The racism problem we hardly acknowledge
Visiting friends in the United States is always a thrilling experience, and there are always new lessons to learn.
As our car drew closer to the magnificent Hoover Dam – one of the spots on our list of must-see places – we straightened our postures, lowered the volume of the radio, and joked briefly about whether the security personnel would be extra-cautious about letting four brown lads in their late twenties enter the premises. Fortunately, no racist horror story was written that day. The security staff at the Hoover Dam was exceptionally friendly, and our apprehension proved to be for nothing.
One might conclude here that racism is a myth. Not quite. Each one of us in the car, in our own way, have been subjected to differential treatment because of our race and national identity at one point or another. The history of what we’ve encountered, is etched in our baseline apprehension; our preparedness in responding to racism. And by ‘respond’, I mean negotiate or submit.
Preparing to leave for the airport a few days later, my Indian friend advised me to get to there earlier than usual. He reasoned that brown people, especially Pakistanis, ought to bear in mind that they’d be subjected to additional screening no matter what. As a veteran traveler, I did not need to be informed of this. But the nonchalant delivery of this factoid, with no hint of humor or levity, struck me.
It struck me, because racial prejudice and discrimination against brown people in much of the Western world has long past the realm of shock and awe. It’s an everyday occurrence that can be marked on the calendar, and prepared for well in advance without any sense of injustice or unfairness in our minds. Like bad weather, getting upset about racism isn’t usually an option; just grab an umbrella and whistle your way through.
In less adaptable quarters, resentment is inevitable. It spills out in often amusing forms: like a frustrated Pakistani calling a ‘gora’ a swear word in his mother-tongue, and telling the English-speaking gora that it simply means “Thank you” in Punjabi.
Yes, it is generally considered rude to talk among ourselves in Urdu while there are non Urdu-speaking people present in the group. But in circumstances where racial minorities feel woefully deprived of sociopolitical power – existing mostly as passive paper-boats floating in a stream of somebody else’s making – any frivolous power-play can be therapeutic.
The recent storm on social media surrounding the removal of famous Youtuber, Adam Saleh, from a Delta flight, is a matter of similar concern.
Adam Saleh was reportedly removed from Delta airlines following passenger complaints, as he talked to his mother on the phone in Arabic. Those denying that Adam Saleh experienced racism, point to his history of ‘making scenes’ on airplanes, and videotaping them for his YouTube channel.
And what ‘scenes’ might those be? Setting the carpet on fire? Harassing fellow passengers? Getting drunk? No, the ‘scenes’ involve them speaking or singing in Arabic, loud enough for passengers in a radius of three or four seats to hear.
This, again, is an obnoxious racial powerplay the equivalent of hurling Punjabi swearwords at non-Punjabi speaking goras. It’s the sort of provocation and ‘scene-making’ that could only work in a racist country, where there’s ubiquitous fear and suspicion of brown people who act “weird”. A social experiment titled, “White People Speak English on a Plane” would hardly elicit a reaction – neither from the passengers, nor the YouTube followers.
The general understanding, even from many South Asian expatriates in America themselves, is that racism can only ever occur to a ‘perfect victim’. All others are merely asking for differential treatment, by not acting white enough and not timidly submitting to inconveniences that most white people would never stand for.
Among the most prominent peddlers of this notion are the more-assimilated-than-thou, ‘white-acting’ Asian expatriates, or aspiring expatriates. The close cousin of what Pakistanis dismissively refer to as ‘burgers’ in home-field, the white-acting expatriate is the often fake-accented try-hard whose apparent objective is to blend into a Western society ‘entirely’ on the West’s own terms.
Bear in mind that this is not a defense of regressive cultural practices and ideals – that include misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or any form of hateful attitude against religious ‘outsiders’ or converts. My palpable rancor is directed at undue criticism of ordinary social practices; like speaking poor English, wearing shalwar kameez, or keeping beards.
Those with a deeper affinity for their own mother tongue or harmless cultural practices (at least, no more harmful than their Western alternatives), are looked down upon by their Westernised counterparts as the fellow un-evolved brown folk. As if familiarity with English and Western cultures, is the mandatory step to our collective social evolution.
While Michelle Obama may be praised for sticking by her cultural values and not covering her head on a trip to Saudi Arabia, the unassimilated brown man receives no laurel for wearing shalwar kameez and a white cap while making his way through security at Chicago O’Hare. If stopped and harangued at security, the ‘white acting’ brown men could simply argue that the mistreatment was well-deserved, because the guy was clearly making a ‘scene’ by sporting a traditional Pakistani look.
The implication is that it’s fine that you’re brown; just try not to be ‘in your face’ kind of brown. That racial foreignness must be appropriately diluted with fluent English, or blue jeans, or a Chicago Bulls cap. The implication is that since we made a grueling effort to wash off our desi germs to soothe the borderline racists’ uneasiness with brown people, you must do the same or suffer the consequences.
As a man who rarely wears traditional Pakistani clothing, and speaks better English than Urdu or Punjabi, I may well be a member of the white-acting desi clan I satirise. But even I make it a habit of questioning myself whenever I begin to roll my eyes at a Punjabi-accented “paindu” having a difficult time comprehending the staff’s instructions at London Underground.
Racism may not necessarily precipitate as a hate crime. It’s the background noise that you’re simply accustomed to; undergoing radical cultural changes to soothe other people’s qualms about your ‘odd’ lifestyles and appearances, and considering any similar reciprocation from their end as an almost undeserved act of generosity.