Nearly a dozen years ago, the mother of the man I was seeing died pretty suddenly. We made haste for Pittsburgh, booking plane tickets right away. The name on my ticket came out all wrong. It was a disorderly mash-up of the six letters of my first and surname, and my middle name, which is Danish.
At the airports, both coming and going, I was searched. Baggage was searched. One hearty TSA inspector made a big deal out of the pooping moose keychain my daughter had brought back from a junior high trip to Canada. He thought it was hysterical. And sooo clever.
All the while I sat there, this blonde mom in an LL Bean barn coat whose reading material included a copy of The New Yorker and The Christian Century. Bit of a joke, this was, having to search little old me.
But my name had looked wrong. It looked foreign. My name looked as if I could cause trouble.
Once we got on the plane my partner and I had a laugh. What silliness! But it will make for a good dinner party story.
Recently I drove to a conference with two colleagues, one of whom was a young African-American woman, J. We drove in September splendor through the sun-dappled farm country of central New York state, harvested hay neatly baled, pumpkins bright in sweeping fields, apples draping branches. I started thinking about apple-picking and pie-making, canning and pickling. At a farm stand I bought some maple syrup, dark and robust, the best kind for buttermilk waffles.
"Thank you so much for traveling with me," J. said as we got back into the car, "I would never feel comfortable driving through here alone. I'd never stop at a farm stand. I'd avoid bathroom breaks."
J.'s comment changed things. It changed the day and made my head hurt. This bucolic pastorale, this rural ramble held a hidden threat that even the brightest sunshine could not bring to light. Alone, she would not feel safe. Alone she was both at risk herself and a perceived threat in white upstate.
Because while an abundance of caution may be a worthwhile thing, an excess of caution is toxic. When we see others first as threats and only secondarily as people, we court moral malaise. And that leads to the sins--yes, I'm going to use that nasty word--of racism and xenophobia. In other iterations it leads to misogyny or its more tender cousin, sexism. It leads to paranoia--which always dehumanizes and makes an object of the perceived fear.
To find the balance between an abundance and an excess of caution requires a willingness to enounter and understand that which is foreign to us. It requires humility and truth seeking. In other words, it is work--and we are too often too lazy.
For J., racial profiling is not a good dinner party story.
Meanwhile, maybe somewhere Jesus is at airport security, taking off his belt and sandals, emptying his pockets. (And wouldn't it be something if he had a pooping moose keychain, too?) Maybe he is watching as a zealous TSA inspector paws through his documents, looking for evidence to indict him.
Is this guy ISIS? Is he Al-Shabaab? Or is he some new threat, some new force, come to change our minds about the way we see things?