The surreal cone of jet lag burred my thinking as I landed at Charlotte Douglas Airport on a spring day in 2012. Flying from Ireland to JFK and then straight on to Charlotte had compressed time and place.
I blinked as I stepped into the bright Southern sunlight to board the shuttle to my rental car. Who said you can’t go home again? I can. I return often to the state to which my ancestors fled from Ireland in the early 1700s. After living in Connecticut for 20 years, in my mind, I’m still in Carolina.
Oddly, the same group of British people who had flown with me from Dublin now waited on the curb in Charlotte, encumbered with golf clubs and luggage. We climbed into shuttle for the short trip to the rental car agency, helped on by a middle-aged white driver, who chatted us up.
Then two men, who looked as if they might be from the Middle East, came to the shuttle doors and asked the driver for directions. He responded politely, pointed in the other direction, shut the vehicle doors, and turned to face us.
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In a loud voice, channeling that beloved character of my youth, Gomer Pyle, the driver exclaimed: “Golly-eee, that was scary! Whew-eee, those guys looked like terrorists!”
The Brits looked at him stricken, wide-eyed, and no one moved.
I’m a middle-aged white woman, hardly a commanding figure, so it was a surprise when I heard another loud voice, one that I identified as mine, speaking as if from far away, “I can’t believe you said that! These people are from England. What are they going to think of us, you racist?”
No one said another word during the five-minute trip.
On Wednesday, the news came that a white man, a concealed carry enthusiast like some of my family members in North Carolina, had murdered three Muslim students in Chapel Hill.
It’s been over a century since white North Carolinians murdered scores of black North Carolinians in a racial massacre on the streets of Wilmington. It’s been over a half-century since I grew up in segregated Greensboro and watched tough teenage white boys spit on sit-in demonstrators as they came out of Woolworths.
But it’s been less than five years since I heard that shuttle driver conflate the racist stereotypes of the past and rain them down upon a couple of guys who came up to ask directions.
The state has authorized people to wear guns strapped onto their hips just like it was 1898. Authorities removed at least twelve loaded weapons from Hicks’s home.
If Hicks had been a Muslim, the press would have immediately branded him a terrorist, which of course he is. Would Craig Stephen Hicks have shot me, a white woman old enough to be his mother, over a parking dispute at our apartment complex? I think not.
And so we ride a shuttle, forever looping around, spotting people who aren’t us, people who are “scary,” and we make them our targets.
Gilmore, a former Queens University professor, teaches history at Yale University.