Megastar, Shah Rukh Khan, was on his way to deliver a lecture at Yale University earlier in April. On landing in a private plane at the White Plains Airport, 53 km from Manhattan, Khan was detained by immigration officials for nearly two hours. Reports say that he was given immigration clearance only after the intervention of the Indian Consulate General. It was also reported that Yale University officials had to contact the department of homeland security and the immigration and customs department at Washington to appeal from Khan's release. After the detention drama, U.S. customs and border protection authorities offered a letter expressing 'profound apology' over the entire issue.
This however was not the first time. Apparently in 2009, Khan was detained at Newark Airport and questioned for more than two hours before being allowed entry. That incident also led to extensive media coverage over his treatment by U.S. authorities. Anyway, this time the actor did not comment as to why he was detained, but before he began his Yale address, Khan smiled and quipped “It was nice, as it always happens," he said. "Whenever I start feeling too arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America. The immigration guys kick the star out of stardom.” He also said “…It is a Muslim name and I think the name is common on their checklist.”
What is the point of my referencing this incident? I wanted to touch on recent media debate about racial profiling in general. In this context, the most recent high profile case at least in the US media has to be the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. This incident took place in Florida in February. For those who do not know, Trayvon Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old African American male. George Zimmerman is the 28-year-old community-watch coordinator for the gated community where the shooting took place. While on a private errand Zimmerman allegedly saw Martin walking inside the gated community. Martin was supposedly returning to his father's fiancée's townhouse where he had been staying. Zimmerman called the Sanford Police Department, describing Martin's appearance and behavior as suspicious. Shortly afterwards there was a confrontation which ended with Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin in the chest.
Now I have another incident to share. A few weeks back, I was on my daily commute from London returning to our home in Peterborough. When the train slowed on its arrival at the Peterborough rail station, passengers coming off the train formed a queue in anticipation of the door soon opening. We all stood patiently next to the luggage rack and I was busy messaging a friend from my phone so I did not notice what happened next. This elderly lady rose from her seat and began pushing me to move aside. After I moved she returned to her seat and explained to the surprised observers that she was just checking to ensure that her suitcase, on the adjacent luggage rack, was not being tampered with.
So are these three incidents born of simple ignorance and pure ethnic profiling? I used the term ethnic rather than racial because Shah Rukh Khan’s case may be more to do with his having a Muslim name. I used to think about how I would explain to my sons that the world is a complicated place and that when people make their assumptions and treat you in a certain way – it is not about you; it is actually about them. But I remember having a talk with my eldest son and realizing that he already understood more than I imagined. Even my 2 year old is already being exposed to ethnic profiling. That is probably because my wife’s name is Saleema Khan-Joseph and every so often she is subject to some extra questions from US border control even though she travels on a US passport while I myself have never been hassled (not yet anyway).
I remember being on a train in London one night when a group of young black men, speaking loudly and dressed in regular street clothes (maybe one or two had ‘hoodies’) boarded the train. I immediately looked up from my phone and tried to gauge their mood and intentions. As I listened carefully I realized that they had just come from bible study and were chatting about what their Pastor had said. Of course I immediately relaxed and then I felt guilty for being so guarded when they first boarded. Maybe we are ALL guilty of prejudice in some way? If so, let's be careful in how we judge each other.
My name is Derren Joseph and despite our current challenges, I continue to have the audacity of hope that we will all enjoy a brighter tomorrow. Read more on derrenjoseph.blogspot.com