Tag Archives: prejudice


Dr Shyam K Bhat MD is a
Psychiatrist and Integrative
Medicine specialist.

He is board certified in
Psychiatry, Internal
Medicine, and
Psychosomatic Medicine,
with additional certification
in clinical hypnosis

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The Element of Danger


Shortly after the terrorist attack that Americans refer to as 9/11, a professor I was working with at a university in southern Illinois told me that it would probably be better if I didn’t venture out at night for a few weeks, “until things settle down”. Overnight, images of the brown-skinned hijackers, and of Osama Bin Laden had been burned into the American consciousness. There were reports every day of brown skinned men being beaten up and when a man was shot death in Arizona because he looked, according to the shooter, “like a terrorist”, I became acutely selfconscious of the colour of my skin and even my foreign sounding name.

The next week, I had to go Atlanta for a conference. Midway, during the three-hour flight, I stood up and the airhostess came running to me. “Is there something I can do for you, sir?” she asked me, her eyes slightly wide. A tall man sitting across the aisle from me seemed to be ready to leap out of his seat, should the need arise.

“I need to use the restroom,” I said, feeling like a first grader whose nervous bladder has brought the class to a standstill.

In Atlanta, after the conference I decided to visit the Coca Cola factory. As a single brown guy in a building that housed one of America’s most recognizable symbols of capitalism, I suppose I should not have felt surprised that I was followed all day by a discreet but eagle-eyed security guard.

Back in Springfield, Illinois, not much changed at work – white coats help – and other than one patient who asked me, “Is it true that you guys treat women badly?” the hospital was a sanctuary against the changes outside. A few days later, after I was refused entry into a lounge “because of the colour of your shoes”, I decided to take a break from the Midwest and head to California. Like every liberal who is stuck in Middle America, I always enjoyed my visits to the state. The sight of veshti-clad men, and women in saris walking along the El Camino Highway never failed to comfort me; where else could one eat creamy and spicy dal makhani in a restaurant right opposite one that served quite possibly the best char-grilled burgers in America? (OK, maybe in NYC, but this didn’t seem like a good time to be visiting that city.)

I was staying in Mountain View, at a friend’s place. Kirk, a doctor who had recently moved from Springfield to Stanford, was “Asian”, which is of course an American euphemism to describe anyone with a prominent epicanthic fold. His parents were from China, and he had a Chinese name –“Chang Yung Fa” – but everyone called him by his western name – Kirk. I asked him once what he thought of himself as – Kirk or Yung Fa – and he sad he hadn’t really thought about it.?

As we ate prawns and rice at a restaurant that was more authentically Chinese than any restaurant that I had been to before, I told him about how things had changed in Springfield these past few weeks.

“Nothing’s changed here, right?” I asked.

”I think you should meet a friend of mine,” Kirk said in reply. “His name is Osama.”

The next morning we had breakfast at a small deli run by an irritable old white man. Back in Illinois, I would have assumed that his irritability was reserved for people with the colour of my skin, but here in the Bay Area, in the warm and inclusive atmosphere of California, I really didn’t care. ?As we were finishing up a demitasse of espresso, a red Mazda stopped in the parking lot.? “There he is,” said Kirk.?

Osama was wearing a skullcap even though it was not cold. He walked with a side-to-side swagger and exchanged high fives with Kirk. “Whatup whatup, homie?” he said and sat down. Over breakfast, Osama told me that he was from Lahore, Pakistan, and had been in the US for three years. He had a green card, he said, and worked at a grocery store part time while completing a degree in anthropology at the university.

“What’s it been like for you after 9/11?” I asked at some point during breakfast. Osama shrugged, as he lit a cigarette. “My work is okay, it’s no big deal. Actually it’s better after 9/11 because my boss can’t shout for me in front of the customers. But the campus is out of control, man, I am partying like a mother.”?

“Excuse me?” I said. Kirk interpreted for me. “He’s partying a lot, like crazy, right?”?

Osama nodded. “Yeah, first of all nobody, I mean nobody, asks me to spell my name anymore, none of that, ‘what’s your name again?’ Or ‘What an interesting name’ or any of that crap. Like, everyone knows my name, dude. It’s like I am a freakin’ celeb or something. I am telling you bro, when they started showing Osama Bin Laden on TV, I thought I was screwed. I said, ‘shit, my life is over now. I have to change my name or something.’”?

“So what happened?”?

“It started slowly. I was in the dorm and I started getting emails, invites to parties you know. I think they wanted to make me feel welcome, like they were not judging me or anything. So I went to, like, four parties in a week man. And the women, dude. The women just want to hook up with me.”?

“Meaning they want to sleep with him,” Kirk explained, in case I didn’t understand what Osama was referring to.?

“Yeah, that’s right. They want to take me back to their rooms and they want to be in bed with me shouting out my name, ‘Osama! Osama!’”

I looked sharply this way and that to ensure that nobody had heard. The deli owner was busy slicing pastrami and there was nobody else around.?

“Hey it’s my name man, I should be able to say it loudly if I want to. It means the brave Lion, Osama!” he said once more and then polished off his espresso in one gulp. His phone rang, some new top 40 pop number, and he glanced at the phone: “It’s a girl I am meeting up with tonight. If you know what I mean.”

“Hey Amy.” He winked at us.

“No, no, Osama always has time for you baby, what’s up?”

Of course, Osama’s new found success with women was not surprising: women (or at least those under the age of 30) from all over the world find themselves torn between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the safe and the exciting, the stable and the unpredictable. Nice guys may not finish last, but they don’t always get the girl either, and so while the rubble was still being cleared, as George Bush was in the Oval Office preparing to launch an attack on Iraq and Afghanistan, my friend Osama from Lahore was reaping the unexpected benefits of sharing a name with the most wanted man on earth. The name lent him just enough danger, a frisson of menace, to transform him (at least in the eyes of impressionable young sophomores) from boring to attractive, from geek to cool, from ordinary to exotic.

Of course, there are other possible explanations for Osama’s new found success with the ladies: perhaps the name drew prejudices out into the open; like draining an abscess, the name “Osama” acted like a lancet, allowing hidden and unconscious stereotypes to be released, freeing people to connect with him on a more human level.

Or maybe I am overanalyzing the whole thing, and maybe women in California just have a thing for south Asian men.


The Paranoia of Prejudice


We’ve flown 24 hours, from Bangalore to Chicago. My 6-month old son has slept most of the way in a bassinet, but my wife and I, both battling a nasty cough, are exhausted. Before we can catch our connecting flight to Springfield, we have to first clear immigration. The officer looks at our passports, asks a few cursory questions, after which we are duly photographed and fingerprinted, like all “aliens.”

“Your son, too,” the immigration official instructs. So, I take my baby boy out of the car seat and hold him up as he looks quizzically at the camera, a small, unfriendly object.

We have to go through security again, where the officer tells us to throw away all liquids. My wife asks, “Even the water? I need it to mix my son’s formula.”

“Sorry, it’s the new rules,” the man says. My wife had to sweet-talk a surly Lufthansa air hostess into filling the flask with warm water, and she’s not too happy about throwing it out. “We’ll get hot water in the airport?” she asks, as we walk to the gate.

My wife, she worries too much. “Of course we’ll get water,” I assure her. “And, anyway, our flight is in about half an hour.”

As it turns out, I am wrong on both counts.

Our flight is delayed due to bad weather, initially by an hour, then 2, then 4, and then indefinitely. “Don’t know when the next flight will be out, man,” the airline official says. He’s smiling, as if reveling in the fact that the delay is not the airline’s fault.

We’ve been here since noon, and it’s 6 o’clock, time for my son’s feeding. Rishi is wailing by now, and Ashwini tries to soothe him while I go in search of water.

I am walking in the airport, two-day stubble, dark circles around my eyes, irritated, a steel thermos flask in one hand. In another country or in another political climate, this would be completely innocuous—a man with a flask, probably on his way to get some coffee or tea or, as in this case, hot water for his child’s formula.

But this is America; specifically, America after 9/11.

As I walk, I become aware of people glancing in my direction. I feel like a leper at a beauty pageant. I wonder if I am making people uncomfortable. After all, they are seeing a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern–

looking man, striding along the corridors of the airport, with a steel cylinder that looks like some primitive incendiary device.

I get to the McDonald’s counter near the end of the terminal. “Can I get some warm water in this flask, please?” I ask, in my Indian-accented English.

He is polite, this young Latino man. “No sir, we are not allowed to do that.”

The guy behind me laughs. I shoot him a glance; our eyes meet. What, I wonder, is so funny? He’s a big man, probably raised on football and hockey, while I’m a small-framed Indian male, Gandhian as they come. But at this moment, I think there’s a trace of discomfort, even ap-prehension, in his eyes. Or maybe he’s laughing at the silliness of airport regulations; maybe the look in his eyes is a reflection of the angst that he sees in mine.

I turn to leave. We will have to make do with cold water.

As we waited for our flight, I reflected on my state of mind. Maybe it was because we’d just come back from India after almost a month, but I felt alienated here, uncomfortable, like a guest at a party who has overstayed his welcome. In Bangalore, I was just another brown-skinned male, not an oddity, nor a curiosity, or a threat, or an incongruity. Without the oppressive burden of stereotype, I felt a freedom, as refreshing as a monsoon shower.

Why did I choose to stay on in the U.S. then? As a colleague recently said, when I shared my growing misgivings about the current political climate, “No one’s keeping you here. Why don’t you go back home?”

But it wasn’t that simple. I had been enamored with America for a long time. She was a movie star of a country, a free spirit who made her own rules; she was larger than life, rich, glamourous, part of my dreams.

As a boy, growing up in India, I would wait eagerly for new clothes from the U.S. brought by visiting relatives. I loved Rambo, Nike shoes, rock music, pizza, and hamburgers, and by the time MTV got to India in the mid-90s, the seduction was complete. I was in love with America. I would have to find my way to her.

Sometime in 1997, while in England as a trainee in psychiatry, I put up a small handwritten poster on my wall to motivate myself to do well on the U.S. medical licensing exams: “America—Home by 2000!” My poster must have worked, because I found myself in the U.S. by 1999, a full year before my self-imposed deadline.

I remember walking out of JFK. Ah, the noise, the energy, the huge flashy cars. I remember looking at the magnificent skyline, thinking: Finally. I am here. I loved everything about America. I admired what every immigrant has admired about the country—the wide open spaces, the roads, the friendliness of the people, the work ethic, the cleanliness, the sheer pleasure of knowing that in America things work, that you can drink water right out of the tap, that there are fewer mosquitoes, and the electricity is always on. But more than anything else, this was the America I’d dreamed about as a child, the wellspring of all that culture I had imbibed thousands of miles away. This was home.

And then everything changed. Thousands died on 9/11. Afghanistan was bombed, and soldiers and civilians were killed in Iraq, and one Friday evening I walked into a bar and someone taunted me: “Jihad! Jihad!” a man said, as his buddies laughed. A friend of mine was called a “sand nigger” at a gas station. I guess it could have been worse; in Arizona, an Indian man was shot dead because someone thought he looked like a terrorist.

The emotional climate of the country shifted. Subtle and insidious, so many incidents gnawed at the fringes of my consciousness, eating away at my fragile and incipient sense of belonging: a couple at a party questioned me about my religious beliefs and relaxed visibly when they learned that I was not Muslim, as if I would have been somehow guilty of a crime if I were; a few patients asked me about my views on women and if I treated them as equals; cashiers at checkout lines and staff at restaurants smiled politely and joked with other customers, but were surly and rude with me.

And when I bought an old house and moved in a year ago, a fence went up next door. In middle America, there was now an Us and a Them, and I was definitely part of the latter.

The country of my dreams, my America, was not mine any longer. She had turned her back on me.

We get back to Springfield eventually. We settle into our lives, and my thoughts and feelings about India, about post–9/11 America, fade away. Then, a week later, I read a news story about an Indian man in Chicago, allegedly the victim of a racially motivated assault by a policeman,1 then another about the ordeal of a South Asian professor caught up in a hysterical bomb scare.2  That same day, I see Adam, a 50-year-old man who suffers from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. He’s a nice guy, wears bizarre clothes, has long hair and terrible teeth, smokes too much, and keeps to himself. He also plays the piano. Went to Juilliard for a year, he claims.

“Doctor,” he says. “I feel uncomfortable when I go out. I wonder if people think bad things about me, you know what I mean?”

“Yes, Adam,” I reply. “I know exactly what you mean.”

REFERENCES

1. Walberg M. Man says Joliet cop used slur, beat him. Chicago Tribune. April 13, 2007. Available at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ southsouthwest/chi-0704120687apr13,1,3674671.story?coll=chinewslocalssouthwest-hed. Accessed May 2, 2007

2. Ali K. Poetry is dangerous. Available at: www.kazimali.com. Accessed May 2, 2007