Five hours in the Detroit airport. Knowing some people have to spend five decades here is no comfort.
After we claim seats at the gate for a flight to San Diego, my wife goes to the shops. Who would buy a $3 candy bar or a $20 T-shirt? Well, I guess it’s something to do. Boredom comes at a price.
I look across the aisle to see a smartly dressed, black woman with a stuffed briefcase reading a book.
“Good book?” Inane, but my brain is glazed over.
She looks up and responds; a friendly, eye-contact person with a big smile.
Yes! A conversation.
Elyce C. Morris, San Diego corporate lawyer, I’m pleased to meet you.
I’m bad at cocktail-party talk, which is aimless chatter intended to display panache at praising the chablis. Elyce, I’m delighted to say, is also happy to ignore the Chargers’ prospects and last week’s episode of “Downton Abbey.” She doesn’t fear ideas.
Elyce is the daughter of a successful San Diego couple, and is a woman who has studied abroad and earned prestigious degrees all down the line. But I don’t need to hear another USC alum hum “Fight on.” I’m interested in her take on this zoo in which we all are caged.
She tells me, “I grew up in University City; enjoyed the outdoors, played tennis, swam, did all the things you do in San Diego. I lived for a time with a family in France to study my French. The only thing worse than physics is physics taught in French.”
(I love to pick smart brains, although dumb ones have their own charm.)
Elyce, say what you will of this society, it’ll fill your heart before it breaks it.
“Well, we have great strength when we work together. (Historically) I can look back on moments when our unity was more important than our differences. Right now, I don’t know what unifies us, and that troubles me.
“Our aspirational documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, give us these wonderful goals which are a bit risky, because they require a balance between the rights of the individual and of the state. Maintaining that is hard work and creates tension, because autocracy or anarchy can, to some, seem good alternatives.”
(Did I say she’s a lawyer?)
So, Elyce, give me your take on this: An official phrase of the country is “e pluribus unum” — out of many, one. To me, the words “diversity” and “multicultural,” in some uses, have been twisted to mean that people should be separated into groups — tribalism almost.
She nods. “Uh-huh. Instead of community, it’s: This is my club. This is my clan. I sit in one corner and you sit in another, and we stare at each other.
“That’s what’s frightening about both (political) extremes. So much hostility ignores the fact that we’re neighbors. To me, if you’re an American, you’re my neighbor.”
Because our president encourages us to talk about race, I jump into the subject. She follows, but with less enthusiasm. However, this has morphed from a chat to an interview. Questions? Brace yourself, Elyce.
Why are people reluctant to discuss race?
“For those who are, my opinion is that, for my parents’ generation, the memories might be too painful. They might not want to discuss those experiences from the past. For me, and those younger, I suspect we’re more interested in other things. Race is not that much of a problem, at least not in our part of the country,” she says.
I’m told that many Africans, and especially Caribbean blacks, come to this country and have tension with American blacks. Have you heard that?
“I have observed it. It’s interesting that you’re (aware of) that. It’s one of the reasons why people have different opinions about African-American versus black. I tend to use black because, for me, that’s a tag that’s uniquely American, that links me to being the descendant of black slaves.
“(For) someone from the Caribbean or from Africa who does not have roots in the U.S., the cultural assumptions are different. When I think of myself as a black American, I don’t think of that as including someone from Barbados or Senegal,” she says.
Another question-point: I make a distinction between prejudice and discrimination. Public-facility discrimination is illegal. However, prejudice is an individual judgment. I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen black people look at me with dislike. But I can deal with that.
“Prejudice is the natural outgrowth of a humanity that has to look around and figure out, ‘What’s dangerous to me? What’s not? What will harm me? What won’t?’ Positive familiarity erases that.”
I say, I have a friend who had dreadlocks when he was younger. He said when he walked down the street he’d get wary looks. You know what he did? He’d whistle something from Beethoven, and all of a sudden it was fine.
“That sent a signal: cultured, civilized — not dangerous, whereas, the dreadlocks signaled danger because of a preconceived notion.”
Elyce, I dislike what I call “victim merchants,” such as Al Sharpton and others like him who make a living at that. When he says to a black person, “You’re a victim,” he’s saying to me, “You’re guilty.” Well, I don’t feel guilty.
“If I describe myself as a victim, I believe I am disempowering myself to be a survivor, to be an overcomer, that I’ve been worn down, there’s no hope. I don’t want to label myself, ‘You are weak, broken, damaged.’ I’d rather label myself, ‘You are strong enough to handle anything life throws at you.’”
What if someone sees you only as a black woman, and you see wariness or even dislike?
“My job is to not leave that person in that place. I want to help him or her go somewhere else.”
What is your obligation to your ancestors who were slaves?
“To live my life with joy and fullness because they didn’t have that opportunity. Bad things happened to my ancestors, and a lot of people over the years worked very hard to give me the opportunity to have whatever life I want. I owe it to them to be joyful and to be grateful for so much progress,” Elyce says.
In race relations, some people are afraid of saying the wrong thing.
“Some people assume that if you say something that comes out wrong, that it’s because you have a bad heart. Really, it might just be no one has taken you aside and gently explained things.
“So much of our misunderstandings stems from my assuming that I understand your motives, my assuming that I know who you are.”
(My cellphone rings.)
Oh, I have to take this.
Sorry. OK, I don’t think the typical white person is as prejudiced as some would have us believe.
“I think people are becoming more open-minded with each day. Not everyone, but most. I think education holds the key to everything.”
Boy, did you lawyer that. Can I coax an “agree or disagree” out of you?
“I really feel that way. I really feel that way.”
Can you tell me your age?
“Oh, no! That can’t go in the newspaper.”
Well, we use age to give readers a fuller sense of who you are. Go ahead and fib.
“How about this: Late 30s.”
Is that 39½?
“That’s too old. You’re tricky,” she says with a teasing laugh.
As a William and Mary grad with two USC degrees, do you think some look at you and think, “affirmative action”?
“I hope not, because I’ve worked really hard for what I’ve achieved.”
The PA voice tells us it’s time to board, and we part. Good things can happen to those who wait.
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is [email protected]