I’d nearly forgotten about my recent exposure to discrimination at an airport when the killing of George Floyd brought everything back. I’d like to think that if I’d been there, I would have stopped the policeman. I wonder how many of us think that way. Would we? In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed in Queens, New York, but no one stopped the assailant. In psychology, it’s called the bystander effect
I was on a flight to Europe in February of 2020, as news of the pandemic was breaking. I wore a pale blue surgical mask on the plane and was glad to have it when I squeezed onto the bus that ferries the passengers from the plane to the terminal.
As I proceeded to customs, I noticed people were looking at me, even moving away from me. I felt strange. Was it just because I wore a mask? I felt a strong urge to blend in and look like everybody else. Does it really take just a face mask to be discriminated against? I turned the corner and removed it. Instantly, I was unnoticeable.
We say we want to be different, but we really want to be the same. We want to blend in and gain the protection of the herd against predators. The outliers and young ones being visible are vulnerable and prayed upon.
People who are black or brown can’t hide their color. I can imagine how they feel. Being Italian doesn’t show. I enjoy my white privilege until it’s called into question when I start to speak in my slight accent. Then I’m an immigrant. My high school friends would tease me for my pronunciations, using a slur was meant to be funny, but they were talking out of stereotype without knowing.
Back at that airport I saw something that may be standard procedure, but I’ll never forget it. I was advancing one step at a time inside the lanes for crowd control. I could see a cordoned off square with black people sitting around the perimeter. One agent sat up high on a stool with a computer. Three others were questioning each person, one at a time. There was a distinguished looking black man with a young boy, maybe 10, being questioned through an interpreter.
I could hear the agents asking: “Why should we believe you? Again, why did you and your son come here? How much money do you have? Where are you going to stay tonight?”
The man looked exhausted.
Later, as my turn came up, I noticed the man was being taken away. The child was gone. Separated from his father. I would have melted under such public humiliation and legal inhumanity.
I straightened my coat, patted my hair, made sure my phone was turned off. “You’re an American citizen,” exclaimed the agent. “You could have gone through those turnstiles and got out long ago!”
The privilege of being white and having an American passport.
But what about the others? We can’t be bystanders anymore.
C. Claire Law, M.S., certified educational planner visits universities in the U.S. and world-wide to help students find affordable colleges where they can grow and thrive.