What exactly happened to Tahera Ahmad on that United Airlines flight?
According to news reports, a flight attendant denied Ahmad an unopened can of diet soda. “Big deal,” you might think. “It’s probably just some obscure airline regulation about canned drinks, right?”
Unfortunately, no. This is about race.
In Ahmad’s words, “This isn’t about me and a soda can. It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.”
Specifically, it’s about the way that our system can overlook or even justify the most horrific prejudices. It’s about how nobody stood up for Ahmad when another passenger told her to “f… off” because she “knew that [she] would use [the unopened can] as a weapon.” And most importantly, it’s about the myth of color-blindness, a doctrine that is still actively being spread today. This doctrine states that color doesn’t matter anymore, that minorities have won the battle for equal treatment, and that they no longer have any reason to think they are oppressed.
But what happened on this airline reminds us that color does matter.
And more than that, Ahmad reminds us that it’s not just non-white color that sends the system into defensive-oppressive mode. It’s the colors of minority religions and cultures, too. It’s about islamophobia propagated by irresponsible and unreflective media run by the privileged. Not only do people’s visible differences still affect them. They affect them every day—and it hurts.
Tahera Ahmad was in tears.
She wrote on her Facebook that she was “in tears of humiliation.” She had hope that some fellow passenger would stand up and defend her, but all she received were profanities and the shaking of heads.
United Airlines is an institution like any other corporation. Its top priority is self-preservation. After this blunder by one of its flight attendants, the airline swiftly “redeemed” itself by terminating her employment. While this is surely a gesture of its disapproval of religious prejudice, it still serves to sweep the issue under the rug.
The more the Civil Rights movement sinks into the background of our minds as an event in “history,” the more the doctrine of color-blindness sinks into our minds like a poison. The ideology of color-blindness doesn’t make us immune to racism.
Ironically, color-blindness makes us blind to the real importance of color in our everyday lives.
In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Oberlin College. He said to them, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work…without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation” (King, 1968).
I agree with Dr. King. Every day that we spend waiting for justice is another day that injustice has triumphed. What should you do?
Follow the example of Dr. King. Lead peaceful collective protest of United.
And tell everyone you know.