The name game

In Features /

By Shannon Baldwin

At 13 years old, a naive Jameel Akeem McNeil Ali was escorted by Los Angeles airport security to a grey, metallic room with no windows. It was completely empty except for a metal table, a camera propped up on a tripod two feet from an empty chair and a box of latex gloves.

A “massive looking person… just a hulk of a man” began to ask him about his plans and in L.A., a place he had never been before.

He was there for questioning.

“He kept asking me over and over again where I was going and where I was staying and if I were to be traveling to different locations in L.A.,” McNeil says. “I remember feeling really weird about it because I was answering their questions but for some reason it just wasn’t good enough and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t good enough.”

McNeil was in L.A. with a friend, on a visit supervised by his friend’s mother. She planned a trip to bring the two boys to visit family friends in the city. Her friends were costume designers for an American TV show, so the plan was to visit Universal Studios, see where they work and visit the Cheesecake Factory.

McNeil’s parents sent him with all the proper documentation to travel, but once he got to L.A. and his passport was being checked, he was asked to step to the side. He was brought to the windowless room instead while his friend and chaperone were asked to wait outside.

It was 2003, just two years after the World Trade Centre bombings, when American airports were enforcing strict new security regulations.

The now 22-year-old McNeil, a fifth year criminal justice student, says he remembers being in school on Sept. 11 and watching the footage in an assembly. He grew up in Scarborough and Pickering with a Trinidadian mother and an adopted Scottish father – it never occurred to him while he was being questioned that he could ever be suspected as a terrorist.

“I always thought that was somebody else, I never thought that I was going to be dragged into that,” McNeil says. “I just never really thought about it in terms of ‘Is this something innocent people can get dragged into?’ I thought that if you did nothing wrong then you won’t be put in these situations.”

McNeil says that at first, he was just asked the typical questions about where he was going and what he planned to do, but when the man started asking specific questions about where he would be staying, McNeil couldn’t answer. He had never thought to ask his friend’s mom specific details about the trip, he trusted that she knew where she was going so he’d be fine as long as he stuck with her. McNeil says he became flustered when the man wouldn’t let that question go.

When the man stepped out of the room for a moment, McNeil says he began to sweat profusely. He was so confused, he says he started to believe that he may have done something wrong – he had never before had an adult treat him like this for no reason. He remembers the “whole situation having a gravity of its own.” McNeil had flown before, so he was used to a certain level of caution but says, “This was something else. This had its own feel to it that really sucked; I was under a lot of pressure.” When the man came back with a map of L.A., he continued to question McNeil.

“He tried to get me to pinpoint [on the map] where I was going and at that point if you showed me a map of Toronto I wouldn’t have even known what I was looking at,” he says.

After about an hour, McNeil says he was such an emotional wreck that he broke down and started bawling, begging security to bring in his friend’s mother so she could clear everything up. He didn’t know what they wanted him to say.

“I probably wasn’t that articulate though, I was probably just a mess,” McNeil says.

Eventually, they did bring his accompanying adult in separately for a quick 10 minute interview to explain the situation and McNeil was free to go. But as he was going through the metal detectors, his friend kept making jokes like, “Yo, Jameel, watch out for that bomb in your shoe.” McNeil says that while he understood the joke and that his friend didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, he was just afraid that they would bring him back into that room.

The rest of the trip went smoothly, but McNeil waited a few months before telling his parents what had happened. He had never thought that instance could be an ongoing issue until his parents brought him into a serious conversation about it.

“They asked me if I wanted this to happen again and if not, that it may be better for me to drop certain parts of my name… since Akeem and Ali are the flag words that everyone looks for,” McNeil says. “I remember thinking ‘I don’t want to make it seem like I’m rejecting some part of my heritage or rejecting some part of the culture that I’m a result of, but at the same time I don’t want that to happen again’… I really had to ask those kinds of questions that I don’t think a 13-year-old person would really understand to its full extent, but I was thrust into it.” McNeil says that after a lot of back-and-forth thought about it, his parents were fine with the change because they realized “that they’re not always going to be there to shield [him] from instances of injustice.”

About a month after the initial discussion, Mc Neil decided to change his name from Jameel Akeem McNeil-Ali to Jameel James McNeil. His parents said he was allowed to choose the middle name but reminded him that it would be printed on all of his legal documentation.

Ironically, considering the nature of his problem in L.A., McNeil is neither Middle Eastern nor Muslim.

Both he and his parents are agnostic, and while the name Ali is from his mother’s side, Akeem was chosen to be his middle name after his mother watched an Eddie Murphy movie and liked the character Prince Akeem’s name. McNeil’s father has a strict Catholic background and McNeil’s mother is of Indian decent. Some of the people on his mother’s side, including her parents, are practicing Muslims but McNeil was never brought up under any religion.

After having his named changed, growing up in Pickering and spending 12 years in a private school, McNeil says he continued to be discriminated against even though he considers himself to be extremely “white-washed.” In high school, he says he was pulled over several times for no apparent reason other than to check that the car really was registered to his father.

“I remember once the officer kept asking me, ‘What school do you go to and are you sure you go to that school?’ and I went to a private school so yeah, I don’t wear [the uniform] for fun,” Mc Neil says. “I feel just a general uneasiness, when cops walk by. I always question if I’m doing everything correctly. You kind of adopt that mentality and it never really goes away 100 per cent – at least not for me.” McNeil says any discrimination he’s felt since attending Ryerson has been from his peers and people he encounters in the city.

“Even during the day, I’ve had people down the street notice me and I can see their face just instantly change,” says McNeil. “You definitely notice when someone’s looking at you differently.” He says he feels that he’s often watched people cross to the other side of the street when they see him, and look over their shoulder every few seconds.

He says he thinks the way people act around him is unnecessary because he doesn’t think of himself as looking like a very threatening guy. Yet while commuting he remembers seeing a woman casually scanning the subway and every time she looked in his direction her face would immediately turn into a scowl.

“You could see the ridges, and anger almost,” he said. “And then she would look away and her face would un-tense itself.” Before university, McNeil says he never used to analyze how people react around him or try to understand the airport incident and why the airport security might have had reason behind their actions.

“I understand now why that happened, but back then it was pretty unfair… They didn’t understand the enemies that they were dealing with, so they decided to come out with a blanket practice,” McNeil says. “Anyone who had a Muslim-sounding name or a very Middle Eastern-sounding name would get flagged and put through the ringer, which I thought was very unfortunate and very inappropriate of them to do. They’re still even doing it. It’s not like that’s myth now.” For a long time after being questioned in L.A., McNeil says he felt uneasy entering airports but changing his name has helped him to now feel comfortable traveling.

Yet by changing his name, Mc Neil says he has proven by example that people can legally go around with any name. So the fact that airport securities are still using Middle Eastern sounding names as a reason to question people as potential terrorists is “a really dumb way to try to catch people.” As the oblivious, small, bucktoothed 13-year old that he says he was when he was taken for questioning, McNeil says he never thought he could be dragged into the politics of 9/11- he didn’t even think the two instances were related at the time. But now that he has taken a closer look at his past and tried to understand it, McNeil says that he would never consider changing his name back.

He says that one day he hopes the stigmas he has been used to persecute him and many other people will be erased, but right now, “racial profiling’s a bitch.”

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