“Yes, I was selected for a ‘random’ security check at the airport,” my sister said as she rolled her eyes, “again.”
Sometimes we laugh it off; the “random” in those “random security checks” is so obviously untrue that it seems absurd enough to laugh at. Other days it makes us frustrated, angry, humiliated, especially when it is accompanied by condescending security agents or ground staff.
The widespread media hysteria which pounds negative stereotypes into our heads is so powerful that it even manages to increase fear internally within the very communities that are being targeted. We often become increasingly afraid of “us.” Sometimes I find myself nervous when a bearded man sitting next to me on the plane starts reciting a Quranic prayer. I face conflicting emotions of fear, shame, and sadness as I realize how I’m letting stereotypes affect me. I, too, am saying a prayer from the Quran for safe travels as the plane takes off; it is just that I am not saying it out aloud, I am not a bearded man, or a headscarf-wearing woman. I too am judged on the basis of my ethnicity (South Asian) and my religion (Islam) and yet I find myself doing the same at times without even realizing it.
Generalizations and stereotypes are powerful, powerful mechanisms to instill fear and hatred. There is no simplistic defense against them, even for the most open minded of us. They exist, and have always existed, in various different forms.
When I was younger, I would go hopping mad with rage when I heard certain people in Pakistan (where I grew up) making ill-informed, and plain stupid statements. For example: “All Jews are evil and out to destroy Muslims”—many of these coming from individuals who had never met a Jewish person and had no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever. Such utter dumbness on a large scale was one of the things I was happy to get away from when I moved abroad.
Fast forward to today where U.S. presidential candidates like Donald Trump contribute to the mass hysteria stemming from ill-informed, politicized, and manipulated information. It always catches up with you in one way or the other. Political and media irresponsibility/propaganda is not unique to one nation; it exists on a massive scale all over the world and it is just the focus that keeps shifting depending on current agendas.
At a recent job interview in Seattle, my sister was asked by the interviewer if she was from the country where they found Osama bin Laden and then, in spite of her trying to get on with the interview, she was bombarded (excuse the pun) with questions about what she thought of Bin Laden and the Pakistani governments’ role in his story. She finally got irritated enough to tell the interviewer that terrorism was not limited to one country or community and existed in numerous forms.
A few days after last year’s devastating Paris attacks I was headed home from work, iPod in hand, when a girl stopped me. I smiled and took out my headphones assuming she needed directions. She began questioning me and caught me so off guard that it took me a few minutes to realize I did not have to communicate with her, and to feel that something was off; there was hostility in the air.
What was my name, she wanted to know. Where did I work, where was I from, what work did I do, was I not telling her what I really did? I would have passed her off as a drunk college student if it was not for her next question. “What does Shukran mean, huh?” she asked. I looked at her in astonishment and told her that was an Arabic word and I did not speak Arabic. She then proceeded to grab my hand and ask what I was holding in it (my iPod shuffle). Resisting the urge to snap at her, I pulled my hand away, excused myself and told her I needed to catch the bus.
“Where do you live,” she demanded and that was when I had had enough.
“Why do you want to know?” I demanded back. She backed off saying, “I was just kidding.” Kidding?
I walked away and called the police, something I probably would not have done a year ago as this was just a small, strange incident. However, when taken in the context of the increasingly negative, often outrageous rhetoric I had recently been hearing against Muslims, it did not seem like such an insignificant incident.
For me personally, all of these are isolated incidents and for every ignorant or hateful person I have come across in the United States, there have been three wonderful, well-informed people to more than balance it out. However, for others, such incidents are not isolated ones, many have much more horrific tales to share, and it all adds up.
It is imperative to remember, however, to not end up doing the very thing we resent being done to ourselves. We cannot stereotype all Americans, all Westerners, all Asians, all Muslims, all Christians and so forth, to fit into the neat little boxes that political rhetoric would like us to fit into. I like to believe that ultimately, individuals are smarter than that. We just need a little reminder now and then.