Breast Pumps and Terrorists

Earlier this week a Sikh woman stood in line to board a Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis to LA. A nursing mother, she removed a luggage tag on her carry-on bag to facilitate access to her breast pump so she could make milk during the flight.

One of her fellow passengers saw her do it, and calamity ensued. He angrily questioned her actions before turning to regale the rest of the passengers in line with his suspicions.

Ironically, this woman, Valarie Kaur, is actually a civil rights activist. When the incident happened, she said she was reading about the San Bernadino incident on her phone: “I’m thinking of the countless subtle acts of profiling of Muslim Sikh and brown bodies in the last 14 years. The double-pain: I was reading tweets on my phone about the #SanBernadino shooting while in line, but my grieving was interrupted by a passenger seeing me as suspect.”

Worse, this white man refused to listen to her explanation for her actions. He felt completely comfortable, dare I say, entitled, to alarm everyone in the vicinity, and indirectly force this woman to show a stranger her breast pump to prove that she was not a terrorist.

Heightened security and sensitivity in airports is a sign of the times. I have no quarrel with that. It’s a necessary precaution with a lot of unnecessary baggage — pardon the airline pun. It is totally the right thing to do to say something when you see something suspicious. It is wholly unacceptable, however, to target someone with brown skin, make assumptions and then make a scene.

Kaur described the anger directed toward her not just from this loud man, but from the gate attendant who came over to investigate the disturbance in a Facebook post, how she sat in her seat after the incident, “angry, shaken and sad.” Yet her first response was to “practice the loving response now. What does revolutionary love look like in this moment?”

Her reaction is amazing. Wonderful, really, because I can’t say that I’d have been as generous and forgiving in a similar situation.

This was a horrible incident, but Kaur actually got off lightly. Racial profiling is dangerous. I could easily come up with a dozen well-publicized names where people were tasered, pulled over, fined, jailed, humiliated, beaten, shot or killed just because they had brown skin.

We live in a dangerous world. An uncertain world, where nothing is really safe, and there’s very little we can really do about it. It’s an uncomfortable and emotional realization, how precarious life and liberty and public safety really are. Yet, we must not allow fear to dictate our actions, to inform our relationships and interactions with other human beings. If we do, we cause more damage, and create more problems, than the terrorists who have us so scared in the first place.

Respect difference. Respect people, all of them, and judge lightly and with good reason. The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Or in this case, the proof’s in the breast pump.