YOU HAVE JUST ARRIVED AT THE BUS STATION IN A BIG CITY. Your cousin is supposed to meet you at the gate and take you to the airport. You enter the poorly lighted, cavernous building and look around. No cousin.
It is 1:15 a.m. The passengers and driver on the bus with you have disappeared. You hurry toward the elevator and ascend. Other than a bored attendant at the wrong end of a long corridor, this area is empty, too.
You drag your suitcase along the uneven tiles of the terminal floor. Your footsteps thump under the grinding cacophony of the case’s wheels. Grind. Thump. Grind. Thump. The doors seem to be miles away. As you approach, you recoil at the greasy fingerprints on the door’s panels left by generations of derelicts and creeps.
You shoulder your way out. An odd silence greets you from the street. Your eyes drift to the brooding skyline on your left. One ominous colossus looms behind the other. Your eyes drift right. A lone taxi driver beckons you forward. A single eyebrow spans his forehead. He has sinister eyes. Deep scars are etched into his cheeks. He barks, “Nine dollars. Off the meter. Anywhere in the city.” His hands are too big for his small, muscular frame. Big enough to crush a coconut. Big enough to crush a skull. You think, “He will drive me to an abandoned pier, murder me, and steal the wallet from my cold, dead body.”
You veer away from him and walk north. You try to appear calm. You are calm. As calm as an explorer about to walk off a cliff and splatter to a horrible death in a treacherous chasm below.
At the corner, you see a sign. BUS TO AIRPORT. An arrow beside the sign points west. You turn and see another lone attendant. Like the cab driver, she beckons you forward. There is a hard, unsympathetic expression on her face, but it is a beautiful face. She is wearing a transit worker uniform and her hands are too small to crush coconuts or skulls. She is holding a clipboard.
“Airport bus?” She asks.
“Nine dollars,” she says.
You take the money from your wallet, sigh with relief, and get onto the bus.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: dis·crim·i·nate. verb. 1. To mark or perceive the distinguishing or peculiar features of: recognize as being different from others.
By choosing to take a bus instead of a taxi, you have discriminated. By deciding to go with a female driver instead of a male, you have discriminated. By accompanying someone in a uniform as opposed to in plain-clothes, you have discriminated. By preferring a beautiful woman to an ugly man, you have discriminated.
Discriminating. adjective. 2. careful or fastidious in selection: DISCERNING, JUDICIOUS.
YOU ARE ON VACATION IN MANHATTAN. You enter a designer leather goods store on Fifth Avenue. The man behind the counter is wearing a $900 Armani suit. His smooth chin looks waxed instead of shaven; his skin has been bronzed to perfection by a tanning machine. He sniffs contemptuously in your direction.
You approach. There is a subway map sticking out the back pocket of your Levis and you have a camera slung around your neck. You are neatly dressed, but wearing no designer labels. When you walk through the door, you are smiling. Your smile disappears within seconds of meeting his glare of disdain.
The salesman is thinking: This hick from the boondocks could not afford a belt or a wallet. He is wasting my time.
You are thinking: This supercilious fop is too stupid to realize I have enough money to buy his entire store.
Each of you believes that he is a discriminating individual. You are both right. You are both wrong.
Every action we make requires us to make choices. Do I go to college or get a job right out of high school? Do I go to a baseball game or to the ballet? Do I marry someone the same race and religion as I, or should I marry someone who makes me laugh?
All of our choices are based on our values, preferences, convictions, backgrounds, goals, philosophies, and tastes. If we choose to eat cornflakes instead of ham and eggs, if we choose to root for the Yankees instead of the Mets, we are discriminating. Some of our choices are arbitrary and capricious. Some are not.
When I was thirteen years old and heard my Uncle Larry say derisive things about black people at our kitchen table, I stormed out of the house. I discriminated against my bigoted uncle. Year after year, Barack Obama has attended a church where Rev. Jeremiah Wright sermonized, “God damn America,” where he claimed we had brought the September 11 attacks upon ourself, and where he praised racist Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. During those years, Senator Obama did not storm out of his church. He did not leave the table.
Discrimination requires us to discern. To be fastidious in our selection. To make choices. Staying silent in the presence of inflammatory bigotry is a choice. Silence is sanction, so it is an ugly choice.
I am not running for president of the United States. I am not the one who made it.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben