The horror of being the victim of bias is the loneliness of feeling unseen for who you truly are, for being seen as anything less than fully human.
On March 17, Jessica Moore — a comedian who goes by “Jess Hilarious”— posted videos of turbaned Sikh men boarding a plane. “Where are they going? Where are they GOING?” Moore is heard saying from behind the cellphone camera. In later videos, she jokingly brags about the men being kicked off the plane. She also went on an expletive-laced rant against those who found her insensitivity offensive. Many Sikhs across the United States were deeply hurt by what seemed like another act of profiling, but this one made for laughs on social media. What made Moore’s posts even more painful for a turbaned Sikh man like myself was that Moore is an African-American woman.
But why should that matter?
The horror of being the victim of bias is the loneliness of feeling unseen for who you truly are, for being seen as anything less than fully human. It can hurt more when perpetrators of bigoted or biased acts belong to groups that also suffer from bias and discriminatory actions. How many African-Americans have lost their lives after being unfairly profiled? It is a special kind of pain when people who are picking on us should know better. It turns out it is not just Sikhs who Moore does not understand; she used a homophobic slur on Instagram last month. Why does the pain of discrimination not lead us to empathy and compassion?
Well, it does for some.
After the videos were shared and then deleted from her account, social media users across the racial and religious spectra denounced Moore. Among those who were most offended by Moore’s aggressive humor were other African-Americans, like Margari Aziza, director of the Muslim Anti-Racist Collaborative, who noted that Moore’s tweets came on the heels of the hate-tinged massacre of 50 Muslim mosque-goers in New Zealand. Activist and educator Brittany Packnett wrote, “It will never cease to amaze me how much marginalized people will happily wear the garments of white supremacy, as if the same fear-mongering racism isn’t used against you.”
Allies like Aziza and Packnett stepped in on behalf of Sikhs because they believe people from oppressed communities should be able to feel others’ pain as if it were their own. Bias incidents can fracture goodwill between communities, but understanding commonalities opens up the possibility for common struggle for the common good.
In the U.S., communities that have faced oppression have a long history of standing up on each other’s behalf. In 1869, formerly enslaved American and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass spoke out on behalf of the Chinese immigrants despised by our Californian predecessors: “I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled on higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights.” In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a survivor of the German Holocaust, marched with African-American civil rights leaders in Alabama. Heschel remarked that marching for equality and justice in the U.S. was a holy act: “I felt my legs were praying.”
More recently, Japanese-Americans like Los Angeles activist traci ishigo have been reaching out to Muslim communities in our current Islamophobic context. They prove that common oppressions can lead to common organizing because people who share experiences of discrimination are uniquely able to hear, understand and believe each other. Japanese-Americans, having been forcibly interned in camps while U.S. troops fought Nazis in World War II, knew what it was like to be a pariah in this country. They experienced not being believed and having their loyalties questioned. They kept that memory of alienation alive through the generations and leveraged it for their Muslim neighbors.
Many say that we should not focus on our differences at all, only on that which brings us together as U.S. Americans. But I say that we HAVE to acknowledge differences. We cannot be blind to the histories of our diverse communities, including histories of oppression. Only by acknowledging differences and the histories that produced them can we ask what brings us together now and in the future. By understanding each other’s stories we can build solidarity. And building solidarity is the only way to challenge social structures so that they can work for all of us, not just the powerful and wealthy.
To the changemakers involved in these struggles, there are no strange communities. There are just groups of people whose experiences we have not yet understood.
It seems the activists who stood up and spoke out had a great impact on Moore, who apologized for her actions and offered to donate to charity as a result of having been educated.
I am so grateful to the brothers and sisters of all backgrounds who chose comity over comedy and spoke out against hate. May we all be inspired to return the favor.
Rahuldeep Singh Gill, Ph.D., is an associate professor of religion and campus interfaith strategist at California Lutheran University.