No More Apologies

May 10th, 2013 | Shonali Burke | 35 Comments

peppers of all colorsA story has been making the rounds this week, and which I finally read a couple of days ago. It’s the “viral blog” (not my words, but it certainly seems to be going viral) authored by Seema Jilani for the Huffington Post, detailing her “racist encounter at the White House Correspondents Dinner.”

Image: maHidoodi via Flickr, CC 2.0

The back story

According to her post, Ms. Jilani – an American physician with Pakistani roots (as I found out from a previous HuffPo article of hers) – realized she needed to get her keys from her husband after he’d moved on from the cocktail hour to the actual dinner (he’s the journalist half of the couple, she’s a pediatrician, and therefore could only attend the pre-dinner cocktail hour).

When she asked Security if she could go down to the ballroom to find him and get the keys, they refused on the grounds that she didn’t have a ticket … and then proceeded to let countless other Caucasian women through, even though they didn’t have tickets themselves.

They didn’t just stop there; they insulted her in a patently racist way, a way that most of us who look, speak, are “different” to who and what are considered the norm can relate to. And since I haven’t (as yet) seen any rebuttal of Ms. Jilani’s experiences, including from the White House Correspondents’ Association (which hosts the annual event), and it’s been almost two weeks since this happened, I’m going to assume her account is true.

By the way, am I the only one who finds this ironic: that a group of official journalistic “correspondents” has not as yet responded to her post? If you look at their “news/blogs” page (which moniker is rather hilarious to start with), as of this writing their most recent “post” is from April 2, detailing the then-upcoming event, in mind-numbing, static length.

It’s the kind of “post” or “release” which, if they were on the receiving end, said correspondents would probably be screaming about from the rooftops as to why your PR pitches suck.

Who’s “you all”?

The mildest thing I can say about Ms. Jilani’s experiences is that they are jaw-dropping. In truth, they are skin-crawling and vomit-inducing. At least, if you are a decent human being, regardless of your race or ethnicity. Here is an excerpt:

“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.’ “

If you haven’t already read this post, you must. And as anyone who is considered “different” will tell you, we have all had our WHCA Dinner moments.

For example, should I tell you of the day after 9/11? As my (white) husband and I returned from work – a tough enough day to get through – and were about to enter our home (that we owned, and paid taxes on), a passenger in a pickup truck leaned out to shout at me, as it was driving by, “Go home! We don’t need your kind here!”

Should I tell you of how first I didn’t even realize what had just happened? And then, when I did, how shocked, then numbed by disbelief, then fearful, I was? And how, in the days that passed, how I was shoved and jostled blatantly and not-so-blatantly on San Francisco’s BART by both men and women, who took advantage of the close proximity to mutter threats at me (and no, that never happened any other time)?

Should I tell you of how my husband, fearful for my safety, wouldn’t let me wear my long black coat-with-a-hood, perfect for San Francisco’s come-hither-go-thither weather, for fear I’d be mistaken for “one of them”? And how, after reading of attacks on mixed race couples in San Francisco – peace-loving San Francisco! – I was scared to let my husband walk with me?

There have been other such moments, but I won’t go into them here. In some cases they were vicious attacks on my intelligence because of my name; in some cases they were jealousy masked as “innocent” questions; in some cases they were likely engendered by ignorance. Sometimes they’d hurt more than others, but so far, at least, I have always recovered. And I’ve tried to excuse ignorance for what it is.

This is not a diatribe about how white people behave with non-whites. “You all” is not a fair assumption or accusation, regardless of where it’s coming from. And I can tell you that while I may have faced racism here in the U.S., I’ve also faced discrimination while growing up and in India, because whenever someone is “different,” that’s going to happen. This is a universal problem, not one that belongs to Muslims, or brown-skinned women, or Irish-Americans.

No more apologies

While so much of her post resonated with me, this is what really hit home:

“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. … 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.”

As I read through the post, I realized that this has been my reaction for many years; to feel grateful when I’m treated fairly and without condescension.

This is stupid.

There is no reason for me to be grateful to be treated like a human being, especially when I do my utmost to do the same with others. From now on, I’m going to stop being grateful for decency, and expect it. And I’m not going to let ignorance be an excuse either. I wouldn’t be able to get away with it; why should anyone else?

I’m not going to go around being mean, but I am going to stop being apologetic as a way to calm troubled waters (though I will be apologetic if the situation calls for it and I need to). As Ms. Jilani says at the end of her post:

“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.”

Honestly, it’s not that hard.

I’ve had my say; what’s yours?

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Shonali Burke
Head honcho of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke is President & CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, Inc. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she loves helping for- and non-profit clients, both small and large, turn corporate codswallop into community cool™. She also loves ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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35 comments
jennwhinnem
jennwhinnem

Amen. I have always appreciated the mentality of "It is no longer my job to enlighten you." Go forth and kick ass, I say.

allenmireles
allenmireles

What a beautiful post @Shonali. Racism and ignorance are alive and well, sadly. As one half of a cross-cultural marriage and the mother of two boys, who have been treated poorly based on their appearances, I am keenly aware of this reality. Going through life with the expectation of fair treatment is your right, as it is mine, my sons', my husband's and any other human being. You lead by example when you embrace this mindset, when you appreciate the similarities and the differences in each of the human being you encounter. Well done.

mickeygomez
mickeygomez

Shonali, it fills me with disbelief that situations like this continue to happen. I've witnessed this behavior firsthand, happening to people I love, and it disgusts and terrifies and saddens me. Not to oversimplify, but if we stand together, there is no "you all," there is only "us." Thank you for speaking out against situations like this, and for sharing  Seema Jilani's wisdom.

Latest blog post: Remembering Dennis Lane

geoffliving
geoffliving

This is as real as it gets. You are Shonali to me, nothing more than that, nothing less. it's too bad we live in a world where people throw each other down, through spite, through religion, through race, through insistance on teaching people lessons or what's right, and on, and on. It's always about wanting to be better, smarter, richer  or smarter than someone else.  And that's a damn shame.  Thanks for sharing this with us.

jrsygrl621
jrsygrl621

Great post. Thanks for bringing awareness to this issue. It is especially sad that these incidents take place in places of government. 

Janet
Janet

It's just amazing to me that this still goes on every day. We should not be in a position to feel grateful because someone accepts us. Gay, straight, philisophical, cultural or skin color differences are what make us interesting. We should rejoice in our differences. 

bobledrew
bobledrew

This is what needs to be said. Thanks for saying it so well, and I hope that we ALL start to say this. It shouldn't be up to "you all" to demand better; it's up to all of us, even pasty white dudes. 

rbowden56
rbowden56

Those of us, who have not felt the pain, do not know it, but sadly we have seen it! Ignorance, unfortunately, seems that every new generation is infected with it at birth. Shonali I am grateful to know you.

JohnFriedman
JohnFriedman

Having been part of interracial couples, one of the first people of my religion to live in my home town and in a mixed-faith marriage I can say that these issues are real everywhere. Do not appologize for who you are, your gender, race or heritage. Wear them as proudly as the ignorant and prejudiced wear their values. Try to accept that what they say says more about 'them all' than 'you all' (whomever those groups may be). As for your kind, Shonali, you grace us with your intelligence, wit and thoughtfulness.  I wish that there were far more people like you in our country and world!

LisaDJenkins
LisaDJenkins

Wow. I read things like this - sadly, I've read too many - and I'm reminded of Men In Black when Kay says, "A person is smartPeople are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it." I've no time for willful ignorance or the dark hatred it breeds and those who practice it are removed from my life. Sometimes that means relatives but the line has to be drawn by someone and if not with me, then with whom?


karelyneve
karelyneve moderator

Wonderful post, Shonali (as always). :)  People commit unspeakable acts regardless of race, religion, etc.  It really upsets me that stereotypes and racism are so widely accepted and even joked about in every day society.  All human beings are equal.  A disturbed individual can come from any background.  Profiling based solely on someone's looks needs to stop if we are ever going to move forward as a society.  

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

Wow.  What a great piece (updated).  I am often called a Red or Liberal when I bring up racism to my white friends who deny its existence. I was blessed to grow up a Milton Hershey School where I lived, in the same home, with people who were white, black, vietnamese, cuban, indian, pakistani... probably a whole bunch of other backgrounds as well. We were lucky; we lived in a purely color blind world because when you live side by side, away from home and family (I was 9 when I went - many of my friends, much younger), it is crystal clear that we are all an equal part of humanity.

When I left the cocoon of the school I was shocked, and granted totally naive, to find how much racism still exists in America.  I left rural Northeastern PA a year ago; one reason - I didn't want my daughter to grow up where you still heard people regularly use racist terms in public places.  Sure, lots of people speak out now.. I know that it is different than it was 40 years ago, but not different enough.  And the only way to eradicate it is to keep calling it out wherever you see it.  Like my friends @Shelly DeMotte Kramer and @Lindsay Bell-Wheeler , I have committed to being the crazy outspoken lady who screams at the top of her lungs: It's WRONG.

Good for you Shonali!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@allenmireles Thanks, Allen! One of the best things about writing posts like this, which are so personal for me, is how much I learn about my friends, both old and new. For instance, I had no idea that you too are in a cross-cultural marriage. I'm so sorry for what your boys have had to go through, but what a wonderful family they have. That's what helps us get through so much, isn't it?

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@mickeygomez Ya, it's pretty surreal for me too, that even now I see behavior like this. The irony is that we have been in places - like the inner parts of Louisiana, for example, where we fully expected to be treated badly. But we were not; I'm specifically thinking of a drive my husband and I made from Bossier City to New Orleans, and we stopped at Jackson, La., at an antique-y place. I ended up striking a conversation with some random folks who were just sunning themselves, and it was quite the eye-opener for me. I suppose the moral of the story is that no one should take anything for granted, right? Thank you for stopping by, Mickey!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@jrsygrl621 I'm not sure it was actually in a place of government... isn't the dinner at a hotel? That's one of the things I was trying to find out when I was tooling around the WHCA site, and also the dinner is not a government affair, it's hosted by the WHCA. I'm really amazed they haven't responded to Ms. Jilani, I imagine this is not the kind of "press" they would want to get...!

geoffliving
geoffliving

@Danny Brown I wonder what all of my fellow alum in Georgetown University's Communications, Culture and Technology Masters program would think of that last question. Or for that matter anyone reading this with a masters or doctorate degree.

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@karelyneve You commented on my post! I love that. Thank you!! I know you have been through your share of discrimination, and I admire the way you have come through it!

Shonali
Shonali moderator

@AmyMccTobin Thank you Amy! 

I know that piece (the HuffPo one) touched a lot of people. Some of the comments (on the post, and various news articles it was picked up in) really troubled me, because they were similar to how those security people treated Ms. Jilani. Ignorance can be such a cocoon, and how long does one say, "Well, it's ok, they don't know any better?" Am I ignorant of a bunch of stuff? Of course I am. But at least I try to learn and appreciate it when people teach me.

Thank you very much for stopping by today and hopefully we will hear from @Lindsay Bell-Wheeler and @shellykramer if they have the time.

karelyneve
karelyneve moderator

@Shonali @karelyneve Thank you.  Discrimination happens on so many levels.  For example, when I returned from my honeymoon cruise in 2008 since my passport still had my maiden name (Gonzalez) on it, when going through customs, they asked if I left the country a lot to which I replied I never had been out of the country this was my first time.  Then, I was pulled out of line and brought to a holding area in the back so they could "verify" my information.  Of course they claimed this was all "random", but my husband who is blonde haired, blue eyed, and very Caucasian was told he could move along.  He was extremely upset with the custom officers and insisted they let him come back with me.  Thankfully, after I gave them my social and answered a few questions they let me go, but it was embarrassing because everyone saw them pull me out and basically treat me like a criminal.  It disgusts me that people think it is ok for others to act this way.  The only person in line that had any kind of "Hey, that's not right" reaction was my husband.  To top it all off they didn't even apologize.     

geoffliving
geoffliving

@Danny Brown I deleted my prior comment, and am just going to exit the conversation. Not worth the fight.  Good luck with the book marketing!

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