(RNS) — On Sunday afternoon, Instagram comedian Jess Hilarious posted a set of Instagram videos that have since been deleted. In them, Jess identifies four Sikhs on her flight and says their presence makes her feel “threatened.”
In one of the videos that has been preserved, she zooms in on a Sikh man boarding in front of her, inhales audibly to indicate her fear and asks, “Where you going? Where are you going?!” The flight was later deplaned (for yet unknown reasons), and Jess posted in follow-up videos that the Sikhs did not return to the plane.
Though it’s not clear why they didn’t return, many Instagrammers and others have accused Jess of having the Sikh passengers removed based on her open pronouncements of how she felt fearful of them.
Her bigoted views were on full display through her Instagram feed, where she responded to criticisms of her comments by doubling-down. In another post that has been deleted, Jess said: “F--- y’all. I feel how I feel. I felt threatened and that was it. F--- y’all.”
She followed that up by offering what I would describe as a half-apology: “Look y’all I’m not racist and never have I ever been. We have Muslims in my family however I was totally unaware of the different types of Muslims so yes I admit I’m ignorant to the facts so teach me. I got no one put off the f---in’ plane… I didn’t even say sh-t to anyone else on the f---in’ plane about how I felt! Again I’m sorry to ALL Muslims… deeply sorry! But I am not a racist loves.”
Let’s leave aside Jess’ mistaken conflation of Sikhs and Muslims. Even when she tried to clean up her mess, she showed her ignorance by continuing to identify Sikhs as Muslims. And in doing so, she showed how her bigoted comments were rooted in racialized stereotypes.
Let’s also leave aside her claim that she didn’t get the Sikhs kicked off the plane and that she didn’t say anything to anyone else on the plane about her bigoted views. We don’t have clarity on this issue right now, and in my view, it hardly matters.
Because whether or not she shared her bigoted views with others on her plane, she definitely shared them with her 4.4 million followers on Instagram. And this is what we need to discuss.
This form of discrimination has become so normalized that we all believe that any one of us could simply call the cops on innocent people because they make others feel threatened and have them removed from our presence.
We have seen this time and time again in the past year, such as when a woman called the police on a black family barbecuing in Oakland, Calif., telling a 911 dispatcher: “I’m really scared! Come Quick!”
Or when a woman in San Francisco called the cops on an eight-year-old girl selling bottled water without a permit outside of her own house. The woman denied doing so, likely out of shame, until the actual 911 recordings became available.
Stories about people calling the cops on one another for frivolous reasons have become so commonplace in our society that we no longer bat an eye when something as ridiculous as this story comes to our attention.
Jess' accusation is not farfetched in another sense, either. Here’s a thought experiment: Instead of asking "why would someone feel fearful when seeing a man with a turban on their airplane," we could flip the question to "why wouldn’t someone feel fearful when seeing a man with a turban on their airplane?" Isn’t that precisely what society teaches us to think?
These questions cross my mind every time I pass through airport security. As a turbaned Sikh man, I am subjected to secondary screening every single time I pass through a TSA security checkpoint. This policy is racial profiling, and it’s pernicious because it sends the message to every single person in line that they are right to be more fearful of me precisely because of how I look.
This practice also sends the message to every single person that it’s okay to act on these fears by treating me differently than everyone else around us.
Through its allowance and practice of racial profiling, our government has normalized the same sort of racism that Jess Hilarious expressed on her Instagram feed. So why aren’t we as outraged with our government’s institutionalized discrimination as we are with Jess Hilarious'? Is it because she said it out loud in a more explicit way?
Look, there’s no doubt in my mind that Jess was wrong and misguided on multiple levels. And I am hopeful that she is able to see the error of her ways and offer a sincere apology while committing to being better. Nothing would make me happier.
But for all of us who are outraged by her bigoted comments, we need to dig a little deeper. If you think it is an important act of accountability and solidarity to call Jess Hilarious out on her misguided remarks, it’s also important to understand and address the cultural and systemic issues that are leading us to mistreat and dehumanize one another in this way.
Until and unless we do so, we will continue to cycle through and reproduce these same bigoted tropes — and all of us will continue to be hurt.