The Real Problem With the Benefit of the Doubt

I have a trustworthy face. As such, people tend to give me the benefit of the doubt. I am always selected for jury duty. I’m never pulled out of line at the airport for additional screening. The one time I was randomly selected, the guy took one look at me and waved me through. On one trip I accidentally packed a larger-than-allowed bottle of shampoo in my carry-on and rather than toss the container, the agent tucked it back into my luggage and said: “I’m not going to throw away your shampoo, sweetie.” My shampoo costs about two dollars at the drug store and deserves no heroic measures, but this screener didn’t want to inconvenience me for some reason.

I once made jokes about smuggling French cheese and absinthe into the U.S. after a memorable vacation. The folks in the customs line laughed, though I actually did have a good amount of cheese and absinthe in my luggage. I once set off a security alarm at a friend’s home. When an officer showed up, he took one look at me and turned off the alarm without a question. I could have been robbing the place, but he decided to trust me. Apparently, I do not look like a criminal.

Why is that? Well, it’s because I’m white, of course. Also, blandly blond and of average weight and height. My face is mostly symmetrical. I don’t have any tattoos or piercings beyond my earlobes. When I meet people, they often say they feel like we’ve met before. I look like someone’s daughter or granddaughter or mother or sister or friend. And then there’s my name: Tiffany. Has there ever been a name less likely to inspire fear?

I used to make jokes about this. Many years ago I had a boyfriend who swore I could make a fortune if I ever decided to smuggle heroin. We laughed about that. It was so funny, except now I know it isn’t. As I read about people detained at airports because they have a foreign sounding name or an accent, I’m horrified at my blasé attitude about something that is nothing more than dumb luck.

I am horrified by the news of people who were forced to produce identification papers before they were allowed to get off a domestic flight from San Francisco to New York. I am horrified that Mem Fox, beloved children’s author from Australia, was detained for hours at the Los Angeles airport and reduced to tears by customs agents who questioned her visa. I am horrified that Muhammad Ali Jr. was interrogated about his name and his religion at a Florida airport. And I am sickened by the ongoing threats against Jewish Community Centers across the nation and the vandalism of Jewish cemeteries. It is disgusting and shameful and terrifying. When I saw the news about the man who opened fire on two Indian tech workers in Kansas, killing one and wounding the other, while yelling, “Get out of my country,” it made me ill. It is unthinkable. It is unfathomable. But only for me.

My non-white friends can fathom this mess just fine. They’ve never had the luxury of cracking jokes at the airport or breezily explaining that they forgot to pack travel-sized grooming products. Plenty of people are never given the benefit of the doubt. It isn’t fair. It was never fair, but it’s even worse when the doubt escalates to hostility and violence.

I hate this mess we’re in now. I dread watching the news and wondering if this will be the day when the bomb threat turns real. I hate thinking about the families who must deal with broken gravestones and the churchgoers who see racial slurs painted on their churches and synagogues. And I hate that the current president is so quick to respond to every perceived personal slight, but cannot be bothered to speak out forcefully against these atrocities. The man who talks about “bad dudes” and immigrants and who gets his marching orders from a white nationalist won’t condemn the acts and he won’t admit that his words make them possible.

This is a man who was born white, male, American, and wealthy. No one has ever sized him up with a glance and decided he wasn’t worthy of basic civil rights. I guarantee he’s never thought about whether he’d be allowed into a country or whether he might need to flee a city under cover of darkness. No one has ever asked him to show his papers. Heck, we can’t even get him to release his tax returns and that’s the bare minimum we’ve required of other presidential candidates. To the contrary, he spent years baiting the previous president with unfounded, harmful, and hateful rumors about his birth certificate. He has bragged about walking in on young (in some cases underage) women while they were in a state of undress. He alluded to the size of his penis on the campaign trail and bragged about “grabbing pussy.” It’s all a big joke to him. I know, because it is the same attitude that allowed me to crack jokes while going through customs. No more. I am done laughing about such things. I’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve such privileged treatment from anyone. It isn’t funny; it’s pathetic and scary and wrong.

The president needs to stop tweeting about the latest television news polls and start addressing the violence happening in his name. We all have to condemn these acts. The people who commit heinous crimes must be held accountable. They must be prosecuted fully and forcefully. They must be called out and condemned at the highest level. They must not be given the benefit of the doubt. This is no joke. This is no laughing matter.


Tiffany Quay Tyson
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