My Racist Encounter at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

 

 

 

My Racist Encounter at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Posted: 05/07/2013

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 inBeasts 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.

 

 

Seema Jilani

Physician reporting from Afghanistan

The Oscars, Quvenzhané & The C-Word

The Oscars, Quvenzhané & The C-Word

  on Feb 26, 2013

By Tracy Clayton

UPTOWN_quvenzhane_wallis_beasts_of_the_southern_wild

 

I watched every piece of the Oscars Sunday night, from pre-shows to the very end, which means that I was in front of my television for roughly 23 hours.  My viewing experience began in anger and fury, and it ended the very same way.  And thanks to some despicable behavior from the internet, that anger and fury is persisting hours after the show has ended.

It began when I heard Ryan Seacrest say that “they” (meaning, I assume, he and his E! red carpet cohorts) had decided to call Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old dynamo nominated for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, “Little Q” instead of her actual name.  Here’s a quick breakdown of the problems with this:

1.  That isn’t her name.
2.  To my knowledge, neither Quvenzhané nor her family OK’d this nickname.
3.  That nickname wasn’t given to her out of love or adoration; it was given out of discomfort and a need to control what they deemed as “other” in society.

Naming and names are important because they are entwined in our identities and the ownership of us and our bodies.  We name things that belong to us.  We name our children.  We name our pets.  We name our cars and our plants and our stuffed animals and even our hair.  The act of naming and/or re-naming something is absolutely about power and control, and this is something that slave owners knew very well–a standard practice in “seasoning” and “breaking” a slave was assigning them Anglo-Saxon names.  This established that those men and women were, without a doubt, property of their purchasers, and completely severed them from the identities they knew.  Further, the names that were assigned to enslaved black men and women were often diminutive versions of common names–Billy instead of William; Donnie instead of Donald.  These were verbal reminders that you were not a whole man or a whole woman, that you were not fully human.  And when that wasn’t enough, they were stripped of those names and called “boy” or “gal,” because acknowledging a person’s self-approved name is to acknowledge the humanity in someone.

This is still the function of naming, and precisely why the insistence on not learning how to prounounce Quvenzhané’s name is so problematic and outright offensive.

The erasure of Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness.  Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce.  There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal.  Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there has long been routine backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.).   This insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.

Calling Quvenzhané “Little Q” is a lazy way to keep from having to deal with the discomfort that race causes.  It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters.  And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable.  She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be.  Their answer?  Let’s make her more palatable.  If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.

Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort.  The problem is not that she has an unpronounceable name, because she doesn’t.  The problem is that white Hollywood, from Ryan Seacrest to the AP reporter who decided to call her “Annie” rather than her real name, doesn’t deem her as important as, say, Renee Zellwegger, or Zach Galifinakis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom have names that are difficult to pronounce–but they manage.  The message sent is this:  you, young, black, female child, are not worth the time and energy it will take me to learn to spell and pronounce your name. You will be who and what I want you to be; you be be who and what makes me more comfortable.  I will allow you to exist and acknowledge that existence, but only on my terms.

CONTINUE

– See more at: http://uptownmagazine.com/2013/02/the-oscars-quvenzhane-the-c-word/#sthash.VMIh9xPr.dpuf