Friday, March 23, 2007

What NOT To Say in a Staff Meeting

So the bigwigs and mucky-mucks from the Head Office located in beautiful downtown Modesto show up for our monthly staff meeting and interview for the new base manager. It's my day off but, as Lead Pilot, I still have to attend. Show up late because I was dealing with maintenance, I am standing in the doorway when the question arises.

"Do we security screen ride alongs with the FAA list?"


We're air ambulance.


It's told me that the company has a copy of said list and I mention if it's available on the company intranet, that would be nice.

High Mucky-Muck #1 (herein referred to as HMM #1) asks me, as Pilot in Command, how we decide who goes and who doesn't. I think for a moment for a way to put it as succinctly as possible, without going in to a long, drawn-out detailed analysis of societal and personal evolution in a Post 9-11 world and blurt out, "Racial profiling."

All the air leaves the room. No one breathes. I feel the red creeping up the back of my neck. I see one of the other pilots in the very back of the room, cringing.

Oh shit.

HMM#1 peers over the person in front of him and asks, "How do you feel about that?"

Pause again to consider just how to phrase what I believe in such a way that I don't come off as a racist or some kind of hate-monger. Everyone in the room is still deathly quiet. My answer? "I'm not too wild about it but it is what we have to do."

HMM#1 says, "Right answer. That was what I was looking for. Obviously is a white, blonde=haired, blue-eyed guy comes out he doesn't raise the flags that, say, a person of Arab descent."

The meeting goes on with a bit more clarification on the subject from HMM#1.

Later, as HMM#1 is leaving to do interviews, I pull him aside and ask if he was offended by my comments. He shook his head and said, "No way. I asked the further questions to see if you were a racists which you are not."

I explained my self in a little more detail. The TSA training I have taken bottom lines aircraft security as this; no one of Arab descent is going to get on or put anything on a plane without major scrutiny. If you ask TSA if that is so, they will deny it. But that is the unofficial bottom line.

Now, I have been running this conversation over in my head since Wednesday and I find myself asking myself this rather disturbing question? Am I a racist?

Truly? My answer is no. I am not. Even though I have been accused of being a racist, a bigot, a sexist and a homophobe by people who knee-jerk react to comments made by me in discussions about all four issues.

A little background. My parents were born in the late 30's and came of age in the 50's. My dad is from Texas and my mother is from California. Their parents are Depression Era refugees and all of them carry very different cultural norms with them. It wasn't uncommon growing up in Georgia or visiting relatives in Texas to call a black man "Boy" or "nigger". It was societally acceptable. It wasn't uncommon to hear my California relatives refer to Jews as "kikes" and Hispanics as "beaners". I, too, used these descriptors as a child because that was normal. I do remember feeling uncomfortable mentioning those words around blacks, Jews and Hispanics because deep inside I also knew that labelling people, calling them names, was wrong.

I know a lot of people like to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. But there is one line in there that sticks out to me and calls me accountable to it. The line about judging a man by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. I wanted people to judge me not by my skin color, not who my parents were, not who my descendants were, not where I grew up, not my socio-economic level but for who I was. And if I wanted that for myself, then I should do the same for others. So I made a conscious decision to try and not stereotype people based on preconceived notions perpetrated by racists, bigots, sexists and homophobes.

It took a lot of soul searching and retraining of my thought patterns to do so but eventually I got to the point where I saw a black person and saw a person who happened to be black. If any of the stereotypical thoughts can to mind, lazy, stupid, "boy", I dismissed them as labels. I didn't know that person; do I know if they are lazy? Do I know they are stupid? Why am I judging them by the color of their skin or the clothes they are wearing? Basically, I started looking at them as I was supposed to look at them, as Christ looks at them. As people.

Does this mean that first impressions are wrong? Not always. Does this mean that some people don't live up to stereotypes? Some do and some don't.

In the mid-90's I got called for jury duty. I was Juror #12 selected out of the initial 12 selected. Each side got to interview the jurors and ask them questions. We were told the case. Girl was accusing her boyfriend and his father of rape. She was in her early 20's but looked 10 years older. Both her boyfriend and his father were sitting at the table wearing leather vests with "Hell's Angels" on the back.

The conversation went along the lines of "Do you think these men, who are wearing Hell's Angels vests are being singled out because of their affiliation with the Hell's Angels?" (The defense attorney is a known bleeding-heart liberal who thinks no one has ever done anything wrong that they can be held responsible for, it was always someone else's fault...parents, society, name it!) One old codger said that he thought the HA's had cleaned up their act and noted that they had participated in the latest Toys for Tots drive. (This was an attempt by the local HA club to clean up their image as the local DA was cracking down on them due to several complaints from citizens and businesses, including a church, located near their clubhouse.)

Few were dismissed. It came to me. The defense asked that I be excused (might have had something to do with the fact that I told the panel that while I was home taking care of my son during the day, I had Rush Limbaugh on the radio for 3 hours at a pop!) The judge asked if I was able to hear this case completely, 100% objectively. I said no. I said, "No one here can either. We all have preconceived ideas about people and regardless of what the Hell's Angels are doing today, they have a reputation for this kind of behaviour. The men sitting at the table have chosen to be associated with the Hell's Angels and by doing so, must accept that there will be certain stigmata attached to them vicariously. I have my own opinions of Hell's Angels but it will by up to the Prosecution and the Defense to be able to overcome my preconceived ideas. Not only of mine but of the others on the jury as well." (Yes, I was really that eloquent in the courtroom!)

The judge nodded and dismissed me. As I was standing to leave he added this. "I regret having to let you go. You would have made an excellent juror."

Sidebar to the above case. I had rightly divined from the comments of the Prosecution and the Defense from the story told, I knew she hadn't been raped. But that the girl had had sex with her boyfriend, got into a fight and to get back had him, had sex with his father. To get back at both of them, she filed rape charges with the DA. Three weeks later, the Defense atty was all over the news celebrated the acquittal of his clients because they had been falsely accused by an angry woman and how just because they were Hell's Angels they would never do something like what they had been accused of. I was proven right. I had called it.

In this instance, preconceived ideas about Hell's Angels proved to be wrong.

Back to the Staff Meeting.

We, in this Post 9-11 society, have probably taken a step backwards in the whole racial thing. This time it's not about Blacks and Hispanics and Asians. It's about Arabs. We've already seen issues with the Sikh's who also wear head wraps but do not practice Islam. Thank the Islamic Fundamentalists for pushing Western Society back a few years. Am I saying we had racism in America licked? Of course not. There will always be people who judge other people by the color of their skin, their accent (Can you say French? I knew you could!), or by the jobs they hold.

It's sad really. Due to the attacks on 9-11, we are now more paranoid about our neighbor than ever before. Having just watched, "Good Night and Good Luck" about Ed Morrow and Joseph McCarthy and knowing a little about that time, I'd say that attacks have moved us back to those years but instead of looking for Pinko Commies, we're looking for Arab-descended Islamo-Fascists.

Another question was brought up. Do we profile others? Of course we do. It's the same thing whether we call it profiling or applying a stereotype. I profile every day. So do you. We immediately, from the information first given to us, access that part of our mind that informs us of what kind of person we're dealing with. What we do after receiving that information is what determines whether we're racists, sexists, bigots or homophobes. Have we grown enough as individuals to see beyond initial stimuli or have we stumbled backwards to an earlier time when it was okay to act on labels?

I still hold out hope was haven't slipped backwards...


P.S. Someday I'll relate why I've been labeled a racist, a sexist, a bigot and a homophobe....there's just not enough room in this post.

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