I grew up on white bread. My favorite sandwich was called a “round chicken.” It was white breast meat with white mayonnaise on white bread cut in circles. No crust, not a speck brown. Even the iceberg lettuce was white. The bread was so soft that it held the impression of your fingers when you put it down between bites. Most often it was Shorty who served me those sandwiches. He was a black waiter at the club. I could see he was black, but I hardly thought about it. He was a nice guy. I was thirteen.
That was it in my hometown: white and black. Mostly the blacks waited on the whites. I didn’t know any Jews, or if I did I didn’t know it. Mexicans were good-natured movie sidekicks, Pancho to the Cisco Kid. All I knew about China was what I read in The Good Earth.
Gradually, my horizons expanded. I met Hispanic people in Los Angeles when I lived there. They were nice. They were gardeners and nannies, serving me like Shorty had, but I was different by then. I was no longer thirteen and thinking only of myself, and I began to see that if you spend enough time with someone, you get to know the person behind the role. You learn their joys and hardships, their politics and religion, and you come to realize that they are more like you than different.
I live in Palo Alto now, where many of my kids’ friends and a fair number of mine are Asian. They aren’t serving me, they are inventing the future. If anything, with my obsolete low-tech skills, I should be serving them. They are nice to me anyway. When I’m out of the room, I don’t think they make jokes about how clueless I am.
Over all these years, as I have moved deeper and deeper into the polyglot of humanity, one thing that stands out is that if you get to know people they’re almost always nice to you. And you to them. Friendliness and respect are like benevolent viruses passed along by close personal contact.
One of the problems we’re having now—and a reason for Donald Trump’s ugly success—is that many of us don’t know the people we are being told to fear. Take Muslims, for example. To a Westerner, Islam can seem like an exotic, dark religion. Often the women are forced to cover themselves. The young men are told they get virgins in heaven if they martyr themselves by killing infidels. The Koran is not widely understood and (like the Bible) is frequently misused.
I’m not sure what we do about all that. Have “Take a Muslim to Lunch” days? Are there even enough Muslims to go around in Kansas? Or will we just end up with a few fat Muslims?
The other approach, the one Trump wants to frighten us into, is to keep them as far away from us as possible. That will work for a little while, in some parts of the country. But obviously not forever.
The world’s population is growing, and migrating. Like it or not, we are on a collision course with diversity. Our choice is to try to understand and steer carefully through the change, or to try to run over it. If you think of us as something like the Titanic in a sea of icebergs, it’s pretty obvious which course is wisest.