Profiled at the airport and the importance of meeting counter-examples


I recently heard of 2 incidents involving Southwest Airlines in the US, where people perceived to be of Arabic descent faced being kicked off a flight because a few passengers were supposedly afraid of them. In one incident some passengers stood up and defended the Arabs’ right to fly, whilst a few others complained that they shouldn’t be let on the plane. Those passengers who defended the Arabs knew that it’s not right to limit someone’s freedoms simply based on broad stereotypes. The passengers who stood up for the Arab folks showed them that ‘not all non-Arab Americans think ethnic Arabs should be discriminated against’. They perhaps eased some of the hurt the Arabs felt. They perhaps stopped the Arab folks from developing some implicit sense of reactive hate; they perhaps stopped them from beginning to develop broad stereotypes of non-Arab Americans as ‘bigoted haters’. In the second incident however, the Arabs were kicked off. I’d not be surprised if the Arabs in the second story momentarily felt more of a sense of ‘well now I hate ‘them’ too’, than the Arabs in the first story. Our reaction to hate is usually to hate the haters. It takes restraint to respond to hate with love and without making sweeping generalizations about ‘them’.
Sometimes however, often times perhaps, profiling isn’t so clear-cut. We’re often unsure of whether or not a particular incident we’ve faced was grounded in ‘racism’ or ‘randomness’.
I have tried to assume that when I have encountered extra checks that profiling didn’t play a part. On two occasions, when travelling with white European folks, I was stopped and checked further whilst it appeared that everyone else was let through without hassle. I didn’t make much of it the first time; the airport woman who stopped me, when I was leaving England for Italy, said that I was just randomly selected to go through an extra search. I believed her. The second time I was stopped though, I felt a bit embarrassed, stupid and as though something was wrong with me. I had just arrived in the Republic of Ireland, from England, with David (he is white and English). Everything went smoothly up until the point that we got to the immigration officer. I had my passport in hand. Beyond that though, I had my student visa for the UK: which explained why I was in England for so long previously. The Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland are two different countries, but they share the same island. Northern Ireland is part of the UK (alongside England, Wales and Scotland), but the Republic of Ireland is not. However, Trinis can visit all, without a visa, for 3 months. So I figured that my passport would have been enough. The officer looked at David’s passport and simply let him through. Another officer looked through my passport and then he began questioning me. He asked when I was going to leave the Republic of Ireland. I think I said that I was only going to be there for 4 days as a vacation, and then I was going to head to Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) before heading back to England (which is also part of the UK). I had no proof of when I was going to leave the Republic of Ireland, but I had a plane ticket for when I was going to leave Northern Ireland. David had my ticket in his bag, and he’d already walked out, so I told the officer that the printout of my ticket was in David’s bag. So I motioned to David to walk back through, and he did. I told him that the officer wanted to see my ticket. The officer seemed more at ease when he realized that David and I were together. David dug through his bag and pulled out the ticket showing that I was going to leave Northern Ireland, and he spoke a bit about how we’re there on vacation. The officer was then satisfied, seemed relaxed, and he let me carry on through. I felt really stupid, and nervous, as we walked out the airport. I kept thinking: “You were dumb to not have your ticket in your hand. You shouldn’t have needed David to put the officer at ease”.
I moved from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland (the UK) by train, without the slightest of security or passport checks. Either way, I never quite came to a conclusion that I was profiled… I just walked away from both incidents feeling like I was unlucky and stupid. Perhaps it was the wrong way to feel (or not), but it’s how I felt. Since then, I’ve travelled with every document I thought I might possibly be asked about, in an envelope, and on hand. I’ve never needed them all though, but it’s made me feel safe from having to feel stupid again. I have met really lovely airport immigration officials in the UK though… enough nice ones who strike up small talk about Trinidad and studying, or who let me through without checking– even when I do go to the ‘Things to declare’ line. So, I don’t harbor any particularly strong feelings that ‘‘they’ hate me’. It’s all made me aware not necessarily of whether or not a profiling problem exists (because I believe one does), but of the importance of having positive experiences with people perceived as ‘other’. Had I not met the lovely airport officials that I did meet on other occasions, I might have walked away with only the view that I was perceived by all as somehow ‘bad’, ‘suspicious’ and/or ‘unworthy’.

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