Many miles to go before it gets better

Getting through the security line today at LAX, one of the TSA agents asked me a couple of casual questions about the book I was carrying (“America’s Unwritten Constitution”). He seemed genuinely interested, especially when I explained a little bit about what the book was about (the historical context in which the Constitution and the Amendments were written, and how these have changed over time and help inform our interpretation of it). He said he might be interested in picking it up, and then waved me through the machine.

After going through the metal detector, however, he seemed to have noticed the name of the author (Akhil Reed Amar), and was suddenly more concerned. “You sure he isn’t one of those people twisting things the wrong way?” he said, squinting dubiously and jabbing a finger at the author’s name. The implication being that, with a foreign, probably Arabic, possibly even Muslim (gasp!) name like that, the book was most probably un-American in some way or another.

Amar, by the way, is the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, and author of several highly-regarded books on the Constitution. He lives in CT.

I am reasonably sure that if I had been non-Caucasian, I would have been asked some more probing questions. Possibly worse if I had, myself, looked “too Muslim”.

That a member of the TSA, himself of a race that in many cities in this country would lead to him being pulled over and questioned while driving or walking down the street at a much higher rate than others simply because of the color of his skin, would be so prone to make that kind of profiling assumption, seems ironic at best, disturbing at worst. After all, these are people who are supposed to be watching and protecting us, trained to pay attention, supposedly (hopefully) without prejudice or stereotyping.

But we’re not there yet. We’re not at the point where we are judged solely by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. We’re not even at the point where we can’t be judged by the perceived origins and stereotypes associated with our names. But this event does raise my own personal awareness of the privilege associated with not looking a certain way: I have no doubt that this TSA agent was reassured more by the fact that I didn’t “look like” a terrorist (between my skin color and my lack of turban) than by anything I did or said.

It highlights, for me, how little I have to live concerned about the assumptions people have about my intentions, my intelligence, my motivations or my feelings about this country. Or even, ironically, my religion. It’s the invisible and singularly undeserved privilege of being Caucasian.

We rarely get the opportunity to experience even the tiniest bit of what it must be to be other than what we are, and to be pre-judged and stereotyped for it before we even get to open our mouths. That I became paranoid after the event–worried that another agent, who seemed to be close by me every time I looked around at the gate, was going to prevent me from boarding–was probably a one-time situation for me… and even more probably just my over-active imagination. For others who don’t look “the right way”, it’s most probably a way of life.

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