Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 12 | September 10, 2004 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Slice of Life
   A Roman Column
   Human Rights
   Special Feature
   Straight Talk
   Book Review
   Write to Mita
   Dhaka Diary
   New Flicks

   SWM Home


Racial Profiling

Iffat Nawaz

It was a Sunday night, driving in towards Washington DC from New York. We came to a complete halt reaching near the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. On May 5th of this year some bombs were apparently found here. For once there were no terrorist relations in this finding. A construction worker discovered five while excavating as part of a state project to prepare the site for redevelopment. Authorities said the bombs might have come from the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea, the aircraft carrier that was taken apart there. The story didn't make news headlines; it only had one key word "Bomb" and missed other keywords like "Terrorists" or "Al Queda" so it was hardly news.

Washington DC, New Jersey and New York had been under high security alert for the previous few days; the dwellers of these states had been living under the Orange alert, expecting explosions and sometimes even forgetting about the whole ordeal, and then again being reminded by certain abrupt pauses like the one we were at.

The cars moved at the speed of snails on valium, three police cars drove by on the service lane going the opposite direction of the still traffic. Each one looking suspiciously at the faces of the drivers and passengers who sat looking half alarmed and half annoyed.

Although it should not have, my heart still jumped a bit while the police cars drove by our car looking directly at our branded South Asian faces, faces which carry all symptoms of being related to certain terrorists maybe. I didn't look away neither did I look straight at their stern paleness. Perhaps I wanted to remain somewhere between being oblivious and being concerned, a place where it seemed a bit safer, where I wouldn't be attacked by terrorists or American cops.

A few cars over someone was pulled aside. A yellow taxi cab, the driver had our dark skin, a thick black moustache, he had few strands of just-formed-sweat along his forehead, a tired face who had been earning cash all day, driving demanding passengers from one destination to the other. He was being questioned, pulling out his license and registration forms he was looking around helplessly; perhaps in his mind he was cursing the cops in the lowest of desi slang. I would too. But these are the precautions America has taken to save us from terrorists. Should I feel insulted-- would I feel insulted if I were of a different race? Should I feel relieved to see there are strict security checks? Or should I feel worried about the stability of the ground I stand on, and the skin deep issues like my features, my complexion and the sound of my name…

I got home safe that night, slept cozy and woke up the next day to go on with my life of 9 to 5. Until a few days later when our car was pulled over by one from the American cop clan. We were confused, we were driving by the speed limit, had no alcoholic beverages and didn't cross any red light or didn't ignore any yellow light, so what was the problem, which law did we threaten to break?

A cop with an extra layer of fat over his face (the kind of fat which adds a numb-and-dumb appearance) came to the car window with a concerned and semi-authoritative voice. After asking for license and car registration he asked if we had any alcoholic beverages or sedatives. The answer was obviously no. Then he pointed to our rear-view-mirror and said "nothing should be hanging from one's rear-view-mirror in the state of Virginia." Puzzled, we asked if this was a new law which we hadn't hear about yet. Ignoring our question he just repeated himself with his thick voice. He let us free after a few minutes, the poor fake elephant's tooth necklace that hung from the mirror was taken off temporarily being treated like a criminal without a crime.

In America, most parking permits are hung from rear-view-mirrors; most people are fancy enough to hang some tidbit or other on their rear-views, from graduation tassels to hanging Homer Simpson dolls. While we drove back home I looked closely to all the cars around to see if they had something hanging from their rear-view-mirrors or were they also not abiding by the law. And most of them were law breakers, the non-existent-spur-of-the-moment-made-law by the cop who profiled us by our races that night.

I remember watching a movie long time ago, or was it a fairy tale that I read, where the protagonist wakes up one morning with a totally different face, an unattractive almost scary one, the man was unaware of his transformation, but everyone around him saw it and pushed him away into his dark abandoned corner, a bit like Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis but in this case the transformation was not so dramatic.

Lately I think of that man quite often, as I also have acquired a new identity without changing a bit in my own head. I have became more unattractive, unwanted, cornered, typed and stamped. But at least I am not alone, like me many are being confused by what the mirrors say, what the minds say and what the people say. Sketches of our sketchy faces drawn now every day…sketches of us beyond our recognition…feeding the ego of racial profiling.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004