'There is no middle ground in racism:' On Tahera Ahmad and the power of our silence


I begin this essay sitting on an American Airlines flight enjoying a full can of diet coke, one of the many cans of coke I have enjoyed while traveling on various airlines. When I heard about the experience of Tahera Ahmad, the Muslim woman who was denied a can of coke for “safety reasons” I was flabbergasted.

A Facebook post by Northwestern University chaplain Tahera Ahmad had a United Airlines flight attendant, a pilot and the airline scrambling to explain the disparate treatment of a Muslim passenger on one of it’s flights.

Ahmad, who is Muslim and wears a headscarf, asked for an unopened can of Diet Coke “for hygienic reasons.” She says the flight attendant denied her request, then preceded to bring an unopened can of beer to the man sitting next to her. When Ahmad pointed out the subjective and unequal application of this policy, the flight attendant responded “We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a weapon on the plane.”

Her ordeal was complicated by a man behind her, who Ahmad said told her “you Moslem, you need to shut the F** up.” After an investigation, United issued a formal apology to Ahmad and removed the flight attendant from a customer-facing role.

This story touched a nerve for the absurdity of her experience and it’s relevance to the experiences of so many marginalized peoples in society.

Being a large black man, I am used to the stares, the tracking eyeballs of other passengers hoping I’m not sitting next to them. When I see someone on my plane with a headscarf I am suddenly an observer to the overt and aggressive disdain other passengers show towards the innocent person who happens to wear a headscarf or exhibit features that passengers find threatening. The sadness expressed in Tahera Ahmad’s facebook post takes me back to these experiences and whether I could have done more than be a witness.

On the same day the diet coke story broke, the Supreme Court revived an employment discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch, which had refused to hire a Muslim woman because she wore a headscarf.

Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman was denied a job at Abercrombie and Fitch in 2008 because she wore a hijab. The company said the scarf clashed with its dress code, which called for a “classic East Coast collegiate style.” She later learned that her headscarf violated the company’s “look policy,” which regulates how employees should present themselves.  The Supreme Court ruled that the company’s (subjective) application of their rule was clearly related to her religion and therefore violation of federal employment discrimination law.

These cases are about more than the isolated discrimination of a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, or the heaping of insults by an ignorant onlooker. This is subjective application of rules/laws by individuals or institutions isn’t just an unfortunate occurrance.  But to truly understand what is at play, there needs to be a discussion of what exactly is being protected by the discriminatory actions.

In research published earlier this year, Elijah Anderson discussed the concept of “The White Space” – describing the impact of overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, restaurants and other public spaces on people of color. He summarizes his research by stating:

In these spaces blacks and other minorities perceive or are greeted with treatment that suggest  such settings (even though they may be public spaces) as “the white space,” meaning they are  informally “off limits” for people like them.

When I read this story about Ahmad I revisited Dr. Anderson’s research. I found it helpful in explaining how Ahmad’s experience is anything but isolated and trivial- instead it is endemic of larger cultural challenges facing a rapidly diversifying society.

This is bigger than a job at Abercrombie or getting a full coke can on a flight – it is about the nature and pervasiveness of implicit bias in society and its institutions.

The negative images we so readily exchange conspire to negate the humanity, the citizenship and the moral authority of marginalized people in the larger society and this is most evident when the “other” is attempting to navigate public or elite spaces. Take, for example…

Why does this kind of racism continue? Borrowing from the great work of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide,

“Race holds a central place in our society’s deepest and most persistent patterns of social inequities, exclusion and divisions. Racial disparities, discrimination and segregation are widespread and continue to undermine our nation’s social fabric.

This system of racialization — which routinely confers advantage and disadvantage based on skin color and other characteristics — must be clearly understood, directly challenged and fundamentally transformed.”

The discrimination and micro aggressive silence Ahmed experienced is familiar to many folks in society where public spaces are also socially policed spaces with an investment in clarifying who belongs and the other.

When Ahmad turned to her fellow passengers for support, she said that one man yelled at her, “You Moslem, you need to shut the f— up.” Ahmad ended the flight “in tears of humiliation…”I can’t help but cry on this plane because I thought people would defend me and say something.”

Many of us can relate with Ahmad – in situations where an injustice occurred in front of several others and when you look for someone to back you up, you only hear a loud silence. I say loud because the silence is confirmation of your seemingly permanent provisional status in society.

There is no middle ground in racism. The silence of her fellow passengers to the clearly subjective application of the “Diet Coke can rule” wasn’t worthy of comment from fellow passengers. The rude and offensive statements of this man towards Ahmad isn’t worthy of any rebuke by fellow passengers. Their silence served as complicit agreement.

The subjective application of rules/laws based on a perceived threat level is how implicit bias works.

Let’s revisit the man who felt empowered to flippantly yell “Moslem” towards Ahmad. His actions sought to put her in her place – but the performance also signaled to other passengers and to Ahmed that any level of discrimination is justified based on her inherent danger her presence represents. The passengers played their role in protecting/policing the line between default and the other (“The White Space”). I can imagine that Ahmed’s resulting sadness stems from the reminder that access to the white space and all rights enjoyed inside of white space depend not on her education, moral virtue, kindness but on the acknowledgement of the relevant authority figures and her peers. Those who are inclined to offend on the basis of her otherness know no shame because they view their behavior as noble.

In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates from his 2013 New York Times op-ed entitled “The Good, Racist People:”

“The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.”

Everyone on that flight who witnessed this exchange gets to go home and in retelling the story gets to say that “that man was rude” or maintain “they did nothing wrong or didn’t intend their actions to be viewed in that manner”.

This diet coke incident isn’t trivial, but emblematic of the myriad of ways in which discrimination persists in action and in the inaction of the well-meaning.

If we as a nation aspire to live up to our stated democratic ideals — that all people are created equal and treated fairly — then these incidents cannot be treated as trivial. Nor can they be relegated to the court system to adjudicate. Racial equity and inclusion must be at the forefront of how we shape and hold accountable our institutions, policies and culture.

Ahmad’s story is added to what feels like a daily reminder that we are ill-equipped to acknowledge and address the implicit bias and discrimination that pervades societal institutions and public spaces.

Dismantling oppressive systems begins with interrogating our actions.

But more importantly, we must also learn to question our silence.

Decker is a Senior Fellow at Frontline Solutions and an independent consultant providing advisory services to individuals and institutions in the social sector. Along with formal engagements, Decker has written and speaks extensively on the non-profit sector, education and social justice issues.

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