too much extra time to keep track of them, so I stopped.

As for writing the book, well, that didn’t happen, either.

I don’t feel qualified to speak about the practice of writing fiction because I have never finished a book (although, I have started many — most when I was much younger). Still, I feel confident saying one thing about my approach: Continue reading

2016 in review: Words by the numbers

Since June 2016, I wrote and published 146,067 words across 286 articles for four clients (not counting my personal work). I have no idea how this compares to the industry average, but if you had told me in May that I would write the equivalent of a couple of books’ worth of words in the second half of 2016, I would have laughed at you. (Like, I don’t even read books that quickly. Also, why didn’t I just write a book?)

I still feel like I’m faking it, not sure when I’ll really make it. I constantly need to remind myself that I get to write for a living, which is pretty dang cool, even if it comes with a host financial challenges. 2016 was a difficult year for numerous reasons and staying focused on the positive wasn’t always easy. I’m thankful that I have a supportive family and strong network of friends. (Even if I don’t really talk to y’all that much, know that I appreciate you. I’m just very introverted, so a little goes a long way.)

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but if I did, I’d say my job for 2017 is to better appreciate what I have. And to write a book. And to see Pinback in concert. Twice. February 6 and 7, Doug Fir, be there.

The power of a portrait: bringing free school pictures to inner-city students

This post was originally published on PICR, but disappeared after the company restructured. I have shared it here because it’s a story that should be seen.

When she was a child, Nicole Bozickovich took her school photos for granted. Most kids did. They’d show up on a particular day, wait in line, sit down, wait for a flash to go off, and then continue about their days. But when the 23-year-old college graduate landed a job teaching art at STEAM Academy of Akron, she found out that the majority of students planned to opt out of annual school photos due to the cost.

Bozickovich got her start in teaching while a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she studied photography. While there, she enrolled in a somewhat experimental course, titled “Putting Artists in the Classroom.” The elective aimed to provide CIA students with teaching experience by placing them in the classrooms of schools that couldn’t otherwise afford art teachers. Bozickovich fell in love with it.

“I realized my place was helping inner-city kids,” she said. She went on to repeat the course four times. Continue reading

Freelancing – the first two months

Freelance – noun. A mercenary warrior not sworn to any lord.

This will be brief. In my first two months since quitting my day job and working full time as a freelance writer, I have written 53,482 words spread out over 120 articles for four publishers. My desire to update this blog, therefore, has been significantly lessened.

A new chapter

It’s eighty-nine degrees in my house as I write this, so apologies for any typos.

Yesterday was my last day at Pro Photo Supply, my employer for the past six years. I am incredibly thankful for the opportunities I had there to grow as a writer, which I am still a little amazed they let me do.

I will be taking the plunge into the terrifying world of freelance writing. In the same week, I was offered contract positions at Digital Trends and PICR, where I will be writing about photography news and related such things.

It’s impossible to say what comes next, but I’m excited. And right now, I’m very hot, so sorry for the sloppy blog update.

The road to an MBA

Note: I originally wrote this on 10/29/2014 for Pacific University’s MBA blog. The blog, it seems, never came to be. Now that I have completed the program, I’ve decided to share that original post here.

– – –

The past 12 months have been full of transitions for me. It started a year ago when my wife asked me for a divorce. It had been some time coming (we’d been separated six months) but that didn’t soften the blow. Now that I think about it, it was Halloween night when she gave me the news, and I’m writing this almost exactly one year later, October 29, sitting at a bar right across the street from where it happened. I suppose this is as good a time as any to reflect, but also to look forward.

The next transition was much more mundane, but nonetheless jarring: I turned 30 in July. When I had graduated Pacific back in 2007, I promised myself that if I was still earning under $30k per year by the time turned 30, I would take drastic measures to promote my professional life. Without getting into details, I’ll just say that when my 30th birthday finally flew by, it was time to fire for effect. (Some clarification: I majored in Media Arts and money really wasn’t an immediate concern of mine at the time. Still, I had the foresight to know that, at some point, I would have to make some of it, and 30 seemed like a good age to start doing that.)

When I took stock of my situation at that moment—getting divorced, entering a new decade—I realized that now, more than ever, was the time to affect positive change in my life. That’s when a friend, a fellow Pacific alum, mentioned that he had heard Pacific was starting an MBA program.

I had never considered myself a candidate for grad school. It simply wasn’t in the cards. I paid my dues: 16 years of school were quite sufficient, thank you very much. But, I also had a promise to keep to myself, and with no relationship, no kids, and flexible employment, I knew I would never have a better shot at going back to school. Perhaps this was the positive change I was looking for. But an MBA degree? Other than running a wedding photography business for a handful of years, I had zero business experience—or interest, really. Nevertheless, I said, what the heck? It can’t hurt. I applied to Pacific’s nascent MBA program, resting completely on my essay because I knew it kicked ass, and called it good. I didn’t apply anywhere else (you probably should; it’s what you’re supposed to do, but I didn’t. Because I’m a rebel.)

The next few months flew by, until on one Friday in October, I found myself at Pacific’s Hillsboro campus for the MBA orientation, surrounded by the other members of my cohort, all of whom were much more qualified to be there than I (undoubtedly). Now, I’m just two days away from taking my first final—for Accounting—and it feels somewhat surreal. I mean, I never wanted to learn accounting. Throughout the class, I kept being reminded of an old Southwest Airlines commercial in which an employee of a fictional company is sitting in a meeting, humorously imitating his boss who is giving a presentation on “making accounts payable exciting again.” When the employee gets caught, the commercial cuts to Southwest’s motto: “Wanna get away?” Ironically, I didn’t want to get away from Accounting class (although, I assure you I still have no plans of becoming an accountant). I actually found great value in it—value that extends far beyond what you probably consider to be the confines of the accounting discipline. Sometimes you a take a class that directly affects the direction of your life; other times, you take a class that merely, but importantly, exercises your mind and allows you to see the world from a different perspective.

So, anyway, yeah, my final is coming up and I should probably be studying for that instead of writing this blog post, but I’m just one of those weirdos who enjoys writing. I don’t have a moral to this story, perhaps because it isn’t finished being told. I still get really depressed at times because of my divorce; I still say I’m 29 by mistake when people ask my age; I still feel loads of stress from working two jobs and being in school; I still think about dropping out (I wouldn’t be the first). But for now, I’m continuing to manage, to hold true what I hope is the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself all those years ago as I walked across that stage and grabbed my diploma. Positive change.

You might be wondering what I plan to do with my MBA, but I’m not someone who enjoys making plans. I roll with the punches; an MBA might help me land a few of my own, and that’s all I’ve got for now.

High school bomb threats

I took a physics class my senior year of high school. One day, we were assigned an in-class project to make radios by wrapping copper wire around cardboard paper towel tubes. (And I think there was a magnet in there somewhere. All science things have magnets, right?) After class, we lined all of our radios up along the counter so we could come back the next day and finish them.

Coincidentally, a disgruntled student (not from my class) called in a bomb threat that next morning. We students got to stay home while the police searched every classroom high and low. As my Physics teacher later recalled, when he unlocked his classroom door for the police, they saw the 40 copper wire enshrouded cylinders stacked on the counter and yelled, “Holy shit!” They thought they had just uncovered the largest bomb ever seen in Nevada County.

And as I recall, no students were suspended.