Earlier in the day, I got a comment on social media from a friend about Reflections on Patriotism. He pointed to an a study called The Perception Gap which shows how far we are from understanding each other. There’s charts on what Democrats believe Republicans think about specific topics and how far they’re off, the flip side of that, and some trends tied to education, etc. That spurred some thoughts, but I’ve written about it before in What Color is the Sky on Your Planet. It brought me back to this sketch and a time I had a perception gap with a stranger. The time I was called a racist.
I travel quite a bit for work and travel has its own dynamics. It can be easy or challenging and people have varying degrees of experience. There’s security, big airports to navigate, lines with unfamiliar terms if you don’t know what’s what. Also, the flight crew isn’t just there to distribute snacks, they’re there to maintain safety and have regulations to follow. People are often helpful, but they can be stressed and irritated or just plain want to be left alone. I’m saying all this to set the stage, because context matters.
A few years ago, I was on a crowded flight which was delayed. As I was sitting in the packed gate area, I noticed a group of younger high school age girls who were clearly together on a trip. They had matching t-shirts on and while they were goofing off a bit, they were a bunch of friends who were pretty well-behaved. Oh, and they were speaking Spanish. Eventually we all board the plane, have some more delays, and land without incident. We’re still late and the plane’s got this rushed buzz of travelers who have close connections. We had to stop on the tarmac because of the volume of planes on the ground and this is where things go wonky. The girls got up.
If you’re used to air travel, you know that the plane isn’t allowed to move with passengers walking around for safety reasons. Passengers must remain seated with their seatbelts fastened is an FAA thing. The flight attendants said it a few times, but the girls moved on to open the overhead bins like we were at the gate. We were told if they didn’t sit down then we’d miss our window to taxi to the gate making passengers miss their connections. Folks got restless and from my middle seat, I said someone clearly needs to tell the girls in Spanish. The lady to my left gave me a nod, the older gentleman to my right said “You, sir, are a racist.” It was years ago and I still remember it.
No amount of discussion or explanation on my part made any difference to him. I’ve obviously written this from my perspective. I recall feeling happy to see the group having fun earlier and they weren’t misbehaving in the slightest. They simply didn’t know what to do and weren’t having information conveyed to them. My statement was factual, was the resolution to the problem, and I don’t think I even said it with an aggressive tone. I certainly didn’t think I was being racist, that guy didn’t know me and what was in my heart.
The thing is, I didn’t know him either. I didn’t know his background, where he was from, what he’d experienced in life, or what had been said to him over the years. I don’t know if he understood the whole fasten your seatbelts thing himself, if he flew often, or even if he understood English well. Eventually, they sat down, we got to the gate, and people rushed off. It left me a bit angry, because I knew my intent, and frustrated because we’d had this impasse and he left thinking he’d sat next to a racist. The truth was somewhere in the middle. My intent and his perception didn’t ever meet.
Are there times when the term “racist” is thrown out improperly? I’m sure there are. I don’t know that this is one of them, though. Perception matters. He could have legitimately had terrible racist experiences which framed his mindset. His ability to understand my explanation might not have been good enough. The situation made it impossible to resolve, but getting pissed off at a man I don’t know wouldn’t get me anywhere. A word I say to someone without malice means something different based on how what’s what they’ve experienced. That perception gap is a real thing and we all form our own in some way.
If we’re being honest with each other, that’s where truth’s got to be. Look for intent, consider life story, ask a question. Beat the perception gap with some work. There’s misunderstanding, misperception, filters we look through, and all kinds of advantages and systemic issues which people face each day. And there’s real racism. Real honestly intended “Send her back”, “We’re fine if our guy says the country is a disaster, but they’d better not” , “We’re patriots and you hate this country” racism. We need to get past the mistakes, understand WHY they’re made, HOW they’re wrong, and improve. And we damn sure shouldn’t stand for the other.