Connecting worlds: Face your hidden bias!

Facebook on Friday, 13th, after the dreadful attacks in Paris: Besides posts expressing great solidarity with France, I also came across disturbing posts, blaming refugees or condemning Islam. I was sitting on a train from NY to Boston, a working resident alien in the US, feeling helpless. What is it I can do? I am trying to encounter every person as a human being and a potential friend. Does that even count es “doing something” or should that not be booked as “that goes without saying”?

Suddenly I realized how important it is to be open to difference, and willing to learn from others. At the beginning of this week, my friend Deepti texted me some advice for my first week at my new workplace: “If you meet Indians at work, do not forget to wish them Happy Diwali.” I am so thankful for that text, my Indian friends and coworkers were pleasantly surprised that a white Christian remembered their most important holiday. Moments like these remind me why I introduced my “connecting worlds” articles to this blog, to emphasize the little things, to reveal other perspectives.

Especially after what has happened yesterday, I feel it is time for a post that will most likely be controversial. In one of my Harvard Business School classes, we spend a great amount talking about hidden biases. Every person has a hidden bias. And you cannot do anything against that bias, but to be aware of it. To confront yourself honestly and admit: Yes, I have a subconscious tendency to treat a person with certain features (color, religion, origin) differently than others.

One of my classmates, a brilliant speaker and very passionate scholar, shared a personal story with us in the classroom and I have asked him if he would be willing to share his feelings in my connecting world section. I am sharing this today because I want to remind myself and my readers that, in times like these, when we have been hurt and our deepest values have been attacked, we should not, not for one moment, let our biases get the best of ourselves. Comments welcome!

Sartre_Freedom

 

I am an Egyptian Muslim with both Egyptian and American citizenships. I was born in the U.S., about 3 weeks before my father was scheduled to graduate from the master’s program he was attending. After graduation, my parents flew me back to Egypt and began a working life in the Middle East. Consequently, I lived most of my life in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Save for a 2-month study abroad program in California during undergrad, I had not spent extended periods of time in the U.S. When anybody asks me where I am from or which country I identify with, I reply “Egypt” without hesitation. One more thing, my last name happens to be a prevalent Muslim name in the Middle East and Asia.

 

About 2 years ago, I was accepted to Harvard Business School’s MBA program, and started studying there in August of 2013. And it is here where the challenge begins. Whenever I fly into Boston via an international flight -since I came to Boston for the very first time to interview with HBS and until now- I am stopped and questioned by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This has happened to me all but one time, out of about 20 (MBA students travel a lot).

 

Every time this happens, I am told to step aside by the customs officer while another escorts me to a quiet area. There, I am told to wait till they call my name. The waiting room usually has a couple of other people in it. They are always male, brown, and Muslim – by both name and homeland majority religion. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the people I meet there attend top programs at either Harvard or MIT. When my name is finally called (usually 20 minutes later), my bags are searched thoroughly, and I am questioned extensively. There is no limit to how intrusive or personal the questions are: I am asked about my immediate family, their marital situations, their careers, my political affiliations, what I am doing in the United States, why I am flying in now, whether or not I am “hiding” illicit materials, when I plan to fly out again, and how frequently I generally fly.

 

Aware that the TSA is answerable to practically no one, and that there is absolutely no way to escalate this situation or correct their behavior, I answer their questions in a half-dead, robotic kind of way. All the while, inside, I boil with anger every single time. The injustice of it all kills me. The fact that it delays my plans, the fact that I watch people who were standing way behind me in the customs line now leaving happily while I sit waiting for the nosy, imposing questions, the fact that I did nothing to deserve this other than having a last name that bodes suspicion to none but the most extreme and uneducated of rednecks; all of this drives me crazy. And I start thinking, how did this all come to be?

 

My thoughts have led me to conclude that the way the TSA flags possible dangerous suspects derives from data and intelligence, part of which must come from mainstream perception of Muslims in America. Therefore, far from the 40 uncomfortable minutes that I spend justifying myself in the airport, the worst feeling I have is when I leave the airport with the knowledge that I am now about to set foot inside a country where I am not at all sure that I am viewed in a positive or even neutral light – just because of my name. And even though I know that most people around me are educated and nuanced in their views, this does not stop me from being extremely angry with the way I am treated.

 

Far from accepting that this is the way things are, I find myself –every time- unable to suppress the desire to throw TSA employees the dirtiest look I could possibly muster whenever I am back in the airport. I make it clear that I do not want to have the slightest verbal or physical interaction with them, and I don’t answer them when they scream out instructions about what to put in the grey trays. I just want to distance myself from any TSA-controlled area as soon as possible, and I actually derive this sort of vindictive pleasure whenever they notice that I (nonverbally) make it crystal clear what I think of them.

 

I am –believe it or not- not an aggressive person. I’m well-educated, reasonable, and would love to do something nice for the world when I graduate. And yet the sheer injustice of the way I am treated simply takes over my every instinct when I am in the airport. At that moment, I forget all about how I want to do something beneficial with my life, and I find myself -despite myself- fixated on how to legitimately get back at the shallow, judgmental, people who for some reason think I may be a terrorist. Try as I might, I can’t shake off the ridiculousness of it all. There are 1.6 Billion Muslims on the planet, and yet for some reason the U.S. government gives merit to the possibility that any of them might be dangerous. Maybe if I were brought in to the flagging process I would see the logic behind it – although I doubt that.

 

As it stands, I am disgusted and revolted by the way I am treated. Till now, the U.S. has made it clear that I am not very welcome on its land – whether for business or pleasure.

 

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