By Saranjit Uppal
It’s not just Riz Ahmed’s recent song “Mogambo” that inspired this piece; a casual conversation amongst staff members of this very platform months ago evolved into an intense dialogue about racial profiling in airports. Every person there could testify that they or a family member with whom they traveled with had been taken aside for a “random” airport search, which got us thinking – how often does it really happen to people of color?
My father, an Indian man speaking broken English in a booming voice, boarded a flight on a Tuesday afternoon on September 11th, 2001 from California to England to visit his small children at the time, me and my older brother. Getting through security in a breeze, not having to stop to remove his belt or shoes, he walked throughout SFO and boarded his plane in no time at all. My mother was expecting him at Heathrow airport in London in just a few short hours. She told me she remembered how she was absentmindedly ironing some clothes when she saw the news on TV and realized what had happened in New York. She said her first thought turned to my father, whether he’ll still be waiting to see her at the arrivals gate. Her second thought turned to us; my brother and I, playing on the floor and fighting over a toy neither of us even remembers anymore.
And while my father made it back home to us that day, a haunted look falling over his face whenever someone mentions 9/11, like a child forever lost in an airport, something definitively changed, shifted, and has yet to return back to kilter. After the events of 9/11, a complete switch occurred for airline travel and people of color, specifically in terms of religion, ethnicity, and race. As many people of color can attest to, our generation has grown entirely too used to the invasive airport searches, looking for incriminating evidence under our turbans and hijabs. As Riz Ahmed says, “You gotta be careful what part of your face you shave;” overnight it appears that beards represent terrorism and a kurta a refusal of democracy.
Asking my friends who identify as white, I noticed a trend developing: very few of them had been stopped randomly for a security check before departing for a flight. As I kept asking around, the answer just stared me back in the face each time:
But maybe it’s less obvious than that. Maybe I’ve experienced it an abnormal amount in my life and heard the stereotype too often displayed in media, but asking my Muslim, Sikh, Pakistani, Iranian, Moroccan, Egyptian, Palestinian and other black and brown-identifying friends and family the same question, I knew that was a pipe dream:
“Oh yeah, last year.”
“Once on a school trip.”
“During my cousin’s wedding.”
It’s not as clear-cut a binary as that between race or religion and profiling (after all, there are white Muslims and Christian Arabs), but it’s significant enough to be alarming. When my loud and rowdy Indian cousins enter an airport and rambunctiously roughhouse with one another, I worry. If my dad doesn’t shave his beard before his flight, I worry. If my brother frowns too deeply during security (rightfully so because it’s taking too long), I worry. If I see my uncle off at the airport as he goes to visit his mother wearing a turban proud and a beard that has never been trimmed – I worry like hell.
As far back as in 2013, the Equality and Human Rights Commission raised alarms over airport profiling, highlighting how people identifying racially as Asian are more than eleven times more likely to be pulled over for “random” security checks since the turn of the century, a problem clearly pressing for people of color when traveling. My friends should not worry about flying back to their home country in fear of being put on a no-fly list, but they do. My family should not worry about whether they can travel back into the country when flying out to visit sick relatives, but they do.
But how do we deal with it? How do we reclaim the turban and the hijab, restore the image of brown skin in an airport without getting the looks and stares and pointed glances? How do we stop worrying and start moving on? How do we deal with prejudices being the driving force of our security system rather than intelligence?
It takes support. It requires us all coming together and supporting one another, whether you’re a 75-year-old retired grandfather living in Oregon, or a wealthy 23-year-old Muslim woman from Iran landing her first job in New York, we need to support one another. The moment you accept differences across the globe, be it our races, our genders, our sexual orientations, our religions, or anything else that can identify us, is the moment you can truly help. When you fight past the centuries of racism infused into society, stripping away the prejudices we all grew up and learnt from, taking the time to care for one another as human beings, we take a small step closer to creating a better world.
It takes learning from each other. It takes knowing where we come from and why this is important, knowing that the hijab is not an instrument of oppression but the self-expression of Muslim women, knowing that the turban is not the garb of terrorism but a proud identifier of Sikh men. Taking the time to learn these things, to read and listen to and appreciate the people who are constantly on the fringes of the world, is how we overcome this.
When you decide to stand up to others, to defend strangers facing discrimination, to question the systems of oppression constantly working in society, the more we move forward together.