What must it be like to be them? The woman in saggy mom jeans and white gym shoes tied with red laces. The man in jeans, wingtips, and a Cosby-style sweater. A younger man, presumably their son or maybe a nephew, standing at their side to help them check in for this early morning flight.
The party of three was just ahead of us in a long line for the Cincinnati to Chicago flight. The female agent who was waiting on them suddenly walked away, leaving them puzzled at the desk. Eventually, another clerk appeared and took their passports. She asked the man to spell his last name as she examined the passport, and then she called another employee over for a brief and hushed conversation.
The travelers’ two bags were weighed, and one was found to be four pounds overweight, so they set about shifting items from one suitcase to the other.
I am sure I was not the only person curious about the contents of their luggage. I moved slightly so I could improve my view. The man removed three garments on hangers in plastic bags from one suitcase and stuffed them into the other. The woman moved her cosmetic bag and blow dryer to the lighter bag.
Eventually they received their boarding passes. They said their goodbyes to the younger man and proceeded to security.
Later, we found ourselves sitting across from the couple at the gate. I doubt that I would have even noticed them there had the woman not had a scarf covering her hair and the man had not had a decidedly Middle Eastern appearance.
They were doing what any other middle aged couple might be doing waiting for a 6:30 AM flight. The man slumped in his chair, gazed out into space, checked his watch, and yawned every once in a while.
The woman texted busily on her smart phone, which was in a turquoise case decorated with a cartoon monkey, and then she began playing a noisy game on her iPad mini. She occasionally elbowed the man to show him the screen. He nodded in feigned interest.
They were the kind of nerdy middle aged couple who embarrass their teenage children. Just like Rick and me.
Ordinary people doing ordinary things. But I noticed them.
They were neither loud nor inappropriate, mysterious nor threatening. So why did I notice them?
It was probably the woman’s scarf initially, a scarf that designated her as a Muslim. Or maybe it was the young man who was helping the couple negotiate the check-in process in what appeared to be a translator or diplomat role. Perhaps it was the man’s black hair, bushy mustache, swarthy complexion, and distinctive bone structure. And then there was the difficulty of reading a name on a passport–a passport that was not blue– and the abrupt disappearance of a clerk.
The point is, they didn’t deserve my attention or my subconscious speculation, yet their presence set off alarm bells.
I am an educated woman, most assuredly on the liberal end of the political and social spectrum. I have traveled extensively, visiting every continent, and I have positive experiences with nearly every one I’ve met.
I have taken guided tours of mosques in Turkey, Morocco, and here in Ohio. I have taken cooking lessons from Muslim women who stopped cooking to say their prayers.
While I was noting every move this couple made, I was berating myself for the automatic profiling I was doing.
What was it like being these people, carrying the weight of our preconceptions and prejudice?
Why are we inclined to sift and sort people through a sieve of fear?
Within seconds, we categorize people through binary tests: black or white; young or old; native or foreign; rich or poor; Christian or not; friendly or sinister.
And once we’ve done that, we compose a single story, and on this day that story was about a Middle Eastern Muslim couple traveling to Chicago with maybe something suspicious in their bag, perhaps even an explosive. Islamic Middle Easterner = terrorist.
In her TED Talk a Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, discusses the danger of the single story, making someone one thing.
Here are some plot lines of common single stories: The black teen is a thug. The old man is demented. The homeless woman is illiterate. The immigrant is a freeloader. The Arab is a terrorist. The lawyer is a crook. The Jew is a miser. Each of these stories is incomplete, two-dimensional, and divisive.
Sterotypes are born from single stories. It’s not that any one story is untrue; the problem is that one story is incomplete. The single story to define a group of people flattens their diverse experiences. The single story emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
A single story sprang to mind when seeing this couple, but I made an effort to interrogate my preconceptions. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world (almost 25% of all people)–far too many characters for just one story.
Maybe they were a couple going to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. They were having dinner at the top of the John Hancock building. The son was not the translator or the diplomat; he was the kid in grad school who had saved up enough money delivering pizza to pay for this trip.
One of my daughter’s first words was “dog.” At first, “dog” stood for every four-legged creature whether it barked, meowed, oinked, or whinnied. As she matured, her language developed and her understanding evolved; she learned that all four-legged creatures were not dogs.
For many Americans, “terrorist” stands for every Muslim, whether he or she is a hard-working Pakistani selling lottery tickets at a 7-Eleven, a captain in the U.S. Army, a cleric in a skull cap, a radicalized jihadist, a grandma stuffing grape leaves, or a frightened orphan from Syria.
Americans must mature in their understanding of Muslims, to recognize that there are many, many stories. Politicians, religious leaders, and teachers have the platform and responsibility to tell these stories. There are heroes in these stories. And, yes, there are some bad guys, too.
And I believe you and I can imagine more than one story, too. After all, a horse is not a dog.
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This blogpost by a Christian minister who is the son of a Muslim immigrant is fantastic! He certainly has a lot of stories to tell about Muslims. Really, it is so excellent! I hope you take the time to read it.