Earlier this week a co-worker told me that I should be “glad” that the young man, whom we’ll refer to as “The Saudi Marathon Man,” was racially profiled by the Boston police and the federal authorities. He told me that racial profiles and stereotypes were borne of “statistics” – that if we were to “look at the numbers,” the odds were high that the perpetrator(s) of the attacks at the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon were “one of those types.”
“Tell me that again the next time I’m at the airport,” I told him.
“You should be proud to be racially profiled. It’s the only thing that keeps us safe in this country.”
I then asked him if he had ever been the victim of racial profiling, and he – a white man – recounted a story in which he was the victim of “discrimination.” It was 1978, and he was lost, driving in a “bad neighborhood” in Jersey City with his future wife, when he was stopped by police who had mistook him for a drug-dealer. That’s it. No detention. No interrogation. He was pulled over and subsequently let go, and yet this story clearly still bothers him, even 35 years later.
I could understand his frustration, after all, this sort of thing has happened to me before, but the only thing I could think of responding with was, “Now imagine if that happened to you all the time.”
Since 9/11 we’ve all been trained in the practice of “If you see something, say something.” In other words: if you see something suspicious, alert the authorities. But what if you are consistently that something suspicious? What if it’s your friend, or your roommate, or your brother or sister? Are we supposed to be “proud” to live in a xenophobic nation which discriminates against its citizens based on skin color? Are we supposed to be “proud” of our public humiliation at baseball games and concerts and train stations?
Is this the tax millions of Americans are forced to pay for looking superficially different or believing in an alternate divine being?
In today’s society, white privilege it isn’t just about access and wealth and opportunity, it isn’t just about being able to do whatever the fuck it is you want to do, it’s about specific freedoms which white Americans are afforded that others are not: the freedom from persecution and the freedom from discrimination. In a nation in which the government – and the media – practices in the otherization of so-called “minority” races, white Americans are free to live without the fear of being considered a criminal because a suspect shares their skin-tone.
That our first instinct following an attack is to hope and pray that it wasn’t someone who looks like us – and that yours isn’t – says all you need to know about how we are each perceived within our own country.
The difference between White America and Brown America is that, in White America, you fear terrorism because you fear death; in Brown America, we fear terrorism because we fear being considered a terrorist. We fear being detained for hours/days/weeks/years without cause. We fear hate and vitriol toward our people and our religions. We fear attacks on our houses of worship. We fear being pushed onto subway tracks. We fear hellfire raining on our towns and villages in Pakistan and Yemen. We fear Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, and Michele Bachmann, and Matt Drudge and the Ghost of Andrew Breitbart.
The difference between White America and Brown America is that we fear all of them, but we don’t fear you. We know that you don’t hate Muslims. We know that you don’t indiscriminately hate people with dark skin. We know that, when Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols or Ted Kaczynski or James Holmes or Adam Lanza murder innocent Americans, or when the Westboro Baptist Church burns the Qur’an, we shouldn’t view all whites, or all Christians, with suspicion. We know that Mississippi shouldn’t be “turned into a parking lot.” We know and understand that a few loud and crazy people are not indicative of an entire race or religion.
Whatever our faith, whatever our race, we all follow the same ethical code: do unto others… And, yet, somehow, throughout American history – slavery, the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, the Patriot Act – we’ve seen this Golden Rule be disregarded entirely when it could benefit the racial hegemony of white Americans.
The difference between White America and Brown America, then, is that, in White America, rules don’t apply.