One of my favourite standup comedians is a guy called Hari Kondabolu. He talks about race from a non black/white standpoint, and does so in a way that is consistently hilarious. Yesterday, he Tweeted this:
I thought this was a particularly sad commentary on reality for many Asian Americans, forced to pay the price for the ignorance of the violent reactionaries among their countrymen. Hari, born in New York, has Indian ancestry, which would (in an even slightly less-insane world) preclude him from being suspected for a crime – a crime whose author we don’t know. However, because those who would reflexively blame “Muslims” for pretty much everything aren’t going to spend a whole lot of time studying the history of India, or devote too many brain cells to the parsing of the likelihood of a random person with brown skin being actually connected to anything unsavoury, Hari’s caution is warranted.
Especially in the wake of how even people who are supposed to be responsible adults are behaving:
With security anxieties heightened following the deadly bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon Monday, two flights at Logan International Airport were disrupted Tuesday morning, one due to concerns about two passengers onboard and another due to a suspicious bag.
A United Airlines flight that was about to take off for Chicago was brought back to the gate after passengers expressed concern over two people speaking a foreign language, according to aviation authorities. Passengers and bags were taken off the plane and rescreened, and two people were rebooked on a later flight. The aircraft was then “swept and cleared for takeoff,” according to United Airlines spokeswoman Christen David.
Breathe deep and say it with me, folks: English is a foreign language in America.
Other outlets are reporting that the passengers specifically feared that the two men, who weren’t even sitting next to each other, were speaking Arabic. Unless they were linguists or Arab speakers themselves, my cup of confidence in their ability to correctly distinguish Arabic from Urdu, Farsi, Tagalog, Bengali, or Sḵwx̱wú7mes for that matter, is far from overflowing. And even if it was Arabic, the correct response was for the flight crew to say “this is America, and speaking a language isn’t a crime”. Instead, they subjected the two passengers to the humiliation and stigma of having the entire flight re-screened (re-screened! For speaking!). Let’s hope they didn’t have to catch a connecting flight somewhere.
Hari’s tweet put me in mind of this film I saw a while back:
It depicts a (fictionalized?) story of a young man of Afghan descent whose car is vandalized by anonymous racist bullies who spraypaint ‘Go Home Arab’ on it (omitting, I suppose, the fact that Afghans aren’t Arabs). He and his friend joke about the myriad ways they could turn it into an interesting film project, but interspersed between their humorous reactions are shots of the real pain associated with being attacked for a crime based on nothing more than the land of your ancestor’s birth. That pain is real, and even if my own experiences with it are (thankfully) few, it is one that I can understand viscerally.
Finally, Glenn Greenwald says everything I said this morning, but more, and better:
One continually encountered yesterday expressions of dread and fear from Arabs and Muslims around the world that the attacker would be either or both. That’s because they know that all members of their religious or ethnic group will be blamed, or worse, if that turns out to be the case. That’s true even though leading Muslim-American groups such as CAIR harshly condemned the attack (as they always do) and urged support for the victims, including blood donations. One tweeter, referencing the earthquake that hit Iran this morning, satirized this collective mindset by writing: “Please don’t be a Muslim plate tectonic activity.”
As understandable as it is, that’s just sad to witness. No other group reacts with that level of fear to these kinds of incidents, because no other group has similar cause to fear that they will all be hated or targeted for the acts of isolated, unrepresentative individuals. A similar dynamic has long prevailed in the domestic crime context: when the perpetrators of notorious crimes turned out to be African-American, the entire community usually paid a collective price. But the unique and well-grounded dread that hundreds of millions of law-abiding, peaceful Muslims and Arabs around the world have about the prospect that this attack in Boston was perpetrated by a Muslim highlights the climate of fear that has been created for and imposed on them over the last decade.
This is a good point to keep in mind as we have our own internal conversations about Islamophobia within the atheist community. Although it is often derisively framed as such (by both critics and the criticized) as being about “the feelings of Muslims”, Islamophobia has real, and sometimes violent, consequences for people – many of whom are not even Muslim. People invoking the bromides of “you don’t have the right to not be offended” seem to omit these consequences from their self-defence, or at least pay them mere lip service.
Our collective failure to come to terms with our contemporary racism, built as it is on the strong foundation of our racist history, means that we will be collectively incapable of reacting appropriately to situations like this. Sadly, the brunt of our failure will be borne by those who, paradoxically, know the most about the issue by dint of the fact that they’re being forcibly educated by the ignorance of those around them.
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