"[T]hese people — these Others — are merciless, and can take any one of us whenever they choose.”
— Sayid Jarrah, Lost
At some point, each of the players awoke and got out of bed, maybe enthusiastically, maybe reluctantly. They showered, got dressed, ate breakfast and began their days. It is here that their stories diverge - the stories that end in someone else's death.
Someone looked outside the window, saw an unfamiliar-looking person and felt anxiety well inside him or herself. Another one picked up the phone and complained about a suspicious person. For every call, there’s a response: Police officers showed up and also regarded this same unfamiliar-looking one as an alien, capable of producing such anxiety that they shoved his feeble frame, putting him in the hospital and causing him partial paralysis. There is another one who killed a woman, her sister, and her sister’s husband. He decided they caused him great anxiety. His wife said he had no hateful bones in his body. There was a lady who, on a New York City subway platform, felt a pang of anxiety, and pushed a man into a train. She saw fit to act as a one-woman judicial review committee; she held this man accountable for the actions of “terrorists.” The man who was pushed in front of a train was Bangladeshi.
In each of these instances, someone was motivated by violence to perform an act predicated on the simple assumption that a fellow human being had, somehow, ceased being human — and had become something else. It is easy to hurt a fellow human being when you strip them of that humanity.
The 87th Annual Academy Awards was broadcast to millions of homes across the world — and under a heavy cloud of criticism stemming from a disturbing lack of diversity. It was so disturbing, so obvious, and so discussed that Neil Patrick Harris was quick to turn a joke on this fact early on in the telecast.
I think it is easy for people who have never felt the burden of being other-ed to make jokes like this; they do not realize that Oscar telecasts are the kind of platform that can change the hearts and minds of many people. It is the kind of humor that transforms scores of men and women into punchlines — almost as if the white hand of the Academy is swatting them back down. “Your concerns aren’t valid, sit back down.”
These are the kinds of jokes that make it clear that artists of color are considered as “others” — and that the status quo is content with widening the rift between the familiar and the other.
Robin. Rohan. Ronin. Rowan. Rogen. Rowen.
From the time I entered grade school up until I introduced myself to some stranger last week, people always tried to force my name into something that was familiar to them.
I understand that impulse — there is a lot about me that, if you subscribe almost exclusively to tropes and conventions dictated by American mass media, makes me seem very alien.
But then I say, “Hello.” I tell you what I do for a living and the last movie was that I watched. If we were to draw a Venn diagram of things you and I have in common, I can list a bunch of things instantly: Watching television, sleeping in, extra vacation days, eating pizza, trying to save money, wanting to spend money, getting angry when someone in a restroom decides to pee all over the place without trying to aim for the toilet — and so on.
I always have this nervous lump in my throat before introducing myself to strangers. I know they’re going to mangle my name. I know they’re going to prod, ask where my parents are from, ask if I speak any other languages, and lord, maybe ask me to say something in that other language. I am terrified of being other-ed. I know my name, my skin color has likely played a deciding factor among hiring managers in the kinds of jobs in the magazine industry I’ve sought and never won. Every fourth or fifth match on Tinder always asks me what my ethnicity is, or remarks about how exotic my name sounds.
I’ve learned, through the years, to spit out the bitter pill.
I’ve adjusted pretty well, I think.
When I think about the War on Terror, I think of acts of aggression carried out against an abstract noun. Is terror defined narrowly as an act of aggression against people who are white or Americanized enough to pass as white?
Our news culture is quick to tell us that “terror” is only so when it has a brown or a black face, when it speaks a second language, when it has origin stories that can be traced across oceans to other lands. Our news culture equates “terror” with the other — and peddles this problematic math wholesale to passive viewers.
When the face of “terror” is a white man, the media explains he was misguided, a sad sack, mentally unstable, a lone wolf; he was frustrated by a parking dispute. When it is Tim McVeigh, James Eagan Holmes, Eric Harris, or Dylan Klebold, we are told it is because of violent video games and movies. These men are impervious to blame. They are not held accountable for their actions. They are not monoliths for any community or race.
White men are not asked to step aside for security screening before entering a movie theater.
In fact, white men and women are not racially profiled; their names are not flagged on databases. They are not “randomly selected” by the NYPD to have their belongings searched. Their children are not traumatized by Orwellian pat-downs at the airport.
We joke about being racially profiled and other-ed because it is a traumatic experience that none of us ever truly gets over; we just develop stronger ways to cope.
In 2009, I was attending Sarah Lawrence College for a Master’s program in Fiction Writing. On select days, I would shuttle into the city for an internship I had at a lower Manhattan-based magazine. On more mornings than not, I would be “randomly selected” by the NYPD to have my belongings searched before I could swipe my Metro Card and board the 4 train. After a while, it stopped being so “random” and I would joke with my best friend that I should buy some Fair & Lovely skin-whitening cream so I could get to my internship on time.
Imagine being subjected to this when you’re already broke, trying to make it in the Big Apple, cramming too much into a day already — and having friends tell you, “Oh, it’s not racism, they just have to be safe.”
I think I’ve adjusted well to this, too.
Nearly a month has passed since the deaths of Yusor, Razan, and Deah.
We are not done grieving. Dr. Suzanne Barakat, Deah’s sister, has been touring the press, reminding them these people who have died are just that: They are people. They are not symbolic avatars of a religion, but human beings.
Barakat says, “We live in a time where today, it’s socially acceptable, it’s politically advantageous to demonize Muslims.”
In this statement, Barakat has identified the dangerous consequences of other-ing such a large swath of people — that if politicians demonize innocent individuals, civilians will follow their lead.
Days after the shooting, an arsonist set fire to an Islamic community center in southeast Houston with the suspect still at large. I immediately thought about the man who opened fire on a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012. Around the same time as the Houston incident, men attacked a father of two at a supermarket in Dearborn, Michigan. Blaming him for the actions of the terrorist group ISIS, they verbally assaulted his young daughter before they threw punches. One of the supermarket employees allegedly held the father of two down so the white men could land blows on him. The man’s son tried to prevent the altercation; the daughter became hysterical.
I thought about a culture of individuals who are unable to utilize Google or Wikipedia — or even visit their local library — to learn about cultures that are different from their own, and about how these individuals grow bitter in their ignorance.
This is dangerous.
Sureshbhai Patel was identified as a “skinny black guy” by an anonymous caller in a 911 recording. It was that description that prompted Officer Eric Parker to ask Patel what he was doing in the neighborhood, where he lived. Patel responded with, “No English,” and tried to produce the phone number of his son, who did speak English. At this point, Parker assaulted Patel and paralyzed him.
This is terrifying.
Many of us, as first- or second-generation South Asian Americans, have aging parents or grandparents that live with us. My grandmother goes for walks around the neighborhood all the time. It is her way of trying to learn the intricacies of a foreign community which she will never wholly understand. It is her way of enjoying the trees, the fresh air; and as someone who doesn’t drive in a city where you need to be able to drive to get anywhere, it is her way of feeling mobile.
To think that a poorly-trained police officer could put her life in jeopardy makes me want to ask her to never leave the house again unless she is chaperoned.
But that is not fair to her.
“Skinny black man.”
These are three words that resulted in Sureshbhai Patel’s hospitalization. three words that connect this spate of attacks on brown people to a string of tragedies in 2014 where America mourned the loss of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Gabriella Naverez, and Trayvon Martin, among too many others. Three words that, when decoded, betray personal bias of the person deploying these three words. In this case, these are three words that betrayed the racism, the prejudice of a citizen calling 911.
They are also three words that — when interpreted by the 911 operator and Officer Parker — pulled the veil back on just how deep racism runs in American communities. Imagine if, in an ethnic community, an anonymous caller complained about a “skinny white guy” acting suspicious — the caller would’ve been gaslighted and her complaint not passed onto law enforcement.
Patel’s story is a little bit different — hailing from another global superpower, and one with strong political ties to the U.S. — the assault on him meant that the governor of Alabama had to personally apologize to the Indian government. All this and yet, nothing so succinct from our own government in response to Chapel Hill — or even Ferguson, for that matter.
To other men and women is a reactive impulse. We only other people when they fit into a subjective framework — and it is a framework that is shaped by fear. I fear Eric Parker; I fear Craig Hicks; I fear Darren Wilson; I fear George Zimmerman.
I fear a man who — opening his door to find someone as distressed as Renisha McBride, asking for help — would instinctively shoot her.
It’s a double-edged sword, because now I’ve failed at considering the humanity of these individuals. I’ve other-ed them. Where exactly do we draw the line?
I always try to connect the dots between the unnecessary loss of life back to cultural programming because most of us are educated by mass media like television.
It is not a bad thing. It only becomes problematic when passive viewers are only sold one story. When we are told certain films or artists are not the “best” when, objectively, it would seem they are.
When we are sold the myth of minority sidekicks and white heroes, we are asked to participate in the other-ing of a person. When we are asked to consider whether faith played a role in the death of a victim (it never does — a murderer wielding a murder weapon played that role), we are asked to participate in the other-ing of a person. When CNN asks us a dozen times in two days whether faith- and not a weapon - played a role in the murder of three innocent and wonderful civilians, they are perpetuating the belief that the deceased are others,and that being others predisposed them to murder.
There is a trick we can use to not take the bait when being asked to other a fellow human.
It is a trick that writers sometimes use when they are convincing you something absurd or inconsistent with the world they’ve built is actually commonplace: They write it no differently than they would anything else in that work. When done well, it is the kind of trick that allows us to immerse ourselves in the mythologies of The Hunger Games or Harry Potter.
We notice when news outlets hesitate to humanize victims of color because it is inconsistent with how they report when victims are white. White victims get their names, backstories, and a compelling narrative that is played to death during a news cycle; victims of color are lucky to get their names and a sliver of a backstory during a ticker scroll.
Darren Wilson got a highly-publicized interview on ABC News; Brown’s family got no closure from a broken legal system.
There are inconsistencies with how news outlets report on aggressors: White aggressors are troubled; non-white aggressors are terrorists.
Look at how facts are presented or omitted and you find that there is always bias. Someone is always being other-ed to serve a larger, pernicious purpose. Many may never outgrow their racism and biases — but we should not live in a world that accommodates to their antiquated attitudes.
We are all humans. We need to remember that. No matter how different from you a stranger’s name, skin color, life choices, customs are, both of you are running on similar scripts where you sleep, shower, eat, celebrate, mourn, work, vacation, live, breathe, and die. We’re all just bags of meat and bones and we all have only the lives we are afforded.
They might awake, get dressed, eat, go to work, and be merry like you and me — but perhaps the monsters are born the minute they decide to demonize another human, and are willing to spill their blood.
Perhaps the onus is on the rest of us to resist the temptation to other anyone and strive to see humanity in everyone.
The original version of this essay appeared at The Aerogram.
Rohin Guha is a writer based just a few towns over from Detroit. His writing has appeared at Jezebel, XOJane, The Toast, and elsewhere. He is an editor at The Aerogram. He's also hard at work on a book of essays.