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.
I looked at him, struggling to bury my tears beneath whatever shred of dignity that remained. They finally saturated my lashes and flood onto my face. Shaking with rage, I said, “We are all human beings and I only ask that you give me the same respect you give others. All I am asking is to be treated with a dignity and humanity. What you did is wrong.” They stared straight ahead, arms crossed, and refused to even look at me. Up came the cruel, xenophobic, soundproof wall that I had seen in the eyes of so many after 9/11. Their eyes, flecked with disdain and hatred, looked through me.
The next affront came quickly thereafter. “You were here last year, weren’t you? You caused trouble here last year too. I know you,” they claimed, accusing me of being a party-crasher. Completely confused, I explained that this was my first time here and that I had no idea what he was referencing. Clearly, he had assumed all brown people look the same and had confused me for someone else.
I wonder what their reaction would have been to a well-dressed white woman trying to reach her husband. Would she have struggled for over an hour while they watched and offered to escort others in? Would they not have extended an offer to help, bended over backwards to offer assistance, just as they did with the woman who “lost her ticket”? Would the Boston bombings even be mentioned to a white woman?
Let’s stop this facade that we are a beacon of tolerance. I don’t need you to “tolerate” me. I don’t want you to merely put up with my presence. All I ask, all I have ever asked, is to be treated as a human being, that bigoted jingoism is not injected into every minute facet my life, that there remains at least the illusion of decency.
Despite being a native English speaker who was born in New Orleans and a physician who trained at a prestigious institution, all people see is the color of my skin. After this incident, I will no longer apologize, either for my faith or my complexion. It is not my job to convince you to distinguish me from the violent sociopaths that claim to be Muslims, whose terrorism I neither support, nor condone. It is your job. Just like when a disturbed young white man shoots up a movie theatre or a school, it is my job, as someone with a conscience, to distinguish them from others. It’s not my job to plead with you to shake my hand without cringing, nor am I going to applaud you when you treat me with common decency; it’s not an accomplishment. It’s simply the right thing to do. Honestly, it’s not that hard.
This year, Quvenzhané Wallis took the world by storm with her staggering performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild. At several award ceremonies, reporters refused to the learn the accurate pronunciation of her name, and one reporter allegedly told Wallis, “I’m gonna call you Annie,” because her name was too difficult to pronounce. If reporters can learn to pronounce Gerard Depardieu and Monique Lhuillier then surely they can take the time to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané. It’s not hard; it’s just not deemed worthy of your energy because she is someone of color.
A school child recently threatened my 12-year-old niece claiming, “I’m going to kill you Miss Bin Laden.” Again, it is not my job to teach your children manners and social justice, to remove the disgusting threads of racism that you have woven into their hearts with your insecurities. Last week, a 39-year-old Muslim American cab driver who served in the Iraq war was attacked and had his jaw broken in a hate crime. The assailant, an executive from an aviation company, told the veteran “I will slice your fucking throat right now.” I suppose the “support the troops” rhetoric by the right only applies to white veterans.
It wasn’t enough that I have had to prove my “American-ness” at every step of my career, but now the next generation is suffering as well. It wasn’t enough that I was asked whether my father taught me how to make bombs, or that I was told that I was doomed to the seventh circle of hell during my medical school interviews. I was also asked whether I would wear a burqa or if my parents would arrange my marriage during interviews. It is outrageous that I have to actually prove to the world how horrified I am that an 8-year-old boy was brutally murdered by a terrorist bombing. Any normal human being feels this agonizing grief with the rest of the country. I do not have to prove to you that, I, too, find it morally reprehensible. Of course I do. I have a heart. I am human.
So, I no longer want a seat at your restaurant, where you serve me begrudgingly, where I am belittled for asking for food without pork, where I endure your dirty looks at my hijabi friend. I want my pride intact, I want this struggle of mine to be recognized, for you to look me in the eye and acknowledge that yes, this tumor called bigotry is indeed rivering through your veins, polluting your mind, and is so malignant that it compels you to squash my dignity.
It’s the little indignities that slowly devastate your soul. The ones where your guard is down, and you just expect to dress up, look pretty, and enjoy an evening as a newlywed, or at the Oscars, but instead end up humiliated and snubbed. The ubiquitous racist slap in the face is thinly veiled just beneath the carefully crafted façade. This filthy, highly infectious plague is transforming our nation into one of unwarranted suspicion and anguish inflicted on disenfranchised, voiceless people of color. And now, it is no longer my job to enlighten you. To quote what you so often tell ethnic communities, “It’s time for you to step up to the plate, take responsibility, and stop taking what I have earned,” my integrity, my dignity.