Should you change your appearance to avoid profiling?

By Sabrina Almeida

Mississauga, January 22 (CINEWS): It’s all over the news, incidents of profiling and the harsh consequences unsuspecting victims have had to face. We may choose to see it as stereotyping and ignorance or conclude that these are dangerous times we live in and everyone is suspicious of everything. stereotype
So are we being good citizens or just giving in to paranoia when we report “certain fishy activities”? The grandfather who was mistaken for a burglar and slammed to the ground by an Alabama policeman, the British tourists who were considered suspicious for taking photographs at the Pacific Centre Mall in Vancouver and the Muslim hipster in Paris who was fired from his job at the airport because of his long beard might ask us to stop and think before we hit the panic button. They’re right… but in many cases people don’t know any better.

Appearance makes an impression

Let’s be honest, most of us judge people by their appearance. We mistake nervous for shifty, certain cultural mannerisms for rudeness and associate certain appearances with gangs and terrorists. It’s almost a given that a well-dressed individual will receive preferential treatment when compared to a shabbily-dressed shopper. Call it conditioning, past experience, bias whatever you want.
While you and I are debating the merits of our instincts, someone somewhere has already acted on theirs. People with unshorn hair and beards, are often on the receiving end of this profiling. Just ask the Sikh and Muslim gentlemen who were removed from an American Airlines plane because their appearance made the pilot uncomfortable.
In today’s world beard and terrorist have become almost synonymous. That’s why a friend started to panic when her son began to grow one. She was afraid of how people would react and if it would draw unnecessary attention or cause him harm.
It’s not just the police that profile people, even we do. Certain clothing and hair styles seem to set off automatic alerts. As a newcomer to Canada, I was surprised to learn that braids (a common hairstyle for girls and women in India) were associated with the African community here. As a resulted many Indian immigrants gave up wearing them. A combination of dark skin and braids sometimes caused people to mistake their origins.

Certain cultural habits can be misread

In India, it’s not uncommon for people to peer into their neighbour’s home, sit on their porch or click pictures with a fancy car that doesn’t necessarily belong to them. In North America however, we are very conscious of our boundaries which make most of these actions taboo. The Alabama grandfather is a case in point. An uncle of mine was more fortunate. He clicked a bunch photos of himself on somebody’s property in a US neighbourhood more than 16 years ago and was lucky not to be penalized for trespassing. But I guess 9/11 hadn’t happened then so things were calmer.
Recently, I myself was appalled to see an Indian immigrant we were housing for some time, staring quite pointedly into the neighbour’s yard. This went on for a 5 whole minutes till I could no longer contain myself. The man probably thought I made a big deal for no reason and that there was nothing wrong with looking. These habits are difficult to change. A few days later I caught him staring in to a stranger’s hospital room when we went to visit a friend. I just walked ahead and pretended not to know him.

Language is often the biggest barrier

Not being able to communicate effectively in English can be serious problem. As in the case of the Indian grandfather in Alabama and so many other immigrants. They aren’t able to explain themselves or understand what the authorities are saying to them. Frustration may play out as aggressiveness worsening the situation. Or fear might cause them to panic and run which doesn’t help them either.

Customs vs. safety

Well one thing’s for sure, we don’t want to have to find out the answer to that question the hard way. Yet there are certain deeply rooted customs and traditions that cannot be just abandoned. Should women abandon their niqabs because of the recent attacks or should all men become clean shaven to blend in? So many of my friends were advised to remove their moustaches and beards if they wanted to land jobs in Canada and that was more than 20 years ago.
So do we have to look over our shoulders at every turn or explain our actions all the time? In these uncertain times, I don’t think we have the luxury of choice, what’s worse in many cases others have already made that decision for us.

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