People Change. We Need to Let Them

One of the saddest things about being a Black person in America, probably a Black person almost anywhere actually, is that you tend to think about things through a colored lens. If something happens, the first question to come out of your mouth is, “Is she/he white?” Or, “were they black?” because chances are high — no matter what the answer — race had something something to do with whatever happened.

Sometime not too long after you learn to walk, talk, share and maybe ride a bike, you stop looking at people as people, and you see color first. You have to. To deny that very tangible thing is to court danger, delusion, or some other unfortunate circumstance. As you age, and life presents you with scene after scene, confirmation after confirmation, that becomes your defacto response. It makes sense. It’s necessary, but if you’re not careful, you could easily forget how to look at people as individuals. You forget that people aren’t all one thing or the other, that they can change, and thank God, or else what have we all been fighting for since George Floyd was murdered?

I was reminded of this when I saw a press release yesterday: Niel Golightly, Senior Vice President of Communications at the Boeing Company, resigned. “Niel’s decision to resign stems from an employee complaint that brought to the Company’s attention an article he wrote in 1987 while serving in the military, about whether women should serve in combat…

“My article was a 29-year-old Cold War navy pilot’s misguided contribution to a debate that was live at the time. My argument was embarrassingly wrong and offensive. The dialogue that followed its publication 33 years ago quickly opened my eyes, indelibly changed my mind, and shaped the principles of fairness, inclusion, respect and diversity that have guided my professional life since. The article is not a reflection of who I am; but nonetheless I have decided that in the interest of the company I will step down,” said Golightly.

Logically, ok, that makes sense. Boeing is corporate corporate, so they’re not kidding around with their reputation, and anyone on their senior leadership team needs to be above reproach — as far as they know – so it’s not surprising what happened. Still, it rubbed me the wrong way.

I don’t know Golightly. Never met the man. Never even knew his name until this media news crossed my desk. But the idea that something someone wrote 30+ years ago, something very well written and reasonably executed, by the way, something you can tell he believed, that it would cause someone to lose their job now? It feels wrong.

Of course, this isn’t a right or wrong, black or white, this or that type situation. A scenario like this is almost completely subjective. Did he mean it? Is it true? Why did it come out now? Who shared it? What was their motivation?

Still, no one could unilaterally say, for instance, that things someone wrote 30-plus years ago, don’t count today. It could still be accurate. Some people don’t change. Some people only become more firmly entrenched in their old, potentially wrong ideas. In which case, yes. It makes perfect sense that you would not want that person to be the communications face for your internationally respected, billion-dollar company.

But you know what? I’m positive, I mean 100 percent certain, that I’ve said and written things that no longer represent who I am. Why? I’ve grown. My ideas have matured, changed. Some are more firmly entrenched, but in others there is nuance. In my mind, there are very few absolutes now. But one thing I’m absolutely certain of, is that people can change. More important, we should allow them to.

To fire someone for something they did years ago, something you knew nothing about and likely became aware of because of our current fetish for tattling and finger pointing and diving head first into cancel culture, is dodgy af. As far as we know, Boeing didn’t fire Golightly because of poor performance or bad behavior. He wasn’t harassing women or treating them unfairly. He was fired for having an opinion. An old opinion at that, and clearly an immature one.

No, I don’t agree with the contents of the op-ed at all. In “No Right to Fight” Golightly basically posits that men can’t evolve, which is ironic, considering the premise of this blog. He suggests that we must acquiesce to the status quo in the military, which places men alone on the front lines. Why? Because men are firmly entrenched in their notions of male bonding and male superiority, and they can’t see a different way. He seemed to suggest that they can’t be shown a different way, and with good reason.

Two, he assumed that women can’t bond and feel the same level of interest or responsibility in her teammates, which is patently untrue. Even if a woman’s motivations for joining the military are different from a man’s, women are very flexible in attitude and action. If a woman joins a unit, she’s going to become a part of the unit, if she’s allowed to. If the culture or the code of conduct is to fight for the man or the woman beside her, then that’s what she will do.

You’re probably thinking, Kellye. Why on Earth are you even obliquely defending this man who you say you don’t know? It’s because I completely disdain the idea that someone can’t change. I rebuke, refuse and refute the idea that someone should be punished for mistakes they made in their past — forever.

Am I the same woman who made the ridiculous mistakes I made in my 20s? Hell no! I barely recognize that girl. I shake my head over some of the things she did, and I thank God every time she crosses my mind, that she learned her lessons and recovered so well.

This type of antic — firing someone not because of something they’re doing but because of something they did long before it had anything to do with anything current — is a successful tactic that has been used to oppress people – especially people of color – for a very long time.

“Well, you have a record. Twenty years ago you stole something from a department store. We can’t hire you.” Or, “we found out this, and now we have to let you go.” The fact that you’ve lived a law-abiding, upstanding, respectable life since then is completely irrelevant? That’s not right.

You have to look at what people do after.

How has Golightly behaved since he left the Navy and wrote that article? Have the women under him complained? Has he made an effort to hire and retain them, to promote them? I don’t know. But there is nothing — that we know of — to suggest that he carried that old attitude into his former role. That should mean something, shouldn’t it?

People shouldn’t be endlessly bound to their past mistakes. People should be allowed to move on, to move beyond former limitations. To try and hold someone back or punish them for former, frankly, no longer relevant actions, is cheating.

It’s cheap. It says, I needed a scapegoat. Or, I needed to be safe. Or, I needed a way to get rid of you because you’re a threat, and I don’t want to play fair.

What do you think? At a high level, shouldn’t people be allowed to change? Shouldn’t people be allowed to make mistakes and move on? No matter what your color, or your gender, people do learn. They grow, and they become better. Shouldn’t we let them?

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