I grew up in an ultra Liberal home. We were taught early and often the importance of equality and tolerance for all. No racial or religious slurs or jokes allowed, we were raised Enlightened, accepting of all creeds, cultures, beliefs. And to be what was called at the time "color blind."
That's the kind of adult I became. I worked, played, still live the Rainbow Lifestyle. It's reflected in my circle of friends and family, my politics and solid record of hard work for equal rights, anti-discrimination, anti-bigotry, pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights. I'm proud to be a lifelong, dedicated Liberal.
And yet. Here's my ugly little secret: I profile.
If you're honest you'll admit you do too.
Pro or Con?
I profile everybody from scummy Snookie and the venal Housewives to that doofus Weiner. Politicians, ball players, celebrities, all fair game, sure. But strangers on the bus, cab drivers and the guy who runs the 7-11? Hazy logic. And yet it's become reflexive.
Which is so counter-intuitive to the me I've always been. I walk the Liberal walk. Work for Liberal causes. Talk the Liberal talk. Put my money where my mouth is. And all the while, I now realize, I'm profiling.
I think many of my newly acquired assumptions based on people's looks, speech, behavior, and sometimes ethnicity, are coming from today's cold, hard realities. At least I hope that's the case.
We've all developed profiling criteria in response to the overkill of bad news, wars, bombings, scandals, despicable acts by those in powerful positions. We can't be unaffected by the endless river of disgusting data about so much deplorable behavior.
So, Liberal as I feel, it's hard not to recoil, prejudge, form unsavory impressions and thus profile the people, groups or countries behaving badly.
In many cases, I'm not far off the mark. But there are times I have been so wrong it's downright inexcusable.
It makes me cringe, but I'm going to tell you a true story about my Worst. Profiling. Fail. Ever.
The Power of Suggestion
I'm not proud of this story, but I fear too many of us have similar ones -- especially since 9/11. What's that old joke? A Conservative is a former Liberal who's been mugged.
Our country was mugged on 9/11 and has been hammered by threats and actual attacks met with apparent ineptitude in many ways by our leaders. Which doesn't excuse my profiling, especially in this case.
In fact it's become my personal Object Lesson: No matter how much you believe you're a bona fide Liberal, life in the 21st Century can make your hidden prejudices jump up and bite you on the ass. You've got to face them down. And stand up even more firmly for what you know is right.
Case in point:
About five years ago I was flying home from visiting my parents in Florida. Something about terrorism was in the news. Everyone was on edge. As usual I'd upgraded to First Class with my frequent flier miles. (Go ahead, profile me).
I usually meet interesting people when I travel. Hoping for a lively conversationalist, I settled in with anticipation to see who'd take the empty seat next to me.
Just as the doors were about to close, I found out...
And got an ugly glimpse into my own worse self.
A swarthy, unshaven man with dark rumpled hair, wearing baggy jeans and a loose white shirt appliqued with a huge multi-colored dragon stowed a battered briefcase and sat down. The epitome of a character from the TSA Watch List.
He nodded, barely looking at me and opened a magazine with pictures of nail guns, screwdrivers, large hammers, power tools.
Whoa! How'd he get on the plane -- and in First Class?? He was the last to board so they must have searched him. I hope they were thorough. What if they weren't? Plus, I bet he smells. (A casual sniff dispelled that concern).
Don't be so quick to judge me. Our crack TSA teams don't always inspire confidence, certainly didn't five years ago. And this guy looked seriously creepy. What would you think?
I shrunk into my aisle seat and buried myself in my book. The man soon fell asleep, head against the window, and I began to relax.
About a half hour before landing, his body suddenly began jerking, his hands turned inward, his mouth moving with no sound.
Drugs, I thought immediately. Or a diversion. I bolted to the galley for help. Flight attendants came to observe him. Some passengers began to notice. Murmurs of alarm moved through the cabin.
A flight attendant sat in my seat and touched the man lightly on the arm. "Sir, sir! Are you all right?" she said quietly, "Do you need help?"
One final jerk, then his eyes opened. He blinked, looked around and smiled sheepishly, clearly embarrassed.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said. "I have a condition called narcolepsy. Often when I fall asleep it's difficult to wake up. But I'm okay now."
I sat back down and asked if there was anything I could do. "No, thank you," he said with quiet dignity. "And you don't have to worry. I'm a doctor so I know I'm fine. I must have gotten overtired visiting my parents."
I felt like an idiot.
We chatted for the remaining half hour. I learned that when his condition made it impossible to practice medicine, he'd become a public health consultant, eventually a deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services under Donna Shalala in the Clinton administration.
We swapped Beltway and Democratic Party stories ... it turns out we had friends in common. We were, of course, both Liberal Democrats. (I'm cringing again now).
He told me he was forced to retire from public service after a heart attack. "I mentor medical students training for public health careers," he said. "Especially in the inner city. And I spend my free time rehabbing an old house in the Art Museum area." The power tool magazine!
"It's great not to wear suits and ties any more," he added. "Now I can indulge my inner Latin with these crazy shirts my mother makes for me."
Latin! I'd assumed Middle Eastern. Mother! Oh brother. Unknowingly he'd held up a big mirror reflecting my flaming inner racist.
Or maybe not so unknowingly. As we shook hands in Baggage Claim he held my gaze a moment and said, "You know, profiling's a way of life now. I don't let it bother me. It protects all of us from the bad guys." Then he smiled and walked away.
One of the really good guys.
It'll be a cold day in hell before I judge another book by its cover without first taking a cold hard read of myself.
Profiling has become more than a way of life, it's turned into a nasty excuse for racism, classism, bigotry, ethnic denigration. And it's a lightening rod for Liberals everywhere.
Except that profiling isn't exclusive to Teabaggers, Right Wingnuts, would-be torturers, TSA, CIA or the FBI. It's done every day. By YOU and ME.