Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Rhetoric That Fuels Profiling

Racial Profiling by Jordan Isip http://jordinisip.com/

"What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?" 

is the question that caused an uproar in the Chicago theatre community last week. The uproar was in regards to Hedy Weiss' Chicago Sun-Times reviewof Silk Road Rising's production of Invasion by Jonas Hassen Khemiri. In reviewing the play, Weiss acknowledged that the play "is a cry against Muslim profiling," but went on to outrage readers by essentially asking, in the face of State Department-issued worldwide terror threat alerts and Boston Marathon bombings, what other choice do we have but to profile Muslims?

      I had to read that part of the review several times before I really grasped what she was suggesting. After I recovered from the initial shock, I then wondered how the review even made it past her editor's desk. Was it editorial negligence? Did her editor agree? Was it a misguided stunt to get more traffic to the website and increase ad revenue?

      So there was that. Okay. A week prior, CNN's No Talking Points host Don Lemon concluded his show by backing Bill O'Reilly's post-Zimmerman trial critique of black people (not all black people, just the scary and/or dangerous ones), and proceeded to "just be honest, here" and tell black people what black people need to do to solve their black people problems. His suggestions included pulling up our pants (never mind how many white guys sag their pants too), finishing school, and stop having all those babies out of wedlock. He also suggested that we stop littering in our communities and told us that he'd lived in several predominantly white neighborhoods and that there was hardly ever any litter there. 

      Well. Both Uncle Ruckus' Don Lemon's lecture and Hedy Weiss' question come not a month after a not-guilty verdict was handed down for George Zimmerman who shot and killed an armed black teenager in his own neighborhood because - and let's be real here - he profiled him. Racially. He racially profiled him. Weiss' remarks were ignorant and careless; Lemon's were condescending and dismissive of larger, systemic problems. But the most upsetting thing about both pieces rhetoric is that they reinforce a way of thinking about and talking about historically marginalized and maligned groups - Muslims and blacks in this case - that is reductive and vilifying, and gives credence to the kind of profiling that got Trayvon Martin killed, and which Weiss so cavalierly supports in her controversial review. When the media consistently ascribes heightened levels of danger to observant Muslims or black men who sag their pants, the public literally cannot help but form connections between "Muslims" and terror/attack/bomb, and "black" and aggressive/dangerous/violent, and then apply these connections - which translate into prejudice - to the entirety of those populations...or at least the ones that "fit the description." That connection happens on a neurological level and helps proliferate racial profiling and injustice on both small scales (Stop-and-Frisk, anyone?) and large scales (Amadou Diallo, anyone?).

      Imagine if, after the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Unabomber, or the movie theater shooting in Aurora, or the Sikh temple shooting, or the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook - imagine if, after these events, we as a society began to feel nervous around and suspicious of young white men. Why not? The perpetrators of all of these horrific acts of terrorism have all been white men. So why not profile white men? Right, that's probably not going to become a thing in my lifetime (at least not on the scale that it happens to people of color), but it should seem just as ridiculous to profile Muslims as a matter of course or every black man in a hoodie walking down the street at night. But, as we all know, it happens every day. And the ramifications are immense.

      Imagine if, in the face of white-collar crime and Steubenville rape cases, major media outlets began suggesting that "The White Community" needs to clean up its act, stop cheating people out of their hard-earned money, and trading on privilege and entitlement to do whatever they want even if it's wrong/illegal. This was spoofed here to great effect by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, and in listening to it, it sounds just...wrong. You and I know that most white people in America probably aren't doing heinous things on, like, an everyday basis, so why is it okay to speak in a way that suggests most black people probably are? And why is it okay to subject the general population of Muslims to suspicion of acts of terrorism that most people in general, Muslims aside, would never dream of committing?

      It's time to change how we talk about people. And notice that I didn't say "people of color" or "minorities" or "other racial groups" or any of that. Because even though racial, ethnic, and religious groups may be linked by certain commonalities and experiences, all of these "groups" are made up of individuals who are as unique and diverse as we already understand groups of white people to be. And we need to start letting our rhetoric - and our thoughts - reflect that truth. 

*Following the vocal outrage over Weiss' Sun-Times article, the review was edited to omit the most egregious parts. But! You can find those parts right here. This link also includes a post-outcry response from Weiss in which she asserts that "like it or not, we are ALL being profiled every time we enter an airport, highrise or crowd of any kind these days..." So. Right. There's that. ((Bangs head on wall)).

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