Brown with Guilt

Please read this post by a half-Jewish, half-Arab American woman, who — along with her two Indian co-passengers — was arrested by a small battalion of armed cops (of course, all cops in the US are armed — very threatening for someone not used to it) on the 11th of September. Apparently, a co-passenger commemorated 9/11 with the ‘See Something, Say Something’ directive, because everyone knows three brown people sitting in a row equals murder and mayhem. After all, look at Afghanistan and the Middle-East. Full of brown people, and not a moment’s peace.

This is how the arrest blossomed:

Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen… Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. [One of the cops] slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.

And then the three people were tossed into prison while stiff handcuffed, because when a pat-down — and later a strip-search — does not reveal explosives or weapons, you just know you’ve landed the real deal.

Probably the most telling sentence in the entire, terrifying post is uttered by a polite and friendly female officer, when she strip-searches Shoshana.

“You understand why we have to do this, right? It’s for our own protection,” she told me.

If one remembers that Shoshana is an American, one might wonder precisely how being hauled off a plane sans explanation, felt up and down, cuffed, and chucked into a cell with an officer watching her every move — and a video camera over the unwashed toilet bowl — might have been designed to ‘protect’ her.

It becomes clearer, however, when one realises that this harassed woman isn’t part of the ‘we’ the policewoman has in mind. Brown is not part of the all-American skin-tone spectrum. Funny, when you think of its First People. But no matter how much you pay in taxes, how young your parents were when your grandparents immigrated, or how completely ‘American’ you feel down to your bones, a large section of the native populace will never consider your American enough. Identity, as people often forget, is a two-way street. You may think you belong to This and no Other, but This thinks you’re nothing but the Other.

And you’re going to have to pay for that difference.

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10 comments

    • Hyaan, please don’t. After my personal experiences with the police, I decided never to travel on any disputable dates, or on such times as the Christmas-New Year corridor, or in fact to behave like a real person and draw attention to myself while travelling. Unless I’m flying Air India, I try not even to use to the loo more than once per flight, no matter how long.

      It’s very cowardly of me, I know — some might even say paranoid — but I know of more than one instances of profiling-related police stories, and I’m not risking it at all.

      Not that, as it turns out, a brown person has to ‘risk it’ to be arrested.

  1. I want to know what happens next in this case — whether she followed it up or not. Sine it’s a lawsuit-happy culture anyway, she should bloody sue their asses off.

    • I believe the Patriot Act and related legalises this action — not sure. And suing does presuppose a certain amount of free time and money, which she may or may not have. Besides, of course, the litigious disposition.

  2. Last year I was frequently traveling to Israel on business trips. A brown man flying alone on Indian passport to middle east for short trips always made the profiler pattern matching algorithms go crazy. Every time at the point of entry in Toronto or New York, I would be politely escorted to the special room inside for detailed search and interrogation. They were mostly polite and professional, but nonetheless it was never a pleasant experience. The first time was particularly scary. The first thing they found after opening my suitcase was a detailed map of Israel and Jordan with annotations and X marks on the places I visited. I was using that map for my weekend travel plans, which led to me being grilled for 15 minutes about exactly what I was doing in the middle east.

    After 14+ years of stay and 6+ years of green card, these are the moments that concurrently make one long and loathe citizenship. Not that it would change the profiler algorithms significantly.

    • My sympathies, Dipanjan. The very point of racial profiling is that your legal status re. citizenship does not matter. Shoshana is, I believe, an American citizen.

      What bothers me, really, is that the admin. flat out denies profiling people, despite systematically engaging in it. Somehow, I think I would feel better if the people who do the actual pulling out and interrogating — a lot of whom are, in fact, coloured Americans — admitted that we were being pulled out because we look like the people who plot bloody murder against the US.

      It’s not a rational feeling, but there you are.

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