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How Turbans Helped Some Blacks Go Incognito in the Jim Crow Era (npr.org)
183 points by TheBiv on July 19, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 42 comments

As a Sikh American that wears a turban every day [https://www.facebook.com/satjot], it's great to see a positive piece on Turbans in the US. For the most part I've dealt with comments like, "Hey Osama", "You Towel Head", "Taliban!"...

As s Sikh Brit that also wears a turban I usually feel quite at home when I'm routinely in the US. Hardly any noise direct my way (must have got lucky) but plenty of folk do glance in a curious sort of way.

People seem to remember us more which is no great surprise given we tend to stand out a mile.

Back in my consulting days I used to work a lot at Microsoft offices around the world. For some strange reason no matter which country I was in, the local staff used to assume I was there for a speaking gig!

But I'll never forget the time I went to Argentina -- the whole airport stopped as I got off the plane. I didn't go back there in a hurry...

I'm really sad to hear this.

Even sadder is the fact that (according to a recent Algerian speaking at TED), while westerners are calling all Muslims (and Sikhs) terrorists, they ignore that 85% of the direct victims of terrorism (ignoring USA drone strikes etc) are non-fundamentalist Muslims in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, etc.

Do "westerners call all Muslims (and Sikhs) terrorists"? Rubbish.

Do "they ignore that 85% of the direct victims of terrorism ... are non-fundamentalist Muslims"? No, they don't.

People throwing around blanket statements while complaining about blanket statements.

People are going to be racist and xenophobic assholes no matter what unfortunately. Anyone outside of their race / religion / country will be hated upon with the fire of a thousand suns.

Pure ignorance. People would react remarkably different if they knew that defending innocents are a Sikhs religious duty.

Minor nitpick, though with this caveat the article is great:

> At the time, ideas of race in America were quite literally black and white.

Not so much America as specifically the south, where white vs. black was the dividing line, and anyone nonblack was "close enough" to white, at least for the purposes of politics and segregation. In the north, where the white-vs.-black line wasn't as front-and-center, dynamics were different, and there was a higher bar for just how white you had to be to really be white. During some parts of the 20th century, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Italians, Indians, etc. wouldn't be allowed entry to "whites-only" establishments in New York, even though they were white enough for a "whites-only" restaurant in Atlanta.

edit: Although now that I think of it, this would probably be true for some things even in the north. For example the "no selling to negroes" deed restrictions in Chicago, as far as I can find, really meant you could sell to anyone except a black person, including some people with quite dark skin. Race is complex, I guess.

You exaggerate the difference between the north and south in regards to race. You overestimate the tolerance of the south to Jews, or people with foreign accents, and you underestimate the discrimination against blacks in the north. Restrictions against selling to blacks were not unique to Chicago, they were largely universal. The NAR regarded introducing new ethnicities into a neighborhood as an ethics violation until 1968.


published in New York: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Motorist_Green_Book

I get how he might underestimate the intolerance in the South, but I didn't get the sense he was doing so in the North? In fact, he seemed to be saying the North was MORE intolerant, in a lot of ways, then the South could be sometimes.

As a boomer I have to say that it pretty much was black and white in the Midwest. One of my junior high classmates had what I realize now was an Arabic last name (probably Lebanese), and nobody perceived him as in any way different; a kid in the grade above me was named Garcia, which I didn't really know was Spanish; there was a Greek family on the next street, etc. Indians (as in subcontinental) were barely starting to immigrate.

This goes sideways as well. I was dating an Indian girl in High School (almost 20 years ago). If any older Indian men were around or crossed our path, she would say a few words in spanish. They would assume she was Mexican which would make it none-of-their-business who this "Mexican girl" dated and would stop staring.

This happens today also. Strangely, I observed this more in the us than in India.

I'm now in India and have dated a number of African girls here. I'm very tall, Africans are tall, Indians are short, hence I am the last man on earth. The reaction of Indians is interesting. If they look up at the girl (I.e. they are 5'8", she is 6'2"), they say I should marry her. If they look straight (she is 5'9") they say I should find a white girl.

> This happens today also. Strangely, I observed this more in the us than in India.

That makes a perverse but common amount of sense: by being strict in their adherence to their original culture (where in the old country things are usually more fluid) they aim to show they haven't been swayed/corrupted by the one they're now living in.

yeah, the difference there aren't indian businessman stopping you from using their services or letting you work there. and there aren't indian admissions officers not letting you in because they don't like white people. so there is a little difference.

It's not about race, but see the caste system in India.

My uncle immigrated to South Carolina from India in the 1960's, and worked as an engineer at an otherwise white company.

The Christmas party was at a segregated establishment, and they had no idea what to do with him. I think that ultimately they decided that it was ok for "others" to attend, even though by skin color, he was definitely closer to the black end of the spectrum.

Must have been a fun party.

My parents had a friend who used this trick in the early 1950s, to get into restaurants. They told the story to my siblings and me, to illustrate the stupidity of racism.

On the other hand, I had a summer internship during college, where one of the employees was a white guy and wore a turban. He told me that he got searched every time he crossed the border between the US and Canada, during the period before 9-11 when most people just got waved across.

"You've been randomly selected for a screening" is a bunch of bull. It's sure as hell not entirely random.

A good long-form story (and a true story that is quite gripping) about how changing the classification can change the perception of the person is the book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin,[1] which I read once in childhood and reread a few years ago. Powerful stuff. It's stark to understand that events like the events described in the book happened during the lifetime of a lot of people still living today.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Black-Like-50th-Anniversary-Edition/dp...

And for a hilarious satirical romp which treads similar territory, see Black No More by George Schuyler:


Interesting read, especially since today you might be called a "towel head".

I find in my day to day interactions that these days Blacks are less discriminated against than many others, but it seems it is now less about color and more about accent.

Likely what I am seeing is a bias against non-European immigrants.

Being a well spoken Black is fine to hire or hang out with. Someone who looks and sounds like Will I Am, or Quincy Jones, or Colin Powell all good choices. Flavor Flav likely not so much.

The same goes for 3rd generation Hispanic, but not 1st.

Those from India if they grew up in an affluent house hold and sound like they are from England, but those with a heavy accent no.

My home town has no non-white people. We had 2 half native American kids in school, and I think a 1/4 Hispanic girl. As odd as that sounds I think that helped with not being racist. There were no stereotypes because there was no history of seeing anyone of another race.

When I was in the Sudan, I told people I was Canadian, it was safer. That wasn't a Race thing either.

This may have rambled but I think today there is less racism and more Originism (I know that isn't a word) but I think where you come from matters to people more than the race. That's not better. Just different. It is still beyond your control.

> I find in my day to day interactions that these days Blacks are less discriminated against than many others, but it seems it is now less about color and more about accent.

I totally agree with you. I have experienced lot of stuff by myself that you mentioned.

I am living here in US from last 7.5 yrs. I still have very thick accent. I tried a lot to get rid of it. Even hired an accent trainer but due to lack of time could not practice. At the end, my trainer gave up. I have lost lot of opportunities due to my accent. It is not just my accent, my tone is also so rough that when I speak my voice becomes so rough and it sounds so unpleasant. I think I need throat surgery to speak properly.

I don't blame them who show me off faces. My only complain is they don't even try talking with me. I can see the change in their body language when they see me coming.

Not all are bad. Some people are still very welcoming. I wish there were more of them.

I have seen my European friends getting so warm welcome even though they speak more worst than me. I am not jealous about this. Just sharing how people treat others differently who are from different origins

I know you're probably not looking for advice with this post, but hiring an accent trainer or even taking some advanced English lessons would probably help your career (and your quality of life) quite a bit. When I see someone writing "speak more worst" and "living here in US from last 7.5 years", I don't think of someone who has been in the US for seven and a half years, I think of someone who may never have visited the US at all. That sounds very unnatural, and it does throw a lot of people off. It makes a lot of people (unfortunately, myself included) uncomfortable to admit that we didn't understand what you said. I don't talk to people with strong accents on a daily basis, so I'm bad at hearing them. People tend to shy away from awkward encounters, and being unable to understand the person you're talking to is about as awkward as it gets.

It's not malice, it's not racism, it's just really uncomfortable.

"It's not malice, it's not racism, it's just really uncomfortable."

Being "uncomfortable" is one kind of feelings racism stems from, being uncomfortable around people you don't really understand. Not saying your feelings are bad or you are bad, just that people are emotional rather than logical beings. There were definitely some subset of racists who were racists not because they logically analysed the science of race, concluded that their own race was "superior", but rather, they felt uncomfortable being around those they assume is from a particular race. There were establishments that were "whites-only", I assume it's because the owners were afraid its patrons would be uncomfortable eating with "blacks".

While I agree with what you say, I wouldn't draw the same parallel. Its more along the lines of ending a phone call when the other person is in a low-service area. The point of talking is to communicate, and communication only happens when the people understand each other.

I get the same thing with my sometimes spotty grasp on the German language. While, for the most part, I can be understood just fine from Berlin to Munich, eventually people get frustrated and ask me to switch to English. Not because I'm American, but because I'm terrible at speaking German. It just takes too long for me to understand them or to make myself understood.

So I agree that racism sometimes stems from being uncomfortable around people who are different, but I wouldn't go as far as to say being uncomfortable around people who are different is necessarily similar to being racist.

I get this all the time with russian, I can understand basically all russian but my ability to speak it, sucks. So Russians will tell me to just say it in English bec most have a better grasp of English than I have of Russian, they'll speak to me in Russian, and I to them in English.

About the Phone thing: When I get someone from South East Asia for customer support, I ask them to speak phonetically in the most courteous way possible, this was after yelling at a few reps who just didn't understand a word I was saying, nor I them. I felt there had to be a better way than to berate someone for just trying to do his job (somehow the women were easier to understand, probably just the luck of the draw). Anyway I highly recommend it to everyone who complains about bad customer rep phone calls, learn the Phonetic Alphabet (I have a copy taped to my wall for easy access) (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, etc). It may be a little slower but if they don't like it they'll just transfer you to their supervisor or to someone with a better grasp and no one feels bad at the end of the call.

Not trying to disagree with you:

As far as I know racism stems from one race thinking they're more human than the other, which occurs, I think, due to the perception of differences in intelligence when the perceived inferior race is trying to communicate, in a sub-optimal way, to the perceived superior race, and being constantly made fun off in the process.

I imagine a typical racist comment in 18th century America: "There's no point telling the slave, he's not gonna understand anyway.".

It also stems from potential gain, you only have to look to former colonies to see this. It's much harder to subjugate a people if you view them as equals.

There's a practicality aspect to it too. The last team I worked on had 3 brits, 4 indians, 2 pakistanis, 1 greek, 1 portuguese, 1 french, 1 australian, 1 kazakh. The misunderstandings and arguments were incessant and no one was particularly happy.

> hiring an accent trainer or even taking some advanced English lessons would probably help your career

Hiring a reading trainer might help your career. Re-read the post you replied to more carefully.

I saw that he had hired someone. He didn't stick with it, because he was too busy. It's easy to make that excuse, but my point was to do it again, for real this time. The reason being, he's limiting his career opportunities by working in a country where he's only making minimal effort to be understood.

And I didn't know Hacker News was a career for me. Jackass.

I am really sorry that you feel that way. May be truth is just harsh.

The USA has a history of doing racism based only on skin colour. But in many other countries there have been "culture" /"ethnicity" based racism. This is what your noticing. Accent (ie. culture/ethnicity) racism.

Racial/cultural/ethnic prejudice is an attribute of human nature, not US culture, so while not singling out the USA, the USA certainly did also have discrimination not based on skin color (jews, irish and other immigrant groups, catholics, etc. have all suffered discrimination to various degrees). None as overt and officially sanctioned as the segregated South however.

I am well aware other countries have racism problems. I pointed out USA because a lot of people here are for USA, and it's a got a great example of skin colour only racism.

Personal experience - Few years back went to open an account at a bank BOB, India. In the morning I was in tshirt and jeans and everyone was too busy to help me. Just 3 hours later went in a black formals and I didn't even need to ask them for help. And I've had such experiences quite a few times.

I've had potential landlords spontaneously offer me a discount only because I was white, well-dressed and mentioned a 9 to 5 job. That certainly isn't fair.

This is actually kind of funny. I think this may be tapping into some sort of deep seated in-group/out-group psychology. If you look/act exotic enough that you don't fit within the definition of the out-group, then you clearly must be part of the in-group.

Stereotyping is bad and can be exploited. Don't stereotype people it can be used against you is what I learned.

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