From Baltimore Sun
A few months ago, I was having lunch with a friend. When her dramatically inclined 6-year-old son wrapped a scarf around his head, she offhandedly commented, “Careful, or we’ll have to put you through a metal detector.”
Weeks after that, I was lucky enough to join one of the Navy’s tours of its aircraft carriers — I got to go on the new USS George H. W. Bush — and a well-intentioned colleague said he was surprised they let me on board, given my Pakistani roots. (The Navy itself had no qualms about my place of birth.) That comment was followed the next week by another joke about terrorism and Pakistanis.
And just a few weeks ago, I ran into a friend and his brother at the airport. The brother heard my friend, who is not Pakistani, speak a few words of Urdu to me, and warned jokingly that he might be detained at security for his utterances.
A common defense of such ethnic stereotyping is that it is based in truth. In this case, my friends were making light reference to some undisputed facts: that most terrorists nowadays are Muslim and originate from Muslim countries, including Pakistan.
This is similar to noting any mundane fact about any ethnic group — for example, that there are high crime rates in black communities, or that a disproportionate number of black men are in jail. Those particular observations, however, do not give most Americans license to make an offhand joke about a black friend or colleague being a criminal. On the contrary, comments like that would be deemed racist at best and good material for a workplace lawsuit at worst.