Harold & Kumar: Teaching Important Lessons About Race?

Over the weekend I watched “Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay” with some of my friends. Although the movie is very crass at times, there was a scene that made me consider the meaning of citizenship and the rights associated with citizenship. When Harold & Kumar are arrested and detained after what police believe was their attempt at blowing up a plane (but was actually just Kumar smoking marijuana on the plane), they are interrogated by a very naïve, racist, and ridiculous agent, Ron Fox. While smoking on a plane is undeniably illegal, it certainly does not warrant Harol and Kumar’s detainment as terrorists.

"Kumar," played by Kal Penn

At one point during their interrogation, Harold and Kumar say they’d like to make a phone call. Agent Fox retorts, “Oh, I’m sorry, you want rights. You want freedoms. Right now?… Is it freedom o’clock?”

This interrogation scene reminded me of a recent court case I read in a course on Race Law Stories. The case, US vs. Wong Kim Ark, happened in 1898. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco, California and was of Chinese descent. After visiting his family in China he was denied re-entrance to the United States by an immigration official. The official argued that Wong Kim Ark wasn’t actually a citizen and wasn’t allowed entrance to the country because of the Chinese Exclusion Acts. The court case helped to set a precedent regarding “jus soli,” (birth in the United States), as a factor in determining a person’s claim to citizenship of the US. (And Wong Kim Ark was ultimately allowed back into the country.) By the time this case took place, the 14th Amendment had been added to the Constitution to overturn the infamous Dred Scott decision, its meaning was still up for debate. Namely, people were unsure what the Citizenship Clause in the 14th Amendment really meant. Similar to Wong Kim Ark, although Harold and Kumar were both US citizens, they were treated as if they were “enemies” of the US and not really citizens at all. Though Kumar had illegally smoked on a plane, Harold and Kumar were not guilty of any terrorist plots. But, they were denied their rights, like Wong Kim Ark, because of one official’s opinion of them based on appearance.

Harold and Kumar’s interrogation also made me think of our discussion surrounding race and physical appearances. Harold and Kumar are wrongfully arrested and profiled as terrorists based on their non-White physical appearances. They are also denied the rights and freedoms of a normal citizen, such as the right to a phone call, based on these assumptions. Though this movie is certainly a satire, it does accurately characterize the struggles of various people of different ethnic backgrounds to some extent. For example, I have an Indian friend who says that the majority of the time he and his family travel they are pulled aside for a “random” security screening. While I believe security is important, I also find it hard to believe that his family is randomly chosen each time they fly. Perhaps the “randomness” of the security screener’s choice is based on physical appearance—given that my friend’s family has a dark complexion, and his father wears a pagri (an Indian turban) and a full beard.

Both these examples of profiling make me think Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Curse of Modern Slavery” is still relevant today. Clearly slavery based on physical appearance has created long-lasting consequences on White’s views towards African Americans, and vice versa. But, I believe it extends further than that. Today, I believe that this has grown to include fear or negative views of most non-White people. That is, for example, anti-immigration views or stereotypes surrounding 9/11 are held by many Americans and have led to further prejudicial views towards people based on their physical appearance alone. Harold and Kumar, for example, are profiled as terrorists because they appear to resemble North Korean and Middle Eastern men, respectively, to Agent Fox.

Ultimately, this begs the difficult question, where would our society be today (in terms of race relations) had we not instituted a system of slavery based on appearance?

I also wonder  what would have happened if we were on that plane with Harold and Kumar. Would we have worried Kumar was a terrorist when we saw/smelled him smoking?

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4 Responses to Harold & Kumar: Teaching Important Lessons About Race?

  1. mkay2209 says:

    I agree with you that physical appearance discrimination extends further than just African Americans. You mentioned the Wong Kim Ark case, which I have also studied. And let’s not forget all the other citizenship cases involving other minorities. There was Ah Yup, who was of the Mongolian race, Knight who was half Chinese and half Japanese, Shahid and Dow who were of Syrian descent, and of course Ozawa, who was Japanese. All these cases involved exclusion from citizenship based on race.

    And I agree that these discriminations still occur today, especially after 9/11. I just read about three British Muslims, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, that were thrown into Guantanamo, and were never given a reason why. It took years for them to be released. I have no doubt about it, that if they were of a different race, they wouldn’t have been treated how they were treated.

    I think our society would be less discriminatory towards other races if on-the-face slavery were never an institution. I believe that there would still be discrimination; I think it’s inevitable, but I feel as though people would be more accepting of diversity. People would not be so quick to judge just because someone is of a different race.

  2. brianoconnor16 says:

    I really enjoyed your post and especially liked how you linked the ideas of citizenship to a Harold and Kumar. I also recently watched that movie, and though that the role of agent Fox was absolutely ridiculous. Here is the video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVh3Z_0FGGY

    I think that this clip is a funny yet sad illustration of how many people in America interpret people who physically look different than them. This scene is clearly not lacking in absurdity, but still represents the serious racial problems that remain pertinent in American society. Racial profiling remains a serious problem in the modern day, and I would argue members of each race guilty of this in some degree. I very much agree with Tocqueville on his argument about the difference of physical appearance in American slavery having serious negative consequences on American society. Tocqueville explains this notion stating that even as “slavery recedes, the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary.” (416) I think most would agree that African Americans in some ways are still at an unjust disadvantage. Here is a chart showing the income differential between different races in the U.S. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0104552.html

    To answer your question, I believe that our society would be in a much better place today if slavery in America was not linked with physical appearance. I believe that integration would happen at a much more rapid pace, which would begin to bring about equality in society. Racism still occurs throughout the country to this day. My question is what some solutions to help solve the racial inequalities in this country that were in part driven by the physical differences involved with American slavery? I would argue that simply making laws the ‘level the playing field’ are themselves unfair to minorities who continue to face discrimination. Since minorities are disadvantaged already, in order to bring about true equality I think that aid must be given in some manner to help disadvantaged peoples. Programs such as affirmative action are steps in the right direction of equality amongst races.

    Other social welfare programs that give minorities a better chance to move up the social ladder are also beneficial to creating a more egalitarian society. As these programs increase equality they can slowly be filtered out. Although this idea is often unpopular, I believe it would be the most effective solution to solving equality issues quickly. Although it may seem unfair, I think that it is necessary because statistics show that minorities are still disadvantaged in society. Simply leveling the playing field through law does not always equate to equal opportunities in societies. This is why disadvantaged peoples deserve aid in allowing them the equality they deserve as citizens.

    I thought this was an interesting website highlighting the possible benefits of aiding disadvantaged groups in society: http://www.understandingprejudice.org/readroom/articles/affirm.htm

  3. erikamir says:

    Let me start off by saying that I thought this was a very intersting blog post. I love Harold and Kumar! When you mentioned Guantanamo Bay I almost immediately became excited about this blog post. In my Polisci 319 course, we are learning about the arguments for and against the treatment and rights of the Guantanamo Bay detainees. I thought it was very interesting that we learned that majority of the detainees captured were captured by bounty hunters who also received monetary rewards per head. I also thought about how many U.S. departments said that many of the detainees had little to no intelligence value. So besides war hysteria placed in the minds of many Americans, what could another reason be for capturing these prisoners? Racial prejudice and appearance maybe? I think you make a valid point that some people are afraid of people not looking “white.” I am a black American so I have experienced the results of stereotypes. But this also struck a cord in me because it reminded me of my childhood. I remember 9/11 with the upmost detail. I was living in Germany at the time, our military base, my home, was shut down. I couldn’t walk outside or do anything. I watched daily while soldiers with guns marched around our homes. Shortly after this experience, my family and I took a personal trip to the U.S. I remember a Turkish man wearing a turban and the disgusting looks that he received. I too remember being scared because many adults surrounding me were scared. I remember many men saying that if he “tried something” that they were going to kill him. I remember feeling a sense of guilt and sorrow for this man even though I was a child. I have never forgotten that moment and it makes me said that any race has to endure racial prejudice based on their appearance. With time I hope this changes.

  4. goblue9123 says:

    I think your argument has a definite real application to America both historically and into our own modern society. I completely agree with your assertion that image plays a key role in our perception of citizenship. In particular, reading your post immediately made me think of the period of Japanese Internment in the United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Executive Order 9066 in 1942). Although a fraction of those Japanese interns were not legalized American citizens, the majority share (roughly 90% on mainland U.S. territory) were legal citizens of the United States. However, like Harold and Kumar, they were treated like enemies of the state. They were imprisoned for a span of four years by their own country for no presumable cause outside of their racial identity. This was a program that was instituted and operated by the United States military!

    As a country, we were mobilizing our combat forces against people within our own borders—citizens of America were being pursued as enemies of a foreign state. More than this, the American public was supporting the effort as well! While 93% of Americans were in favor of relocating Japanese Americans into concentration camps, 50% even agreed that these interns—their fellow citizens—should not even have the right to move freely within the camps. Even civil rights activists rallied behind the cause of interment—either by fully supporting the efforts or by demonstrating an indifference to the condition of Japanese Americans compared to the other minorities they relentlessly fought for. American citizens with even a drop of Japanese blood were immediately excluded from America’s moral community. The U.S. government found it in their authority to revoke Japanese Americans of three of the most essential qualities of citizenship within the American political system: freedom, liberty, and justice. However, this aggression towards the Japanese Americans was not based on any real quality, but, rather, predicated by an extreme racial prejudice. Ultimately, this racism was further exacerbated by a time of widespread national insecurity and paranoia.

    The argument of the original poster is wholly affirmed by the following statement made by American Lieutenant General John Dewitt, “A Jap is a Jap.” In America, regardless of the legal label of citizenship, we observe and objectify individuals within the historical context of their race. The white American was the original American—they are the only race that carries with it a history of supremacy. For all other minority races within this country, the legal label cannot wholly refute their inferior identity as cultivated throughout U.S. history. The default racial category for America is white. As a result, especially in the times and trials that really call into question insider and outsider status (as the bombing of Pearl Harbor did), racial minorities can never be certain of where they stand.

    When you assess the nature of citizenship in this form, it is frightening how unstable the condition truly seems to become. In one second it is there, and in the next it is gone. The power of what should be an inconceivable basis of judgment—race—is so strong that it has proven to turn an entire nation against fellow insiders. When race is used as a judgment of citizenship, it is arguable the cruelest because it cannot be helped. It is not something someone can manipulate or obscure—we can neither hide this quality about ourselves nor do we have the power to change it. Unlike citizenship as a factor of participation, people cannot genetically alter their image as a certain race like they can start voting or attending city hall meetings. Race is an inescapable condition we are all forced to advertise every day. For the non-white citizens of this nation, that creates an incredible vulnerability.

    (Lauren Gilezan)

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