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Melanin Won’t Melt

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July 2003
Melanin Won’t Melt

By NILA SAGADEVAN

"Well, whadya know! We got a white-lookin' nigger flyin' this plane." I heard one of my passengers remark, sotto voce. I was a commercial pilot on Alaska's North Slope flying roughnecks and supplies to oilfields strewn across a frigid, featureless hell. An aristocrat from the "deep south" (temporarily pressed into menial service as a welder) had caught a glimpse of me through the cockpit door and apprised his comrades of his learned assessment.

We were about to taxi on this treacherous, icy strip when my copilot?a Canadian chum who overheard the gibe?gave me one of those "let's teach the bastards a lesson" grins and pulled the power levers back to cut-off. The outside temp was around -40C. My friend and I stepped out of the fourteen-passenger, twin-engine aircraft and into our warm-as-toast Suburban transport. We kicked back, sipped coffee and waited for the fun to begin. I found the whole business mildly humorous.

At 40 below, the temperature inside an airplane?especially one with its doors agape?plummets once the engines spool down. The good ol' boys inside had no warm sanctuary in which to escape; the vehicle that dropped them off was long gone. As expected, apologies from the partially frozen, parka-clad genealogist were swift in coming, and we were all soon on our way. [Incidentally, the chap who made that jibe and I became good friends. A successful catfish farmer in his own right, years later he invited me to a barbeque at his Arkansas home.]

After three decades in this country as an immigrant from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), I recount only this one overt act of racial indecorousness directed at me. So what's the point in regurgitating this ripple of unpleasantness buried in what is otherwise a span of rich, positive experiences?

A few kids in school have begun to taunt my 12-year-old son as an "Iraqi terrorist."

And I am mad.

Some may dismiss the slur as innocuous childish horseplay. I see it as symptomatic of a deep-rooted societal problem. These children's behavior bespeaks an upbringing by careless?perhaps clueless?parents. These racial barbs are brutally hurtful, not only to the child at whom it's directed, but to his loved ones as well. And I find my son's anguish all the more heart-wrenching because he's such a kind, friendly boy who strives to be his best (he's the only straight-A student in his class and the winner of twenty-eight tournament chess trophies, if you'll pardon the preening.) He is understandably hurt and confused. And I, not just as a father, but also as a human being, commiserate with him over his shredded little heart.

This bit of ugliness in the life of a beautiful child leads me to ruminate upon my own race-related experiences since arriving in the U.S. from Britain. It quietly began to percolate to the surface: while the isolated Alaskan incident may have been the only overt act of rudeness directed at me, countless covert, unspoken bits of subtle behavioral actions pepper the course of my life in this country. A series of subliminal tremors, these annoyances?I treat them as nothing more?assume a spectrum of hues as broad as life itself. Interestingly, these subtle discourtesies seem to vanish the moment I speak. My dulled British accent never fails to elicit a look of bewilderment. I frequently spy expressions varying from mild surprise ("this chap appears to be educated"), to downright disbelief ("who is this Indian sumbitch?").

Decades of exposure to these disharmonious undertones have not desensitized me as much as made me impervious to their prejudicial tenor. At a subconscious level, these episodes bear the flavor of some medieval ritual of acceptance?a bizarre rite of passage for laying claim to my status as an equal human being.

These bits of theater unfold just about anywhere. Standing in a queue at the local supermarket, for instance. The crusty old codger behind the counter is effusive with his cheery greetings and courteous platitudes to the string of WASPs ahead of me. But when yours truly reaches the hallowed master of customer etiquette, the only sound shattering the silence is the clanging of the cash register, followed by a dour, militaristic demand for money. Not even a half-swallowed "please" trails off as an offering of redemption.

Of a sudden, there's no smiley, "Good morning!". No spirited, "How're you today?" No courteous, "Find everything okay?" Just icy silence. He does maintain eye-contact of course, just not with me. A well-stocked shelf might well be the excited beneficiary of his lofty gaze.

But I seize upon every such occasion as a challenge. Cheerfully handing him the money, I explode with exuberance: "How's it going, mate? Having a splendid day, are you?" I may flank attack the hapless bag-boy for good measure: "Paper, please; I am ecologically sensitive". The commander's eyes dart about in flickers of shock, frantically searching for the source of the eloquence. It couldn't possibly be this Indian ex-goatherd standing before him; that would be absurd. Once he mentally connects the dots between brown skin and silver tongue, the poor devil comes alive with verve and vigor to surpass his earlier virtuoso performances.

This sort of thing happens more often than I care to recall.

A semblance of parity now having been established at the basic human level, a deeper appraisal begins. This usually ratchets the drama up a notch. "He's probably an engineer," they conjecture with a wary eye; "A doctor, perhaps. No matter?he's a foreigner." At this point the nice ones begin to tread gingerly with their words, eyeing me with a wisp of quaint curiosity. Whatever vestige of intelligence I've demonstrated is now somehow counterweighed by the assumption that I couldn't possibly know much outside my ethnic mise en scene.

They reflexively deduce I'm unlikely to be as conversationally savvy as a typical (read WASP) American. Polite small talk may prove tenable, but the cultural divide is deemed too wide to bridge. They assumed that nuance, inflection and vernacular would plunge hopelessly into the abyss. There's sometimes an inordinate concern for my sensitivities ("These chaps worship cows, better watch what I say.") Profanities are sucked back in midair, leaving my cherished Alaskan lexicon unexercised. Conversational topics face deep pre-analysis to ensure they adapt to my obvious limitations. Banter and jocular repartee are sidelined, as they'd only fly over my head.

For instance, when I take my car in for service, the adviser glibly swipes me with his mental barcode scanner and concludes I wouldn't know a driveline from a differential and drifts into tortuous diatribes. The plumber sympathetically grasps for a synonym for "gooseneck" (fearing I might panic thinking there's a bird stuck in my sink?). A request for a Single Malt by name and year transforms the bartender's quizzical squint into a smile of kinship and relief. Firearms, a passionate hobby, are best avoided altogether; even regulars at the firing range (battle-hardened armchair warriors all) assume this fakir wouldn't know a Mauser from a mousetrap.

Mind you, I handle all of this with great fragility and care. Responding to these stereotypical assumptions remains quite frustrating because they never seem to be directed at WASPs. Leaping across this cultural divide after all these years remains a rather tedious affair. Life sometimes seems one endless, arduous pursuit of that immigrant's utopia: a swirling, vibrant homogeneity of peoples?a cultural invisibility, if you like. I'm afraid this utopia is likely to take a few more generations to achieve.

At any rate, I am aware things could be worse.

I discovered early all "coloreds" are not created equal. There was a clear distinction between being "brown" and being "black." This was never more obvious than during the fifteen years I spent in Alaskan oilfield camps. These coarse, Arctic outposts contained extraordinarily diverse slices of Americana, albeit with very few, if any, blacks. The objects of derision at these dizzy intellectual summits were not "spicks", "gooks" or "ragheads" (my lot), but "spooks", the Negroes. Intelligent as these men were, vulgar "nigger" jokes were as common as reaching across the table for the ketchup. The darkness of my own skin, strangely, was irrelevant to these fellows. As repugnant as I found the barbs directed at blacks, I had little choice but to reluctantly observe this low living, and quietly ponder just how many of these bigots must go unnoticed on the streets of America.

A great melting pot this country may be, but melanin, alas, seems not to melt so easily.

Ironically though, personally, I find Americans also among the friendliest, most hospitable people on earth. While hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles (fresh from college in Scotland), complete strangers?WASPs from the heartland?not only picked me up but also heartily invited me into their homes. I stayed with a couple in Ohio for three weeks, during which time they introduced me to their circle of friends, who in turn invited me to meals, picnics, church functions. No immigrant could have dreamt of a warmer, more lavish welcome to this lovely country.

So then, what causes ol' Billie Bob and Joe Sixpack to cast that subtle look of contempt whenever a dark-skinned "furriner" crosses their path? It's ignorance of the outside world. Bound by oceans on two sides, a well-dyked sea of "wetbacks" on a third, and a barren Pole on top (Canada is just a friendly extension of American cultural real estate), America is not moved to understand the great cultures of the rest of the foreign-speaking, cheese-nibbling, wine-sipping, sausage-eating lot?even if they happen to be card-carrying WASPs (and even if our dominant genes point directly to them).

Too many Americans continue to see Asian immigrants as desperate refugees seeking the "good life" only America has to offer.

To illustrate my point, let's say my forebears from Asia settled in the U.S. two centuries ago. Would I even today be embraced, at face value, as a bona fide American patriot? Fat chance. Now let's take Mr. Murphy who climbed off the boat from Dublin last evening. Would he make the grade? By nightfall. (No offense to Murphy, of course.)

Until this double standard dissolves, "of the people, by the people and for the people" shall remain a lopsided dream. For this noble vision to become a pulsing human reality, it is imperative "the people" be defined. There is no nobler definition than that enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

We are all "The People."

We are either a nation of immigrants or we are not. Neither tenure nor color is a yardstick of allegiance. Indeed, many white "all-American" terrorists from the heartland have all too vividly demonstrated the falsity of these myths.

Renunciation of things "foreign" and a fixation on the superficial is not foolish, it is ultimately futile. Such bigotry serves but one end: it usurps a false sense of superiority in order to feed the latent insecurities and inadequacies found only in small people.

Such thinking cannot possibly prove fruitful in a new century.

I bore the nickname "Yank" in Scotland before I ever set foot on American soil; so naked was my pro-American fervor. I could deliver a flawless rendition of the Gettysburg Address when I was twelve. While growing up, to me Lincoln was next to God.

I am a naturalized U.S. citizen. My son is a citizen by birth. We are proud to be Americans. I have only this to say to those of my fellow citizens who disdain our presence in this country and would rather see us go "back home:"

We are home.


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