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Starting Point

Profiling the children of God


My sons are from Guatemala.

The oldest, but last to arrive, adopted at age 10, has moved to Chicago. He’s a man now with a face that came off a Mayan tapestry. He’s gorgeous, at least it seems so to his many women friends. The other two are 19 and 16 and live with us here in middle Missouri. They attend a small junior college where they are the only brown faces in the student body.

On the morning of Sept. 12, they gathered on our bed -- something they haven’t done for years -- and we read the headlines together. I broached the subject of what is now widely known as “profiling” and asked them if they had thought about what they would do if their classmates were suspicious of them. Sixteen is pretty Mayan-looking, too, but Nineteen could be from the Middle East. And here, “brown” is just foreign, and to some folks, foreign is bad.

“We’ve already talked about that, Mom.”

I told them I wouldn’t want them to treat the suggestion that they might be from Iraq or Afghanistan as if it were an insult. If they were Arabs, they would be lovely Arabs, as most Arabs are.

It hasn’t been too bad. Nineteen has endured some kidding, asked if he has a bomb in his backpack. He has adopted a sardonic response that includes something like, “Get a geography lesson -- I’m from Guatemala -- that’s in Central America, if you don’t know.”

But it makes a mom think.

Profiling is nothing new. I do it all the time. In my old urban neighborhood, if I was walking down the street alone I was much more likely to be cautious if an African-American man approached than if an elderly white woman did so. An elderly white woman could do a lot of damage with a handgun, but I was more alert around African-American men. Racist? I guess. But a child of my experience.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want African-American folks in my neighborhood and, in fact, now living in all-white rural Missouri (and, no, we didn’t move here to get a way from “them”), I sometimes have to hit the city just to get a diversity fix.

I profile out here, too. For a long time I treated stay-at-home women as perhaps a little less than educated. Or folks with slight, drawlish accents as though they wouldn’t think too deeply about substantial matters. I learned. I’m still learning.

Some profiling is legal, too, and we take it for granted. Take a look at our car insurance bills. Two male drivers under 25 make quite a dent in the old wallet. Married is safer than single. Life insurance is cheaper for older women than older men. Just statistics, you might say, but what else is profiling? Most teenage boys don’t have wrecks. Most African-American men wouldn’t think of bothering me on the street. And most Middle Eastern folks wouldn’t dream of being a terrorist.

I don’t know what the answer is. I’m glad I live in a country where discrimination -- most discrimination -- is illegal. I wonder if the best thing isn’t full disclosure by everyone. When I fly next time, I want to see the contents of the Middle-Eastern guy’s suitcase -- and the suitcases of everybody else.

Reminds me of our grade school children. One little girl, Shannon, has cancer, and after chemotherapy, she lost her hair and wears hats. The kids started selling “Shannon hats” -- yellow ones with smiley faces -- and they all wear them. Kind of a solidarity thing.

Perhaps in solidarity with good people of every race and nation we should show we have nothing to hide -- in our suitcases or in our lives.

But of course, then we have to live that way, with nothing to hide. And maybe that’s the best way to live. It won’t guarantee us safety. But it might keep us honest.

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri. Her e-mail address is pbs@fidnet.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001