In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans have been asked to be vigilant for suspicious activity, particularly in travel situations. Even in little ole Portland, Maine, at the local Transportation Center, a recorded voice goes off at regular intervals reminding us that “If you see something, say something” which in theory sounds great yet is increasingly problematic.
What we see is often shaped by our perceptions, and in a world where whiteness is centered as a norm…with the vast majority of white people living in silos of whiteness…where anything that doesn’t fit into the norms of whiteness is often viewed with suspicion.
Case in point: A few weeks ago, an olive-skinned, curly-haired man boarded a plane to Syracuse, N.Y., and before the plane departed, he decided to start doing some work. Nothing out of the norm, as many travelers decide to work while flying, except in his case his seatmate (who has been described as blond-haired, 30-something year old woman in flip flops with a red tote bag) found the man’s work to be suspicious. In a story that sounds like something straight out of The Onion, it turns out the man was Guido Menzio, an Italian, Ivy League professor of economics who was hard at work on differential equations as part of a paper he was preparing on the properties of model setting.
This apparently very white woman apparently missed the advanced math offerings in high school and mistook Menzio’s scribbles as possibly being Arabic terrorist code and decided to follow the “see something, say something” advice which lead to the plane being grounded while Menzio ended up being questioned after the woman passed a note to the flight attendants. It seems that in addition to being hard at work at passenger-suspected terrorist math, Menzio didn’t answer the unidentified woman’s questions in a way that she felt was suitable. Thus, a plane load of people were delayed more than two hours because a man doing math on a plane was not the norm for one woman.
Menzio was far more good-natured about the disruption than I would have been if I were a math bad-ass. Instead, Menzio says he was: “treated respectfully throughout,” though he remains baffled and frustrated by a “broken system that does not collect information efficiently.” He is troubled by the ignorance of his fellow passenger, as well as “A security protocol that is too rigid—in the sense that once the whistle is blown everything stops without checks—and relies on the input of people who may be completely clueless. ”
Like I said, he was far more generous and good-natured than I would have been about the situation since the flight should have been only 41 minutes…yet he is right, we have a system that relies on the input of clueless people and in the vast majority of cases, it is clueless white people who are determining what is “normal” or “suspicious” without questioning why they believe what they believe. Instead, they see as “logical” that a man’s scrawlings could be threatening (even if it was terrorist code…which would look very unlike math…how exactly would that go from paper to threat on the plane when it isn’t transferred to anyone?). This system harms people and in most cases it is non-white people who are harmed. (And let’s not forget that since it was formed, the TSA and enhanced airport security hasn’t caught terrorists or prevented terrorism so much as it has allowed a fair number of TSA agents to mistreat and even steal from passengers)
However, the matter of perception and norms goes far beyond our traveling habits; it affects every area of our lives, including who we choose to extend compassion to and who is not worthy of compassion.
Lesley McSpadden, the mother of the slain Michael Brown, the young man shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, recently wrote in her memoir “Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil” that Michael Brown’s untimely death became the catalyst for the Black Lives Movement and helped open up the national dialogue on police violence and racism. Given the significance of Brown’s death, it’s not unexpected that his mother would write a book. Yet in another instance of WTF?!, racist trolls took to the book’s Amazon page to leave hurtful comments and to refer to her deceased son as a “thug.” There are still far too many who still refuse to see the humanity of Michael Brown as a kid who did nothing to warrant what was essentially an execution at the hands of Officer Wilson. The fact is that he was a big Black teenager who didn’t meet someone else’s standards of normal, and even in death he is assaulted and his parents must live with the aftermath.
Earlier this year, Sue Klebold, mother of of Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenagers who, in 1999, walked into Columbine High School and shot and killed 13 people and wounded 24 others before taking his own life, released a book. Sue Klebold’s book is about the aftermath of this heinous act that forever shattered a nation’s innocence around schools as safe spaces.
To be fair, Dylan Klebold was a perpetrator of violence and a killer whereas Michael Brown was a victim yet in the aftermath how their families have been treated speaks volumes to who we choose to humanize and who is forever othered because of our own perceptions of what is normal and what is not.
The Klebold family most certainly has endured much pain and heartbreak and even stigma yet there is still enough compassion in the well to attempt to understand and humanize this family. Meanwhile Michael Brown’s family continues to fight to be seen as human, to have their son’s memory be more than the imagery that the Ferguson Police Department and Darren Wilson tried to leave us with and unfortunately, because our sense of normal is shaped by our very small social words, we often can’t see the humanity of anyone who doesn’t fit into our silo of normal. And those limited viewpoints that control most of the social norms and dictate what is abnormal come from white people who have very little knowledge of other races or cultures and, frankly, don’t care to expand that knowledge.
Professor Menzio is right that the system is broken and that we ought not to rely on the input of clueless people, but I will add that the system has a name and its called white supremacy. And until we get serious about dismantling the system of white supremacy, any and all who don’t fit into “white norms” will be at risk. In the meantime, let’s hope that “Al-Gebra” doesn’t come for us…heaven help us if we are attacked by those pesky-ass quadratic equations.