What It's Like to Fly When the TSA Profiles You
It’s 4:45am on a Monday morning, and my flight from Washington, DC to Charlotte, North Carolina is set to depart in 90 minutes. I haven’t made it through security yet, but my friend tells me it should be “no problemo” -- it’s so early we should be able to cruise through. I’m more skeptical. I don’t think she usually flies with people who look like me.
Midway through the line, a TSA agent pulls me aside to swab my palms for explosive powder. For the 15 minutes we’ve been in line, I’m the only person who’s been pulled away for this drill. When we get to the metal detectors, I go through without a beep, and yet the agent asks me to step aside for frisking and pat-downs.
Finally I’m allowed to pass through to pick up my bags from the conveyor, but I already know I’m not going to see my backpack come out the other side. Sure enough, it’s been redirected on the other conveyor at the security checkpoint for more detailed inspection. As it always is.
We wait another 15 agonizing minutes. An agent finally comes, inspects the bag, and lets me get my things. My friend is stunned at how long everything has taken; we have to jog through the terminal to catch the plane. When we sit down, she literally sighs with relief that we made it. I don’t tell her that if this was an international flight and we were moving through passport control, there would have been another round of interrogation about who I was and why I was doing anything. Unless we’d planned accordingly for these inevitabilities, we would have missed our flight.
I’m a U.S. citizen, very much from and of this country, without the smallest blemish of a criminal record. I was born outside Chicago and raised right outside DC by a computer engineer father and a clinical research auditor mother. In high school, I was a keener for AP and IB courses, and I graduated with a biology degree from Virginia Tech (go Hokies!). Now I eke out a living writing about NASA and Hyperloop and whatnot. Stereotypes are bad, but I will admit, my life does little to dispel the ones about Indians.
I wouldn’t say I’m a model citizen (I work in the media, for chrissake), but at 5-foot-2-inches and with a petite frame, I’m the definition of non-threatening. I put airport security on alert only because I’m brown -- a typecast stand-in of how Americans picture a Muslim terrorist.
You’re not even Muslim! my white friends exclaim, quickly followed by, Not that that should even matter. And of course it shouldn’t. But Indian descent won’t spare me from the racially based harassments guised as “security measures” that my Middle Eastern and Arab friends and colleagues face. On cosmetic terms, I fit a profile our society has learned to fear, and the optics are powerful. Sikhism is a religion very distinct from Islam or anything else, but as a Sikh friend of mine jokes, “The beard and the turban mean you’re a visual liability.” When he flies, he counts on being stopped for what the TSA drolly calls “additional random screening,” as if there’s much random about it.
Things are worse if you actually possess a name that sounds Arabic. Your name might be shared or similar to one on a no-fly list, and you’re more likely to be grounded and interrogated. My friend Imani wears a hijab and says a TSA agent will always pat it down and feel through it to see if she’s hiding anything. “It makes no sense,” she says. “If I was out to do something destructive, wouldn’t I want to try to look more discreet, rather than blatantly advertise I’m a Muslim?”
In the UK, ethnic minorities are 42% more likely than white people to be stopped at the airport by security personnel. Here in the States, the TSA doesn’t keep records of stoppages, but TSA behavior detection officers at Boston’s Logan International Airport once told reporters that more than 80% of the passengers selected for additional screening and questioning were people of color. A study of TSA documents by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows what amounts to a pretty systematic process of racial profiling against brown and black people.
I usually keep a trimmed beard in my normal day-to-day life, but when I travel, I shave my face clean. I also prepare to keep moving through security as fast as possible, carrying only a backpack and wearing light clothing (the best way to keep searches minimally invasive, I’ve learned over the years, is to travel in only basketball shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals, ideally). The less I have, the less excuse security has to pull me or my things out for additional screening.
At no point do I get huffy, or show my aggravation. I can’t join others who fume and complain in the security line. I have to be calm and respectful and answer questions as succinctly and pithily as possible -- not saying too much to sound long-winded or rehearsed, and not saying too little as to be vague or blasé. Speaking clearly and quietly carries the least risk of getting pulled aside for yet more questioning.
People are sympathetic to this, and they always seem amazed at how calmly I go through this ritual. They don’t always realize there’s no way in hell that I, or anyone else of my skin tone, are going to get through it any quicker by protesting. I suspect it’s the same calm calculus that many people of color do when police pull them over on the road. If you get pissed off, you’re giving authorities a reason to escalate things. Complaining about their suspicions is likely to confirm those very suspicions.
When you’re brown, and you tell your white friends about these experiences, they always react with shock and umbrage. Some of them have asked me whether things have gotten worse under Trump. Hard to say, but I feel like I’m getting stopped more often, and airports do feel more tense. Shortly after the Inauguration in 2017, a Muslim woman was attacked by some bigot at JFK. "Fuck Islam, fuck ISIS, Trump is here now,” he shouted at her. "He will get rid of all of you. You can ask Germany, Belgium, and France about these kind of people. You will see what happens." Trump’s own tweets cast the world into nuance-free camps of “us” and “them.” And guess where the people of color fall.
We can, though, take solace in how diligently people are documenting and exposing these instances. Social media let us call out abuses in real time, and connects us to a community who shares our experiences.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that my grievances are with profiling at large. Individual TSA agents often make clear how aware they are of the absurdity of their errand. Even when an agent pulls me aside for a pat-down or to check my bag more thoroughly, there’s always room to trade a couple wisecracks. The agents who approach their job with that sense of shared human connection help remind me that I’m sane, even when the system isn’t.