ISSN 2330-717X

When Stereotyping Shows Its Ugly Head – OpEd

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By Usama Awan

A Chinese teacher, in the summer of 1945, was traveling through Maine. The guidebook the teacher carried informed him of a beautiful view of the country side that could be seen from a certain hill in the area. Curiously, he asked the locals for the hill’s whereabouts. As a result, a rumor spread in the village that a Japanese spy went up to the hill to take pictures of the surrounding area.

The war weary mothers and fathers in that area had probably already sent a few sons off to war. Consequently, they converted the story to coincide with the circumstances that surrounded their lives at the time – never considering that the gentleman was simply a vacationer.

Forward to the 21st century and we see a similar story playing out. A Pakistani man, with a thick beard plans to fly out for a business trip. In his bag he carries long stretching bands and some clothing. Thus, he is searched for an hour and half, and in the end the TSA confiscates his stretching bands, claiming that he could suffocate passengers or the pilots. He was carrying these bands because he was recovering from a recent ACL surgery.

The behavior of the TSA parallels those of the locals in Maine. The TSA probably asked each other, “Why else would a Pakistani man be carrying stretching bands?”

These justifications, admittedly, are based on a fear that is not completely irrational. In the case of the Chinese teacher, it was WWII and the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor a few years prior. As for the Pakistani, the unfortunate events of 9/11 labeled him as a threat.

But like the Chinese teacher, the Pakistani businessman was a victim of unjustified stereotyping. Just as the Chinese teacher had nothing to do with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Pakistani man had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers. Japanese Americans during WWII were even put in war camps, thus stripping them of their American identity. Today, some consider the terms “Muslim” and “American” mutually exclusive, with politicians such as Rep. Womick arguing for the expulsion of all Muslims from the military.

Throughout American history, stereotyping has repeatedly reared its ugly head. Catholics, Jews, and African – Americans, to name a few, were all stigmatized for their origins or faiths and were not considered American. Over time each of the minorities were able to overcome stereotypes and were eventually included in the broader definition of American. As a testament, John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic President. Although we have not had a Jewish president, we currently have 3 Supreme Court Justices that are Jewish. And of course we currently have a black President.

Critics argue that, unlike the groups mentioned above, Muslims are not considered American because “they” have attacked the United States. To the contrary, an individual or a group from each of the above minorities listed has committed a terrorist attack against the United States. The Black Liberation Army is suspected in over 60 cases between 1970 and 1980 and is responsible for the murder of 13 police officers. Timothy McVeigh, a Catholic, was responsible for the most horrific terrorist attack in American history before 9/11. The FBI reports that the Jewish Defense League is responsible for 7% of all terrorist attacks from 1980 – 2005.

Over time minorities have overcome such stereotypes. A Chinese man today asking for directions would not be labeled a spy. I am sure someday a Muslim businessman going to the airport will not be accused of being a terrorist. But I wonder what accusation awaits a Muslim – American student writing this piece?

Usama Awan is an undergraduate student at Ohio State University and the Vice President of Muslim Writers Guild of America and has been  published in The Columbus Dispatch, Akron Beacon Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Lancaster Eagle Gazette, North Jersey Record, San Angelo Standard – Times and The Herald News. Usama may be reached at [email protected]

This article was published in Lancaster Eagle Gazette (Lancaster, Ohio) and reprinted with the author’s permission.

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