Where is the borderline between racism and bad old ignorance? I wondered about that question again last week as news came that Shah Rukh Khan was yet again harassed at US immigration. For those of you who don’t know who he is, well, he’s a global mega-movie star not only in India but much of the world. Khan has been having trouble entering the US for years. Perhaps three or even now four times, he’s been detained by officials who don’t seem to have a clue who he is.
Now of course on the first or even second time we may need to give some latitude to immigration officials. But when it happens more than a couple of times? This time, again, even the US Ambassador to India publicly apologized. Khan himself, though of course highly miffed, made the reported statement that whenever he was getting too arrogant, he just needs to plan a trip to visit the United States!!
It made me even more angry as it was right around India’s Independence Day last week. Maybe I feel an even closer affinity to Shah Rukh Khan because we were right next to him a few years ago in Goa, India, while on a family holiday. Seriously, though, his problems at US immigration are not that unusual. Other Indian leaders and those of other nations have had similar stories of harassment and long times of being detained.
Now I need to say that I’m grateful for all immigration and customs officials around the world that are committed to keeping people safe, including in the US. This post is not a rant against them in general. They are doing a very crucial job wherever they are. But I’m asking a larger question in this post. When does ignorance of other countries and their leaders in various fields of life cross a line into racism? Or is ignorance another form of racism? Is ignorance really an excuse?
Again, the issue with Shah Rukh Khan is that it was not happening for the first time. Or even the second. I remember the last time it happened, there was also a public apology and a commitment that it would not happen again. So what happened? Is it because his last name is Khan? An obvious Muslim name. Is that the reason he was detained, not because he was from India but because of his last name?
Ignorance can only be an excuse for so long. And we can argue in a world that is more and more inter-connected, it should not be an excuse at all. I have to make a confession. Ignorance is one of the things that makes me most frustrated, wherever I see it, including in me. But when in my life is ignorance actually disguised racism? Am I open to see it?
As someone coming from the United States, Shah Rukh, I would ask you to forgive us as a nation. We need to do better. We need to stop using ignorance as an excuse for a thinly disguised racism. It needs to start with me.