Racism, Reality, and "One in a Million"

Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday on Reverb. He writes about what music is circulating through his space every Monday.
My wife and I were having lunch at an outdoor cafe in Wenatchee about a month ago, when a dude in his late 20s recognized me from my Guns N' Roses days. He stopped to talk to us, excited to tell us about what he'd been listening to and what concerts he had lined up for the summer. It all seemed nice and innocent, until he started to tell us about his girlfriend and how she had just recently gotten into rock 'n' roll. She used to be into hip-hop, she said. Her former boyfriends were Mexicans. But now she's into rock, because, "you know, white is right!" My wife and I both sat speechless in stunned silence.

This was the most recent of more instances than I'd care to remember when I have been assumed to harbor racist sentiments in my life.

I used to think it was because of the GN'R song "One in a Million" and its use of a few choice racist words. That song was meant, to the best of my knowledge, as a third-person slant on how fucked-up America was in the '80s. I don't know. I wouldn't have used the words, but Axl has been known to be amazingly bold at times.

I think for a while there in the late '80s and early '90s, GN'R were looked at as all kinds of bad things, even racists. I remember hearing that the KKK, or some faction of the Klan, had even used that song as a war cry. Art gets misunderstood all the time, but try to imagine being on MY end of this misunderstanding. Me, the little brother of a sister with a black husband whom I looked up to. What about Slash and what HE must have gone through then (Slash is half-black--or is it half-white?).

Starting long before anyone had ever heard of Guns N' Roses, and well before I picked up my first bass guitar, periods of racial tension have cropped up in virtually every stage of my life.

I grew up in a time when the civil rights movement here in the U.S. was at its most embroiled and tragic. Early memories for me include my mom pulling me out of kindergarten to march in a peace rally after Martin Luther King was shot and killed (the line "Did you wear the black armband/When they shot the man/Who said 'peace could last forever'" from GN'R's 'Civil War" was taken from this experience).

My oldest brother-in-law, Dexter, was a black man with a Black Panther tattoo on his left forearm. ANY tattoo to a 5-year-old boy is just the coolest thing ever, period. I didn't know that the Black Panthers were a militant group, nor would I have even understood it. Dexter was just my really cool brother with a kick-ass tattoo! I was too young to make a distinction between black skin and white skin. There was a white kid down the street who was born with an albino skin pigmentation--his skin was both really white and tan. My first two nieces and nephews were both half-black . . . or is it half-white? I dunno, but they were only one and two years younger than me. Our neighbors across the street were brown-skinned Filipinos. As a result, I just thought that we humans just simply came in ALL colors. Nothing more. Nothing less. Turns out that I was right all the way back then.

The year that I started kindergarten was also the year that Seattle Public Schools started the busing/integration program. I don't think we kids, black or white, really knew what was happening. The tensions of certain kids' parents about this situation came out in those few kids in the way of racism (from both colors), but these were mostly isolated in my experience.

The middle school I attended was a rather rough place when I went there in the late '70s. I got into my very fair share of trouble there, and had made the dumb decision to start carrying a knife to school. There were bullies of ALL races there. One day, two of these bullies followed me into the bathroom and demanded money from me. When I produced my knife, they ran and told a counselor that I had made racist threats. I am white and they were black. It was pure bullshit, but I became a scapegoat and was expelled. I was horrified of what my family may have thought. I know that they knew I was no racist, though, and that this situation was purely a product of the times; and I am sure these two bullies were snickering about my dilemma for the rest of the year. Were they assholes because of the color of their skin? No. They were just assholes.

The fallout two weeks ago from USDA official Shirley Sherrod getting the axe has some very depressing repercussions for this country, I am afraid. Racism has reared its ugly head in a new way that I can't imagine anyone really could have seen in retrospect. It appears that certain conservative affiliates are doing what they can to run black-on-white smear campaigns. It also appears that the Obama administration pulled the knee-jerk reaction of the century to set things back on track. They are afraid. The conservatives are apparently afraid too. It is appalling to witness just a couple short years after this country made one of its best collective decisions ever in electing Obama.

Are we taking steps backwards? I sure hope not. I have hopes that maybe WE are the generation that will be perhaps the last to witness this type of BS in America. It is just fear--and it is a fear that is just boring at this point. C'mon now. Let's move the fuck ON!

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