At 5 o’clock in the morning, the radio alarm begins to blare the news. The United States is threatening to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism if the conversation includes tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. What a nightmare, I think as I sit up in bed. How can the most powerful and diverse country on earth refuse to go to the first global discussion of race? No one expected easy accord about what’s racial and what’s not, but to refuse to attend the discussion at all?
Perhaps I am unduly depressed because I am in a small motel somewhere in…South Dakota, is it? Or maybe San Diego? I made the terrible mistake of watching Planet of the Apes the night before, in this dim room whose walls are flocked in orange fuzz with silver trim. It is the end of a long week of speaking to organizations that have called me in because someone has done something like hang a big noose over a black person’s work space, and they would like me–me!–to get everyone speaking again.
The last five days have involved flying into Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City or Tampa in order to take a shuttle to terminal Z, where militia members in camouflage or square dance teams in pouffy skirts or troupes of young missionaries take flights to and from small towns all over America in very small planes. I have been lining up behind them, boarding ancient Cessna prop planes seating ten–give or take carry-on weapons caches, guitars, extra Bibles and box of diversity pamphlets–and bounce low to the ground all the way to Saginaw or Elko or Huntsville or Dayton.
I get out of bed and look for coffee on the room service menu. There is no room service menu. There is no room service.
The gentleman who comes to greet me on behalf of the Better Business Through Multicultural Harmony Committee is from Bahrain and hails me like a long-lost sister. I can assure you from personal experience how dramatically America’s demographics are changing; the smaller and more off the beaten track the American town, the more likely the confused little minority community will include representatives recently arrived from Bangladesh or Sudan or Cambodia or Cameroon.
The gentleman from Bahrain settles me into a large, all-American car and whisks me off into the cornfields and more cornfields. An hour later we hit a strip mall, turn left, a mile and a half of soybeans–et voilà! East-West Central Southern Industries (name changed to protect the innocent). The conference room at whose door he deposits me has coffee! muffins! and is really pretty pleasant, even given my yuppie pretensions.
The problem I have been asked to tackle is a new but essentially old-fashioned one. Someone with too much free time has created a list of all the employees, put it online and created the kind of cyberspatial graffiti that one hoped one never had to think about after tenth grade, when notebooks were passed around with a name on each page, and cruel anonymous comments were scrawled beneath. This particular list ranks everyone by sexiness, intelligence, dress and, perhaps most destructively, smell. The comments are racialized, sexually crude, almost pathologically immature but as hard to dismiss as a punch in the stomach. It is a bully’s shopping list of strategies to humiliate, and it has created the intended havoc, spilling into the small town beyond. “Affirmative action bitch. Wears Payless shoes,” is a typically bitter little entry.
It takes me all morning just to sort out who has injured whom. Virtually everyone in the company has hurled enough epithets to make everyone else on the planet hate them forever. I decide to speak to just a few people, those in the best position to try to make some systemic improvements.
The gentleman from Bahrain volunteers to organize a dinner. He makes a few phone calls on my behalf, and soon we are off to a Vietnamese restaurant in the mall, where we meet with an odd assortment of community organizers and spokesmen. The cast of characters includes a local black minister who (like a weird inverted image of George W. Bush’s saying that the Nation of Islam was one of the world’s great religions) is worried that his new Islamic Moroccan neighbors are followers of Louis Farrakhan. There’s a white police officer who is sincerely trying to smooth the waters while dropping phrases like “outside agitators” and “stingy as a Jew.” There’s a Nigerian man with five sons who is worried about his children being called “gang members” every time they walk to school together. There’s a Native-American man who shows up to protest that no one remembered to invite him.
There’s the head of a local evangelical group trying to raise money to buy Sudanese slaves in order to set them free. There’s a representative of a human rights agency who says that buying slaves is not a political solution but rather encourages traders to raise the price. “It’s part of a larger global sex market,” he says. “And it operates right here in America–you don’t have to travel to Eastern Europe or Africa. Would you consider going to some big-time pimps, buying a few sex slaves, setting them free on a street corner and really think you’d accomplished much of anything in the way of eliminating the business?”
There is a genial Republican Party leader who wants me to meet a Mozambican woman who has been studying at the local university and who is miserably homesick. “We haven’t done our job if she wants to go back to a country like that,” he says, and introduces me as “an example of what can be achieved in the US.” She is a charming person, with a degree from the Sorbonne. “Mozambique is my home,” she sighs wearily. “Americans know nothing of Mozambique.”
And there’s a recently arrived Palestinian refugee and a Jewish teacher whose family migrated to this town seventy years ago. They are neighbors, and express overlapping concerns about events in the Middle East. “We might not get along at all if we were there. But here we are friends. Here,” they add, “it is everybody else.” As we gaze around the room, it does seem as if these two are the only ones on fully cordial terms.
“But,” they conclude after a moment’s reflection, “at least they all showed up.”