Waris Ahluwalia: "Ignorance leads to fear"
Actor, jewelry designer, and Milk family member Waris Ahluwalia has been through an awful lot this week. You probably read about it in the New York Times, or watched him relay his ordeal on CNN. But for the uninitiated, Ahluwalia, a Sikh, was forbidden from boarding a flight from Mexico City to New York after he refused to remove his turban for security screening. As he told the New York Daily News, being asked to remove a turban in public “is akin to asking someone to take off their clothes.” Ahluwalia asked for a private screening room, and his request was denied. He decided to stay in Mexico until the airline, Aeroméxico, issued an apology and promised to train their staff in a more sensitive manner.
He received that apology yesterday. “We apologize to Mr. Waris Ahluwalia for the bad experience he had with one of our security elements in addressing your flight to New York in the Mexico City International Airport,” wrote Aeroméxico in a statement. Ahluwalia returned to New York today. He told us that his flight was pleasant, but we would like to point out that despite the international attention his case received, his ticket was still flagged with the dreaded quadruple “S:” Secondary Security Screening Selection, which leads to additional security screenings (a so-called “random” selection). We caught up with Ahluwalia this evening, February 10th, to see how he’s doing.
Are you back in New York?
I’m back in New York. I’m back on American soil.
What was your second experience at the airport like? Was it improved from the first, or did you still get the SSSS on your boarding pass?
I did indeed have the SSSS—
Well, that’s not a thing that Aeroméxico does. That’s more from the TSA and that’s sort of the larger conversation about why that’s there. Is it because they don’t like the films I make? What is it that as an American and a designer and an actor and involved in the arts that makes me a risk? What is it that requires secondary screening for me? That’s the larger question that plays into a much larger question and a much larger conversation beyond myself and beyond Sikhs. It has to do with profiling and race in America. Beyond race in America, what about Europe and Asia? Let’s not point fingers. We shouldn’t be discussing it as nations; we should be discussing it as a human issue and how we can resolve this together.
Definitely. In terms of resolving that together, you started the hashtag #FearIsAnOpportunityToEducate. Would you care to elaborate on what the response has been like?
That’s what came to me in that moment when I was sitting there and I’d been turned away. We can no longer allow ourselves to be lazy in this day and age. We have to push those ideas forward. That’s what this is largely about. This isn’t about borders—this is about humans. I was a human being who was mistreated and in that moment, when they offered me a ticket to get on the next flight, I realized there was no way in good conscious that I could get on that flight. What if the same thing happened to someone on the very next flight or the next day or the next week? What if it just continues to happen year after year? There’s no way that I could walk away from that situation. The realization was that you have to take a stand. We’re responsible for our neighbors. There was no bone in my body that would allow me to get on that plane. That’s the larger message. Why does this keep coming up? It’s clear. It’s human nature, but why can’t we get past it?
You’re speaking very beautifully for someone whose been awake for four days. When you were in Mexico, Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary. You talked about people latching onto fear, and I think that’s what we’re seeing in American politics. What do you think is the best way to educate people?
People have to realize this on their own. They have to realize within themselves that they can’t rely on fear. If you look at history, we’ve been down this road before where a man incites fear in the population and terrible things happen. For some reason, we can’t seem to get it together to remember that we’ve been here before and we shouldn’t do this. We should maybe try a different way this time.
The problem is that it’s so easy and we just like to take the easy way. It’s much easier to lay the blame on someone else. Let’s put up a wall to keep them out and let’s take everyone else out. That’s locking ourselves up into a box and insulating us from the rest of the world. That has never worked as a foreign policy or a domestic policy. Technology has taken us way past borders and we have to realize that. The people that are going to continue to affect this change are the youth. They have to realize that they can’t sit quiet. It’s no longer acceptable to face the other way and pretend this isn’t a problem. There was a period in American history when civil rights and human rights were such an important cause. That needs to happen again and that can. That’s not just with texting or liking a photo. It’s about creating a new world.
I know you’d said you weren’t going to leave Mexico until you got the apology from Aeromèxico. What did you think of the apology that you ended up getting?
I didn’t want to make big statements because I didn’t know how long this was going to take. My intention was not to leave until two things happened. One was an apology and the other was a commitment to training of their staff. Before they did the apology, they issued a smaller note that put the blame on the TSA. Then they realized themselves the next morning and issued and apology, which was worded very thoughtfully and I don’t think it was just rhetoric. I truly believe they understand what they’re saying and truly understand the situation. I was pleased by the apology but, as I’ve said, it was just a first step. An apology doesn’t mean that they’re not going to do it again. That was the main reason why I stayed—to make sure they don’t do it again. I was very happy when we came to an agreement moving forward for them to do training of their staff and realize the importance of it.
How would you like their staff to be trained? Are there particular points you’d like them to improve on?
The good thing is that my legal counsel was the Sikh Coalition. They are a very active civil rights organization here in the United States and they’ve worked in the past with the TSA to create the protocols we currently have. They’re very familiar with the situation and I trust in them to create the programming and help Aero Mexico learn how to handle the situation much better in the future.
The reality is that it’s with patience. It took a bit longer than I expected but two days in the grand scheme of things is not a long time. I’m thankful to Aero Mexico for realizing they made a mistake and it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s not the issue. We make mistakes all the time. I’ve definitely made mistakes so it’s okay. It’s what you do after you made that mistake. How do you fix that? How do you address that? That’s the key thing. I want to reiterate that this isn’t an anti-Aero Mexico thing. We’re celebrating their action and commitment to diversity and cultural understanding.
Now that it’s all over, what do you want to do to relax?
Go to Mexico! [Laughs] I’d like to relax but we’re about to embark on a week of madness. I have friends that are showing their presentations and its part of who I am and what I do. I’ve been supported by my friends and by people I don’t know so it’s important to be there for my friends. As much as I’d like to sleep for a few days, I will be there at Fashion Week. It’s about spreading the message and the message is that love will prevail. That’s what we have to remember.
Stay tuned to Milk for more news.
Image via Citizen Couture.