By Jalal Awan
I have been a resident of Santa Monica for well over three years and been calling Los Angeles home for more than six. I came to this city of four million as a cultural exchange scholar and had no difficulty assimilating as another one of many LA transplants. This piece is about how dissimilating from the same welcoming culture, based on even a single incident such as the one I encountered on Labor Day, could be even easier.
My first couple of years in Los Angeles were in a diverse, relatively insular student environment at my alma mater — the University of Southern California. A deeply optimistic exchange student from Pakistan, I quickly found myself surrounded by like-minded millennials from mostly upper socio-economic class who had enough in common with me to form meaningful social connections. A few years on, the optimistic, progressive bubble I was happily floating in landed me a few miles south to another bubble in coastal Santa Monica – and from an engineering focused Masters degree to a doctorate in public policy research.
This was coincidentally a surprisingly tumultuous time in US history: the Trump presidency, the Muslim ban, sabotaged provisions for healthcare under the Affordable Care Act and a litany of other executive decisions ranging from discriminatory restriction of individual human rights to global alienation of the United States were headline news for four years. The cascade of restrictions on individual rights and freedoms that followed Trump’s policies, encouraged the emergence of what Jung called the ‘shadow personality’ or the hidden, repressed part of American psyche whose ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors. I saw a glimpse of that in a surprise encounter over the Labor Day weekend — here, I try to make sense of what I had compartmentalized in my mind as ‘isolated, unfortunate encounters’.
Firstly, no amount of self-gratifying talk on progress on racism based on color is complete without taking into full consideration, the opinions of people on the receiving end. Discrimination based on color is the vilest form, much worse than any on the spectrum of discrimination that ranges from transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia to victim-shaming, misogyny and gaslighting. It is the worst because the oppressed cannot hide ‘color’, the oppressors most often cannot rise beyond their reptilian instinct of fear. My experience was on the far less sinister side of this spectrum – it may even be misconstrued as completely innocuous. But to me, it was a silver lining that opened a lot of unexplored spaces in the recesses of my imagination.
We were enjoying a pop-up jazz concert in a Santa Monica park dotted with colorful picnic spreadsheets and umbrellas: a classic SoCal setting. Behind us, were four people: two Caucasian men in their 40s and two non-white women in a similar age range. About an hour into the concert, with my back behind the group, I started paying attention to their increasingly loud comments on my appearance, ethnicity, physicality and religion — and then the vilest ‘guessing game’ of what could have potentially brought me there. I have stage-fright, and this looked like I was in the middle of a stage with a crowd enjoying my roast. The worst part, I did not have the mic.
I have the good habit of journaling life-changing events, and I made sure to journal every quote I clearly heard. I am also not ashamed to admit that for personal reasons, I have decided to compartmentalize this experience as an “isolated, unfortunate encounter,” one that has given me enough food for thought to not care about the psychological trauma it caused.
The feeling of helplessness experienced by those on the receiving end of more tangible racist encounters may not mean much to someone detached from the situation – and understandably so. Heck, for victims, the feeling of language being inadequate perhaps becomes even more pronounced in situations like these. There are no anti-racist helplines for subjective experiences, neither do you have community watch patrols to report incidents like these that are far more common than one would imagine in their liberal, happy bubbles. The resources, and political impetus, is all on maintaining so-called ‘order’, a stopgap solution at best when an imagined superiority complex makes the very human spirit chaotic.
The onus to explore how such experiences may shake a person’s mental models of reality is on you, the observer. Reading up, talking to victims of societal ills, and engaging in thought exercises to step outside your Freudian ego could help make better sense, but will never equate to the experience itself. Performatory activism might have feel-good effects but do little to help change stereotypical narratives that find footing in the least likely of institutions such as law enforcement, where the observer’s neutrality helps the oppressor.
If a verbal, disengaged encounter in the middle of classic liberal America can have a profound effect on one’s subconscious assumptions of trust and good-will about ‘strangers’, imagine how explicit, institutionalized racism can create disenchantment in middle America. I have had the privilege to be connected with some of the most highly educated, informed people with socio-political clout around Los Angeles — ‘disenchantment’ is perhaps one way to describe the feelings of someone who is not.
The author is a Santa Monica resident.