As part of my day job, I travel a lot for work. I’m one of those semi-road-warrior types who collects miles and points on my weekly trips in and around the United States to sit in meetings where I add marginal value, eat boxed lunches and internally critique PowerPoint font choices. I’m TSA Precheck. I have airline status. I judge people’s attire based on the ease with which they can pass through the security screening.
Long story short, I spend a lot of time in airports. Honestly, I think airports are one of the truly fascinating places to people-watch because of the overall temporary nature of just about everyone there. Someone’s leaving town, someone else is heading out on vacation. Another person just closed a deal, while the person beside them is hoping that they’re gonna get that job. Interspersed in all of this are the people going to meet their grandkids for the first time and an occasional “This is my first time flying” person.
But there we all are, together at the airport, traveling hither and yon, connected by a few minutes at the bar sipping our preferred form of preflight courage while checking smartphones and flight statuses and taking in the ever-ubiquitous presence of CNN on the airport TV screens.
For the most part, the conversations are benign:
“Where ya headed?
“How long ya going for?”
Usually it’s brief, a chat with a few laughs, some minor discoveries about each other, and then someone hops off their stool, downs the rest of the IPA and hightails it off to the gate to make their flight to Phoenix or Tulsa, Okla., or Newark, N.J.
But as with any situation that involves booze, loose associations, acceptable generalizations, a somewhat diverse crowd and a TV screen showing a constant stream of CNN, sometimes the conversations can get a little contentious.
A little while ago, I found myself in my usual spot at an airport bar after a long day of corporate tap dancing and professional mask-wearing, nursing a glass of Templeton Rye on the rocks and working my way through my usual grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes, when I overheard two rather loud and somewhat intoxicated late-middle-aged white men accosting the TV screen and yammering on about that specific topic of the news and how that was specifically the thing that was destroying this country.
I couldn’t get the initial gist of their complaints, since I was kinda in my own world at the moment, but as I grasped what was on CNN and used context clues to put two and two together (shoutout to Ms. Pugh-Scott’s second-grade class, y’all), I realized that these men had been whipped into a frothy tirade over immigration. Namely, the fact that “everyone” seemed so afraid to call these countries where all these immigrants and “illegals” (their words, not mine) came from the veritable “shitholes” that they are.
“See, we used to call it the ‘Third World,’ and it was, you know, countries that might’ve been poor or not as sophisticated as us, and so we wanted to reach out to them, maybe train some doctors from there, teach some of their folks how we do business here, and then they were supposed to go back home to build their own damn countries!”
“Yep. These people keep staying here because they know they don’t want to go back to those Third World countries. But instead of going home and helping their own people, they wanna use chain migration and bring their brothers and sisters and all their kids, and eventually we got the whole damn village to support with OUR tax dollars. It’s bullshit, if you ask me.”
At that moment, I knew I should have just minded my own business, but the way my woke is set up, I couldn’t let it pass without saying something. See, I come from an immigrant family myself, and as a Liberian, I know the Trump administration rescinded temporary protected status for many of my family and countrymen last May. My wife is an immigrant, as are her parents, and so our children are the only members of our family born in America. I work at a company full of immigrants. Hell, I had the self-awareness to see that the bartenders at the airport and the people running the food were also immigrants.
But here we were, with me now forced to speak up in the face of willful ignorance and Fox News talking points with facts, logic and reason that these men were too old, too drunk and too white to accept. The irony notwithstanding that, in their defense of their own bigotry and self-serving view of Americanness, they shamelessly referenced the corpses of their own immigrant ancestors as if they had arrived on these shores welcomed with open arms and personally ready to start the tech companies and hedge funds of their day.
As the conversation teetered dangerously close to me having to call them the nativist racists that they were, and as the bar staff was becoming visually uncomfortable with their characterizations of “those Latinos,” God intervened with an announcement that the flight to Dallas (or Houston, or Little Rock, Ark., or just generically Dixieland) was boarding and they ambled off their stools, shook my hand, and we wished each other safe travels. I mean, fuck those guys, but I’m pretty sure everyone on their flight wasn’t racist, and I wouldn’t want them to suffer the karmic repercussions of the dumbass opinions of those two assholes.
But somehow, it got worse.
After those men left, a youngish white couple, male and female, dressed in their vacation clothes, who had been sitting there all along, decided to chime in. But to, like, thank me.
“Oh, my God. We heard what was going on over there, and it’s just so refreshing to see someone actually, like, you know, speak up against those kinds of people.”
Yeah, I mean, thanks, I guess, but that actually pissed me off even more: the fact that I, as the aggrieved party, had to speak up for myself and by extension those similarly situated around me (who were in no position to say anything), while Tad and Becca sat on the sidelines and offered only silence as support. I’m sure that in their minds and in the story they’d tell about the incident, they were on the right side of the argument and would pat themselves on the back for not sharing the opinions of the other two men at that bar.
White people who want to be “allies” need to understand that their agreement isn’t enough. It’s not enough for you to nod while I defend myself, or to bristle when something offensive is said or done to a member of a minority or marginalized community. Nah. There’s just not enough of us to fight this battle alone, and if white people want to prove their worth in the struggle, they’re going to need to speak the fuck up at the exact moment of the offense.
Otherwise, it’s just a different form of complicity. It’s the decision to choose your own comfort over the discomfort of others. It’s the purest form of privilege, and it needs to be treated with the same derision as abject and active racism. Otherwise, you’re not an ally; you’re just another enemy. You gotta pick a side and then you gotta actually work. Complicity is more dangerous than any outwardly racist act.
On the bright side, they did pay for my Templeton Rye on the rocks and my grilled cheese sandwich, so I guess they weren’t all bad.