The following is an abbreviated version of a longer essay.
We have five chickens. We wanted some variety so, after poring over the mail-order catalogue, we decided to order three red and two black. Not quite Benetton ad diversity, but a little something to break up the monotony.
Red and Black Stars are hybrid birds, known as sex-links. This does not mean that they’re into kinky fuckery. I thought that was misleading, too, and was mildly disappointed upon learning that chickens are really pretty vanilla no matter what the breed. Sex-links are birds that can be sexed based on their color. Again, this turn of phrase is a let-down. “Sexing” is the high art of looking between a chick’s legs and declaring it a boy or girl. There are people who have this as a career. They’re called Chicken Sexers. While this surely isn’t the best job in the world, it must be the most fun job title ever created. I wonder what the response is when, while making small talk, someone responds to the “what do you do?” question with, “I’m a Chicken Sexer.” Do people take the leap of faith that is asking what a Chicken Sexer is? Or do they say, “Ah. That sounds… interesting,” and hope for a quick, humane end to the conversation? Maybe they suddenly notice their wife or friend or stalker needs their help with something. I bet at least some lean in close and say, “Do you have any plans later?”
It’s hard to tell what came first… Did we start referring to the chickens, who we call “the girls”, by color right away, out of a subconscious need to categorize and label? Or did the divide in the girls come first? It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum underlying an indisputable reality.
“Did you notice?” I asked Nick. “The girls are totally racist.”
“Shhhh!” he said. We were outside; he didn’t want the neighbors to hear. So far it was a pretty benign conversation but like most white people he’d rather avoid any talk of race relations out in public, not sure where the line is between “That’s a smart observation,” and “That’s offensive! How dare you?” This is the same guy who kindly requested that I stop referring to a trowel as a “digger,” just in case someone might mishear me and think I was referring offensively to my gardening tool. He works hard to be sensitive, because he’s a people person.
I am a socially awkward introvert. My head’s not on quite right when it comes to most things. “But I hate the word ‘trowel’.” I argued. “It makes me think of ‘drop trou,’ which reminds me of the scary masturbating guy who climbed on the hood of the car and pointed his giant erection at me when I was picking you up from work that one day. I think I have post-traumatic stress from that. Gardening is supposed to be a stress reliever. Do you really want me to have a nervous breakdown every time I plant a tomato? Because I don’t think the plants will like that very much.”
Nick considered this carefully. “Was it really giant?” he asked,
“Huge. For real.”
About a week later, Nick said (in the safety of our kitchen), “You know, I see what you mean about the girls.” Even the kids were noticing. “How come they don’t mix up more?” Isabel asked. “The red ones stay with the red ones and the black ones stay with the black ones. They should get to know each other better! They’re all really nice.”
I agreed, and wondered, why did they do that? I Googled and learned that it was common. Backyard chicken keepers everywhere were going to message boards to ask, always with a hint of embarrassment and shame, if anyone else noticed that their chickens socialized based on color. After all, if our chickens were racist, what did that say about us? Had we raised them wrong? Were we setting a bad example? Did we not have enough black friends? If we did have enough black friends, were we short on Hispanic or Asian friends?
It’s a silent epidemic: all across America, racist chickens are proliferating while their horrified owners wring their hands in despair and cry, “But my best friend is black!”
We have the great fortune of living in a racially diverse neighborhood, in which I act in equally bizarre and awkward ways with our neighbors of all skin colors. “I don’t think they’re sheltered or ignorant,” I observed of our chickens. It was a mystery. Why were our chickens racist? I sat outside one day and read aloud the story of Rosa Parks, hoping for a breakthrough, but when I was finished I found that the red hens were chasing each other over a piece of tin foil and the black ones were off in a separate area, furiously trying to escape the garden by jamming their heads repeatedly against the chicken wire. “You girls disappoint me,” I said in disgust.
Now I knew for certain that we weren’t responsible for our chickens’ behavior. They were just assholes.
“I think the girls are rebelling,” I told Nick. “They’re going rogue, pulling an Alex P. Keaton. I bet they’d vote Bush if they could, just to spite us.”
He didn’t respond. I think because he was so struck by the profound truth of my statement. Chickens will always vote Bush, just like they’ll always think their fat bodies will eventually fit through the chicken wire, because they get confused between Bush the person and bush the plant, and chickens are stupid.