Commentary: Everyone discriminates occasionally

Years ago, feeling particularly brave, I allowed one of my teenage sons to travel cross-county on public transportation -- an adventure that involved two buses, a train and faith in a system he, a child of suburban sprawl, had never used. When I warned him about the occasional thug he might meet, he looked at me in disbelief.

``Mom,'' he said, ``you're describing me. I'm the one old people cross the street to get away from.''

Suddenly I saw him in a new light. Not as my baby. Not as the math whiz whose chemistry teacher insisted he pursue a career in science. But as someone else's boogeyman. Darkly tanned, wearing a wife-beater over baggy jeans and heavily muscled from years of off-season football weight training, he could be the proverbial book judged by its cover.

I thought of this exchange when National Public Radio canned commentator Juan Williams for telling Bill O'Reilly that he got nervous when he saw people in Muslim garb on airplanes. Whether we admit it, Williams voiced what many have whispered privately. Prejudice is a little dark secret, and all of us, in our own convoluted ways, discriminate.

If we don't talk about this honestly and openly, however, how are we ever going to come to terms with feelings that are embarrassingly human -- irrationalities that can, and should, be overcome?

Williams is the latest journalist to get fired for expressing his private prejudices. Rick Sanchez got sacked from CNN when he suggested that Jews controlled the national media. UPI's veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas was axed for saying Jews should ``get the hell out of Palestine.''

Too bad. These firings rob us of a valuable teaching moment.

Yet, even as these public figures make their prejudices plain, I'm comforted by the next generation. Sure, intolerance exists among the younger set -- proof is the unspeakable bullying of gay students -- but my children and their peers have grown up in a society that is more religiously and racially diverse than mine ever was. And thank goodness for that. Perhaps the teaching is in reverse.

I tease my 19-year-old son that his friends might make a good United Colors of Benetton ad. His roommates' parents come from Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the good old U.S.A., but these boys have become men together over such quintessential American rituals as Sunday afternoon football and college applications. That may be why he's so oblivious to how big a deal this is for me, raised in a neighborhood where everyone looked, spoke and worshipped the same.

No doubt, experiences and exposure change us. I, a pork-eating, Nochebuena-celebrating woman, married a Jew whose family keeps kosher and years ago attended the mosque wedding of a niece who converted to Islam. Loving people who are so different has broadened my perspective and made me particularly sensitive to slurs against them.

There is nothing like trading recipes, organizing a carpool, sharing details of the quotidian to chip away at bigotry. Nothing like caring for a person of a different persuasion to destroy discrimination. It requires extra effort to hate an entire group if you've exchanged lunch-box goodies with one of its members or played soccer with a kid whose mother wears a headscarf.

Call me idealistic. Call me a Pollyanna. But I want my dark-skinned, baggy-panted son measured on his merits. So, Mr. Juan Williams -- and the rest of us who have judged others by what they wear and how they look -- remember that not a single 9/11 terrorist wore Muslim garb to commit murder.