07/30/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2014

What a Stranger Taught My Son About Post-September 11th America That I Never Wanted Him to Know


At an exhibit in the Sept 11 museum in Ground Zero, my 5-year old son was tracing the path of American Airlines Flight 77 that left Dulles Airport, was hijacked and used as a weapon to attack the Pentagon. As I was explaining to my son that the hijackers killed thousands of innocent people just because they do not like our values and disagree with our policies, a woman rushed up to us. "Stop touching the map" she yelled. I asked her if she worked at the museum. She responded "no" but added "I am American and it is disrespectful to me." I touched her arm hoping to make a connection with her so I could tell her that my mother worked in the world trade center when it was attacked and I would be the last person to allow any disrespect at the memorial museum.

She turned her gaze to my hand and gave me a look of disgust that shocked me in its severity, pulled her arm away and loudly said "don't touch me" as if I had soiled her with my hand. I felt for the first time what I imagine a Dalit might feel in India dare she touch someone from an upper-caste. She told me to better control and teach my child. Then I started to speak loudly and told her that I am an American too and that my mother's office was in the north tower when it fell. All she said to that was "good." I continued loudly telling her that she is a racist and there is no place for racism here. Onlookers supported me and told me that they agreed with me. Just as a U.S. Congressman erroneously assumed that Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar, two U.S. government officials recently testifying before him were from the Indian government, this woman assumed that we are not American because of what we look like.

This incident forced me to tell my son that some people do not like us just because of the color of our skin and blame all brown people for what terrible things a few brown people have done. It is this same hatred that has fueled the attacks on innocent Americans on 9-11. My son who was terrified that she was following us through the museum later said to me, "She would never do that to a white boy."

Despite my best efforts, I probably failed to show that woman how wrong she was, but she succeeded in teaching my son about racism at a place where his grandmother almost lost her life. But he also saw that not all people are like this stranger -- many onlookers who witnessed the incident supported us. One woman said in solidarity, "You are American." I criticized her for her behavior (and she had nothing to say in her own defense). And I know my son also saw what we all should (but do not always) do in the face of discrimination -- respond to it and not tolerate it.