As I strolled outside my Manhattan apartment this morning, reflecting on the Trayvon Martin decision, I had one of those moments that would shatter any possible artifice of living in a post-racial society.
I heard a woman cry in pain and turned around to see her lying on the street, clutching her bleeding knee. I rushed over and extended my hand to help her up. She looked up and her entire body recoiled the moment she saw that my face was adorned with a turban and beard. She shook her head and muttered "foreigners..." just loudly enough so that I could hear. I stepped away, understanding her reaction, and I turned to hold the traffic as she gathered herself.
I watched her limp to the sidewalk and was surprised when she looked back at me over her shoulder and mouthed the words "thank you."
And I realize now that I should have thanked her. She reminded me that despite being a social construct, race is absolutely real in our world, and in the rules of this game, so many of us find ourselves to be the typecast. It's a lesson we receive repeatedly throughout our lives, but it bears repeating for a reason.
To forget the rules of the game is to forget the reality in which we live. As Keyser Soze said in The Usual Suspects, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
The U.S. is home to many marginalized communities that have endured long histories of oppression and live in societies that no longer explicitly endorse oppression including Sikh Americans. We are prone to overlook the modern structures of discrimination because they are couched and understated.
And that's the danger. The rules of the game have been tweaked, but the power structures remain the same. Implicit oppression is far more dangerous in that it lies in bed alongside us, constantly seducing us, coaxing us to believe that "things aren't how they used to be" and "baby, I've changed."
The relationship between America and its minority communities is still abusive.
For example, about a year ago, a neo-Nazi opened fire on a congregation of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In February, a turbaned man in Florida was shot while driving with his 13-year-old son, and a month later, a store owned by Sikhs in Wisconsin was torched in a suspected hate crime. On May 8, in Fresno, California, a 29-year-old viciously beat an 82-year-old Sikh male with a steel pipe.
Try telling the victims of these hate crimes that "discrimination no longer exists."
And before we begin blaming America for being uniquely guilty of creating racial divisions, let us also recognize that societies around the globe are similarly discriminatory. People often assume that people with black skin in Africa do not experience oppression, or that people who wear turbans in India face no persecution. These assumptions are patently untrue and give us a false sense of reality.
The reality is that the global society is complicit in structural discrimination, and we have all become actors in that process. Sure in some way we are all Trayvon Martin. Each of us has had our humanity compromised by the current power structure. Each of us have been dehumanized, just like Trayvon.
On the other hand, we all regularly participate in a system that protects a select few, and we all play roles that contribute to the denigration of others.
The dehumanization cuts both ways.
So in a way, aren't we all George Zimmerman too?