The not-so secret life of racism

Posted Nov. 21, 2008, at 7:28 p.m.

About a week after the world watched loaded passenger jets plow into the sides of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, my husband and I held the hands of our 5- and 8-year-old children and took our appointed seats on a plane at Bangor International Airport.

My heart was pounding, not with the excitement of a thrilling trip to Disney World, but with absolutely paralyzing fear.

When the handsomely dressed Middle Eastern man wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase sat down in the aisle seat beside my daughter and me, the pounding ceased. I think my heart actually came to a complete stop.

Racism, I thought. This is what racism feels like. As the plane took off and circled the Penobscot River on that brilliant fall morning, my 5-year-old son, who had been reading “Tom Sawyer,” yelled out, “Look, look! It’s the mighty Mississippi.”

The Middle Eastern man beside me laughed out loud. “How old are your children?” he asked. I told him. He told me he had two of his own.

The death grip I had on my armrest loosened a bit. Surely this nice man who has children isn’t going to box-cut his way into the cabin and plunge our plane into the White House.

We made it to Disney World just fine, but I’ve never forgotten that very specific fear I had on that day. Because of the intensity of the time, I feared flying anyway, but the presence of a Middle Eastern man on board ratcheted things up a whole bunch of notches.

It’s not something I’m proud of. Important and life-changing events spawn a lot of feelings, some expected and some unfamiliar.

For example, I expected the election of Barack Obama would generate massive protests, screams that the sky indeed was falling, words of hatred even. It happens every four to eight years, after all.

But the level of pure, unadulterated racism that has resulted has shocked me and made me understand the depth of my naiveté.

A pool at the Oak Hill General Store in Standish reportedly asked customers to bet a buck on the timing of an assassination of the president-elect. It was called the “Osama Obama Shotgun Pool.” And at the bottom the sign reportedly read, “Let’s hope someone wins.”

Someone hanged three black figures from trees in various parts of Mount Desert Island. Similar things are happening all across the country.

Obama apparently has become the most well-protected president-elect in our fine nation’s history. For good reason, it would seem.

Last week I took my 15-year-old daughter to see the movie “The Secret Life of Bees.” It’s a work of fiction, of course, but it did a pretty decent job of depicting, at least on a small scale, the very real struggle that African-Americans went through to get the right to vote and the overwhelming sense of pride that came with it.

How far we’ve come, I thought. This morning I wonder. Because, as someone once said, maybe racism really is like cancer. Never really gone, just sometimes in remission.

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