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Everyone’s a little bit racist

Sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgements
Based on race.
-From the musical Avenue Q

Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
Short People got no reason
To live
Randy Newman

I can hardly wait till we start “colonizing” outer space. Getting our fancy spaceships together.  Loading the eager “colonists” on board.  Who will they be? The poor, the desperate, looking for a better life. The adventurers wanting to make a mark for themselves, or to make a fortune discovering some useful product.  They will leave behind the people they love, in hopes that they can create a better life in a strange land.  They are in for a big surprise.

I’ve been in direct communication with the species on inhabitable planets via my aluminum foil helmet with the coat hanger antennae.  It’s simple really.  I put on my hi-tech receiving apparatus, chant “Nano nano” for about five minutes. (Thank you, Mork, for the key words).  I then croon the theme from the original Star Trek.  Transmissions begin before you can say “Manifest Destiny.”

Here’s what’s going on on a faraway planet.  Debate is raging about the imminent arrival of illegal immigrants.  All the planets have worked very hard to develop an organized, civilized network of peace loving, egalitarian societies.  Their intelligence sources have warned them that a rapacious, greedy and mucusy race is planning to push past the Van Allen belt they wrapped around the planet millennia ago to prevent their havoc reaching other galaxies.  These “earthlings” will swarm to their pristine planets looking for a better life, opportunity and cash.

When I was in New York City recently, I reveled in the diversity around me.  A sea of many colors, races, fashions swarmed stores, restaurants and theaters.  The variety was a testimony to America’s fabulous gene pool.  I recalled a story I read about Captain Cook and his men being eagerly greeted in the Polynesian Islands by exuberant females who hurled themselves upon the delighted sailors.  It turned out that it wasn’t about a different moral standard.  They were just desperate to diversify their gene pool! I tried to imagine New York without immigrants.  Hmmmmm.

I went to a brunch in the suburbs while I was there, and spoke about how one of the only things I miss living in Asheville is this experience of diversity.  That even white, middle class suburbs there have more intermingling of the races than the streets of downtown Asheville.  A friend I’ve known for 25 years, a Democrat, environmentalist and community supporter harrumphed.  “Well, we’ll have plenty of diversity soon.”  Apparently a black church from one of the North’s many urban areas had purchased a multi acre industrial complex at her town’s border.  They were building a mega church, a school and more.

“Imagine the traffic!” someone else sniffed.  “5000 people coming off our exit every Sunday!”
Another added, “Think of the environmental impact!  All those cars!”
“I can only imagine the congestion in our stores on Sunday.”  Everyone shook their heads.
Then my friend voiced her true problem.  “My son in law lives in the neighborhood.  I’ve told him to sell his house now.”
“Why?” I asked, “His house isn’t near the traffic pattern.”
She rolled her eyes.  They’re not just going to go to church here.  They’re going to want to live here.”
Still a bit dense, I asked, “So?”
“Can you say property values?”
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” I felt that choking feeling as the Nazi Anthem, Tomorrow Belongs To Me, started to play in my head.
“I’m saying slums.”
I poured myself a Bloody Mary.

Back at the airport, I wait in line to check my bags.  In front of me, a man keeps looking at his watch.  Suddenly, he moves his bag to the rope, ducks under the rope and dashes out of the airport.  I stare at the bag.  Uh oh.  Is this the moment?  I count to 10.  He doesn’t return.  The line moves forward.  My eyes remain glued to the bag.

My heart begins to pound.  “OK, you’re profiling,” I say to myself.  “He’s black.” (In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, he describes various psychological tests where people betray their unconscious bias towards the white race.  Gladwell, who is half black, assumed he would be unbiased.  Instead, he discovered that even his choices scored in favor of whites.)

I try to imagine my reaction if a blue eyed blonde left his suitcase.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick. No way.  No one in their right minds would leave their bags unattended at the airport.  As if to mock me, the infernal announcement begins. “The Traffic Safety Authority in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security requires that you keep your belongings with you at all times….” Arrgh!  Tick.  Tick.  The line continues moving.  I’m moving away from the bag, which continues to stare at me, daring me to cry out, “Bomb!  Bomb!”  But something holds me back.  Something in me doesn’t believe this man is a terrorist.

At that moment, he returns.  He is now clutching a ticket.  What?  He’d forgotten his ticket?  Where?  Was this a rehearsal to see what would happen? And suddenly, the rest of his family appears, loaded with bags, anxious, obviously late.  They speak some rapid African dialect.  Clearly they don’t understand the announcements.  I picture their home airport somewhere on the endless savannah, the heat rolling off the tarmac, children running around, security guards playing dominos, everyone chatting with their luggage scattered about.  It probably had never occurred to him that there was even a problem leaving his suitcase.

I think about what might have happened if I had yielded to my fear.  This family’s day would have been ruined.  I would have probably missed my flight as well.  Not to mention feeling really stupid.  I break into a supreme hot flash, sweat pouring out of pores I didn’t know I had.

I watch the family run for their plane, feeling a kind of tenderness, remembering all the times when I was young and my Mom misunderstood American language and rules.  Some people were kind.  Others told her to go back to Russia.  Was this family visiting legal immigrants?  Or had they spent the week in a squalid squat making some extra money cleaning floors in a Connecticut suburb?  At that moment, an announcement comes over the PA. “Attention passengers.  Flight #6 to Glasgow has been cancelled.  Flight #6 to Glasgow has been cancelled.”  It was only when I got home that I learned flights to Glasgow had been cancelled because of a terrorist attack.

What would have happened if…. Instead of beating myself up, I decide to study what made me decide that this man was not a terrorist. Then I flush with shock and shame at my own hidden bias.  This man was over 6 feet tall.  In my mind, terrorists are short.  Osama Bin Laden is tall, but you don’t see him running into a compound strapped with explosives.  That’s why he’s in charge! We trust tall people.  I’m not a racist.  I’m a heightist.  Which is a problem, since I’m 5’2”.  Like Malcolm Gladwell preferring white faces, I like tall people.  In fact, according to Gladwell, the majority of people prefer tall people.  Most CEOs and US presidents are tall. After a lifetime of trying to be free of bias, I realize that inwardly, I’m as bad as the narrator in Randy Newman’s song.  I breathe a sigh of relief to realize that no country closes its borders to short people.

The Council on the Faraway Planet is in heated debate.  “Clearly they are an inferior species.  I understand they can’t even fly!”
The representatives whir and buzz out of their seats, wings flapping madly in dismay at such a revelation.
“Perhaps,” says a voice of reason, “They are merely at their larval stage.”
“They certainly look like larvae, all squishy and moist, stuck to the ground, devouring everything in sight.”
“They might be useful,” pipes another, “For those jobs we abhor, driving our land vehicles, tending crops, maintaining our structures.”
“Indeed, “ agrees the first.  “And perhaps if we are patient, they will molt and we will discover their true nature.”
“Balderdash!” says an elder.  “What if nothing emerges?  What if there is nothing beyond this larval stage?”   There is a collective gasp of horror.
Finally, the optimist clears his throat. “Remember, we too were once illegal immigrants.  Perhaps diversity is not a bad thing. Consider the gene pool.”
At that, the Council calls a recess.