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.