This guest post is by LA-based Ayser Salman, Iraqi American author of the upcoming book: "The Wrong End of the Table: An Immigrant Love Story." See if you can get through this excerpt without cracking a smile. You can find Ayser on Twitter, or on her blog, at Medium.
Do you remember how old you were when you first racially profiled someone?
Coming in HOT on such loaded topic might not be the best way to start a story. Let me rephrase.
How old were you when you first demonstrated blatant bias against someone?
There. That seems less triggering, yes...if only slightly so.
I remember my first experience. I was six years old.
My family had just moved me and my baby brother to Columbus, Ohio from our homeland of Baghdad, Iraq. We had come here to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime and also to get a taste of harsh mid-western winters, judging from the fact that we arrived in the middle of January.
Side note: we apparently also came to America so that I could develop a tough skin by constantly being the new kid in school. Because until I was ten, we moved every 15 months and always during the middle of the school year. I don’t know why – maybe because of my parents’ jobs. Maybe because it was in our nomadic nature. Whatever the reason. I hated it.
When you’re the perpetual New Kid In School you go two ways: you either become a social chameleon who changes her personality depending on which friend group she’s with, OR you become a nervous little introvert who keeps to herself. I fell into the latter category.
This was the 1970s and no one really knew what or where Iraq was. I was this weird little immigrant girl with a strange name and accent. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time alone – reading, watching TV and putting on my snowsuit to go outside in freezing weather, only to be back ten minutes later when my nostrils froze shut.
We finally got through that first winter and my reward during that first thaw of spring was getting a shiny new pink bike. And a few weeks after that, Dad taught me how to ride without training wheels. I was so proud of that achievement, it made me forget all the weirdness of being alone in a strange country. No matter that I didn’t have tons of friends (or any really) I had just learned how to ride a bike. Things were looking up.
But the euphoria of this achievement was not to last. One particular bright sunny day, I hopped on my shiny new pink bike and began pedaling. The handlebar streamers had barely begun to fly in the wind when across the street, a soldier pointed a gun at me, causing me to drop my bike and run home in a panic.
I was an immigrant kid from the fascist state of Saddam’s Iraq. I had heard those stories – about guys with rifles coming to get you in the middle of the night if you said something untoward about the regime. Every Iraqi knows a friend of a friend who mouthed off against Saddam even during a private dinner in their own home only to mysteriously disappear the following week. You’re a kid in that environment and no matter how your parents protect you from it, you’re gonna pick up a thing or two.
So that’s what I thought was happening here – even though this particular military man was not wearing typical fatigues and his rifle was bright popsicle green. I just figured it was the type of war attire the army used in Columbus Ohio...
Once I got safely inside our apartment, my parents managed to calm me down enough to get me to describe the suspect. Crouching down low, I peered outside our living room window and pointed him out to my father. After a quick (and in my opinion completely un-thorough) investigation which involved Dad glancing outside for less than 20 seconds, it was determined the dangerous and cunning sniper was actually my shy five-year old neighbor, Sreekanth, wielding a plastic toy water machine gun. And my parents made me go back outside.
And I feel bad about this instance of
racism prejudice at such a young age. I gut-reacted that Sreekanth was a dangerous, murdering soldier when in reality he was this sweet young Atari aficionado from India who loved rabbits. And I want to apologize to Sreekanth — especially since the following week he dumped ice-cold lemonade down my back because he thought a spider was crawling on me, and he had heard that spiders HATE lemon-scented stuff… And looking back, what a romantic gesture this was! He was trying to protect me from a blood sucking daddy long-legs and that was the first time in this strange land that anyone had done anything like that for me.
Also looking back, I realize no one called me out on my prejudice and I feel horribly guilty about it. When I got home that night I waited for the lecture which I’m sure would come from my parents — about how it’s not nice to make judgments about other people. Just because the kid had a water pistol, did I really NEED to drop my shiny, brand new bike to the ground IN TERROR and run back home? It was a lime green plastic toy gun for God’s sake!
Annoyingly the only thing Dad was pissed about was that I dropped my shiny brand new bike to the ground which scratched up one of the pink handlebars and detached the streamers. Dad gave me the lecture about how money was tight now that we were new immigrants to this country and I should not be careless – Personally, I felt Dad was being careless in this particular bit of parenting:
First, I legitimately thought I was being attacked by a soldier - albeit one in GI Joe footie pajamas (Sreekanth liked them. He wanted to wear them all the time. This did not do him any favors on the kindergarten social scene.)
Second, were neither of my parents worried they might be raising a bigot? What if I continued down this ignorant and presumptive path and began profiling everyone who didn’t look like me? What if my parents woke up one day only to find I had turned them into the NSA because I didn’t like the way they scrambled our eggs in the morning?
…I don’t know why it would be about eggs. I just figure prejudice is so ridiculous so why not hate someone because you don’t like the way they scramble their eggs?
But joking aside, prejudice is a bigger problem than we’d like to admit, right? Even if we are completely ‘Woke,’ we still at some point have profiled someone, most likely innocently. Maybe we’ve been afraid of something or didn’t quite understand it, so we compartmentalized it. We put it into a familiar box as we tried to make sense of it.
In my case, I was a scared child who’d just emigrated from a fascist regime where soldiers walked around carrying guns. My tiny brain just assumed I had done something horrible and ‘they’ had chased me all the way to Columbus and were now coming to take me away. So Luckily this incident presented a teaching moment for my parents who talked me through it.
One of my favorite contemporary musicals is Avenue Q. the Tony Award-winning show with singing Sesame Street-style puppets making important social commentary. One of the musical numbers is ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist Sometimes.’ I’ve been thinking about this show a lot lately with all that’s going on in the world. And I find myself singing this from the chorus:
“If we all could / just admit/ that we are racist/ a little bit / even though we all know that it’s wrong / maybe it would help us get along.”
Luckily my parents were aware enough to use this as a teaching moment about the dangers of having preconceived notions. And that’s when I realized that the best way attack a difficult subject is to talk about it. Even if it’s our own prejudice or bias.
Discussion leads to awareness. And awareness leads to understanding. Which leads to acceptance and eventually love. And if there’s one thing we need in this bizarre current kinda fucked up world we live in at the moment, it’s acceptance and love.
Every now and then I think about Sreekanth. He was my first real friend in America, a friendship I almost prevented because I led with fear. Luckily he led with innocence – pure, nerdy beautiful footie pajama-wearing innocence. And I hope he maintained that purity through life. It’s tough out there. We need more people like Sreekanth in the world.