By Seema Jilani
The faux red carpet had been laid out for the famous and the wannabe-famous. Politicians and journalists arrived at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, bedazzled in the hopes of basking in a few fleeting moments of fame, even if only by osmosis from proximity to celebrities. New to the Washington scene, I was to experience the spectacle with my husband, a journalist, and enjoy an evening out. Or at least an hour out. You see, as a spouse I was not allowed into the actual dinner. Those of us who are not participating in the hideous schmooze-fest that is this evening are relegated to attending the cocktail hour only, if that. Our guest was the extraordinarily brilliant Oscar-nominated director of Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin. Mr. Zeitlin’s unassuming demeanor was a refreshing taste of humility in a sea of pretentious politicians reeking of narcissism.
As I left the hotel and my husband went to the ballroom for the dinner, I realized he still had my keys. I approached the escalators that led down to the ballroom and asked the externally contracted security representatives if I could go down. They abruptly responded, “You can’t go down without a ticket.” I explained my situation and that I just wanted my keys from my husband in the foyer and that I wouldn’t need to enter in the ballroom. They refused to let me through. For the next half hour, they watched as I frantically called my husband but was unable to reach him.
Then something remarkable happened. I watched as they let countless other women through — all Caucasian — without even asking to see their tickets. I asked why they were allowing them to go freely when they had just told me that I needed a ticket. Their response? “Well, now we are checking tickets.” He rolled his eyes and let another woman through, this time actually checking her ticket. His smug tone, enveloped in condescension, taunted, “See? That’s what a ticket looks like.”
When I asked “Why did you lie to me, sir?” they threatened to have the Secret Service throw me out of the building — me, a 4’11″ young woman who weighs 100 pounds soaking wet, who was all prettied up in elegant formal dress, who was simply trying to reach her husband. The only thing on me that could possibly inflict harm were my dainty silver stilettos, and they were too busy inflicting pain on my feet at the moment. My suspicion was confirmed when I saw the men ask a blonde woman for her ticket and she replied, “I lost it.” The snickering tough-guy responded, “I’d be happy to personally escort you down the escalators ma’am.”
Like a malignancy, it had crept in when I least expected it — this repugnant, infectious bigotry we have become so accustomed to. “White privilege” was on display, palpable to passersby who consoled me. I’ve come to expect this repulsive racism in many aspects of my life, but when I find it entrenched in these smaller encounters is when salt is sprinkled deep into the wounds. In these crystallizing moments it is clear that while I might see myself as just another all-American gal who has great affection for this country, others see me as something less than human, more now than ever before.
When I asked why the security representatives offered to personally escort white women without tickets downstairs while they watched me flounder, why they threatened to call the Secret Service on me, I was told, “We have to be extra careful with you all after the Boston bombings.”
I explained that I am a physician, that my husband is a noted journalist for a major American newspaper, and that our guest was an esteemed, Oscar-nominated director. They did not believe me. Never mind that the American flag flew proudly outside of our home for years, with my father taking it inside whenever it rained to protect it from damage. Never mind that I won “Most Patriotic” almost every July 4th growing up. Never mind that I have provided health care to some of America’s most underprivileged, even when they have refused to shake my hand because of my ethnicity.