The White House Correspondents' Dinner is widely known as a place where celebrities and journalists go for a few hours to act engage in ego masturbation while clad in formal wear. According to a recent op-ed published on the Huffington Post, however, grossness of a far more vile caliber occurred at this year's event: Seema Jilani, the wife of one of the journalists in attendance, writes that the security team at the ballroom made bigoted remarks and threatened to call the Secret Service on her because of her ethnicity.
Jilani's husband, a journalist, was attending the dinner — as a spouse, she wasn't allowed to enter the ballroom, although she had participated in the cocktail hour. After dropping her husband off at the hotel, she realized that she'd accidentally left her keys with him. When she asked the externally contracted security representatives if she could quickly go retrieve them, they responded, "You can't go down without a ticket."
It makes sense that security would be tight at such an important event in Washington, D.C.; however, as Jilani frantically tried to reach her husband, she noticed that countless white women were being allowed through without even being asked to show their tickets. When she pressed the security representatives about this discrepancy, they threatened to have her thrown out by the Secret Service. While Jilani continued to wait, a blonde woman approached security and claimed to have lost her ticket. One security representative responded, "I'd be happy to personally escort you down the escalators, ma'am."
From here, the bigotry she was subjected to became even more explicit:
When I asked why the security representatives offered to personally escort white women without tickets downstairs while they watched me flounder, why they threatened to call the Secret Service on me, I was told, "We have to be extra careful with you all after the Boston bombings."
"You all." Because, as a brown woman, Seema Jilani belongs to the exact same category as two Chechens. Of course. It's difficult, if not impossible, to not read this behavior as nonsensically and ignorantly punitive, based on Jilani's ethnicity — especially since she's "a 4'11" young woman who weighs 100 pounds soaking wet, who was all prettied up in elegant formal dress." How hard would it be to escort her downstairs as well?
I explained that I am a physician, that my husband is a noted journalist for a major American newspaper, and that our guest was an esteemed, Oscar-nominated director. They did not believe me. Never mind that the American flag flew proudly outside of our home for years, with my father taking it inside whenever it rained to protect it from damage. Never mind that I won "Most Patriotic" almost every July 4th growing up. Never mind that I have provided health care to some of America's most underprivileged, even when they have refused to shake my hand because of my ethnicity.
This backstory — her strength, her success, her patriotism — is deeply touching, and it makes the offense seem all the worse. However, it shouldn't matter. It shouldn't matter that she's a respected physician with a famous husband who enthusiastically celebrates the Fourth of July. What should matter is that she's a human being (and an American citizen) who deserves the same respect and the same treatment as everyone else.
This encounter brings the malignant insidiousness of white privilege into full focus. I'm sure it never even occurred to the white women that they should stop and show their tickets: both the security personell and the women in question shared an unconscious, unspoken belief that, by virtue of their whiteness, those women automatically belonged at the event, and, by virtue of her brownness, Seema Jilani did not. This is a pattern of thinking that's as ubiquitous as it is problematic. It's a less blatant (and more socially accepted) version of the xenophobic ideology that demonizes all Muslims and leads to random violence.
Jilani goes on to recount the ways in which she was forced to "prove my American-ness at every step of my career" and how she was frequently threatened and demeaned and expected to apologize for her faith and complexion. Xenophobia is a serious problem in America, but it shouldn't be the job of victims of that bigotry to prove that they're "just like the rest of us". In Jilani's words:
I want this struggle of mine to be recognized, for you to look me in the eye and acknowledge that yes, this tumor called bigotry is indeed rivering through your veins, polluting your mind, and is so malignant that it compels you to squash my dignity.
Read her full editorial here.
Image via Getty.