My Passport: A Danger by Default?

By Waleed Nasir ’18. Art by He Ri Kwon ’16.

Art by He Ri Kwon '16

Airports are interesting, to say the least. One can witness a lot of characters when sitting in an airport; there are those who are taking a sigh of relief after traveling miles to be back where they belong, those who are scurrying to catch the next flight, those poor souls sleeping on the uncomfortable airport couches trying to kill time before their next flight, and then there are people like me – waiting.

I sit on a couch or a seat, fidgeting anxiously for a final verdict. My gaze fixated on a door waiting for an officer to announce my arrival into or expulsion from the country. My heart skips a beat every time that door opens, just to realize that it wasn’t my turn yet. I curiously eavesdrop on the conversations of others in my place when it is their turn to be “interviewed” by the immigration officers, to find the little secrets of not being sent back on the long journey home. This is my regular travelling experience, just like a million others who are not considered “safe.”

I am a South Asian, Muslim, Pakistani male travelling to and fro regularly between Pakistan and the United States.

Just by reading this sentence many people, who identify similarly, will somehow be able to relate with my experiences. My experience with racial profiling in airports and immigration control started with my first flight to the United States and still continues to date every time I enter the country, but the part that bothers me the most is that people in my country have accepted this prejudice as a norm. My family and relatives have all internalized this discrimination, and desensitized themselves from the damaging effects of racial profiling.

I have a memory of my father sitting me down the night before my flight and explaining to me how I was “supposed to behave” with officials. It was an uncomfortable talk, as my father had never previously tried to police my behaviour; why was there a need now? I have never gotten into trouble before, and I didn’t plan on it even then. But my dad wanted me to be extra careful with how I carried myself. He told me that I need to be “nice” towards the security people and oblige everything that they say. He didn’t want me to question any of their practices but actually be apologetic for the stereotypes linked to my identity. Hearing numerous security check tales from my family, I started expecting to be stopped and moved/pushed/herded/forced through extra security, and I was okay with it because that was just the way it was.

Art by He Ri Kwon '16

I remember walking into the Boston Airport, and being “randomly selected” for a security check. I remember walking into a room with a sea of people who looked like me. It was the first time I realised that I was different, and the first time I felt a sense of “othering.” There was something about my skin color that wasn’t considered normal or there was something about my religion which didn’t sit well in the United States. I was always aware of this, but this was the first time that I actually felt it. However, what was more confusing to me was that everyone there was abiding by the specific “mannerisms” that my father had talked to me about, and I, unaware of how hurtful this was to my identity, followed the crowd.

Coming to Brown didn’t fix any of the prejudices in the American institutions. However, it did give me a sense of pride in who I was, and I learnt how I can be myself unapologetically. I understood that I don’t have to act in a particular way to be accepted, like my father had ingrained in me. So, now that I am stopped in an airport, be it either an international airport where I am feeling uncomfortable because of my first name; which is Muhammad, or some security check in the United States where I am the only one from my friend group to be questioned, I don’t act a certain way or talk in a certain way because I don’t think I have anything to prove or clarify in terms of who I am. I came to the realization that the phrase, “it’s just the way it is” is one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language, and I am adamant to change that attitude.

The purpose of this post is not only to bring attention to racial profiling in airports and security checks, but also to inform readers of the dangers of desensitizing themselves to this issue. Racial profiling is wrong, and yet it is the people being profiled who have to be apologetic for it.  We can’t fix institutional prejudices, but we can fix our attitude towards them. It is important to understand these patterns and it’s imperative not to fall into them. So the next time you are stopped at an airport, stop and question that practice. Don’t think about “the way it is” but about the way it should be.

Interested in continuing this conversation?

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