BY SIDDHI SHAH ’19
With my life, identity and family split across two countries, I grew up a frequent flyer. I know every rule of flying etiquette like the back of my hand. How to pack my entire life into a tiny suitcase, avoid queues, deal with jet lag, and most importantly, tell my ride from the airport that my flight lands an hour after it actually does to make time for that racial profiling I am going to be subjected to.
Flying as a person with anxiety is hard enough, but flying as a person of color definitely ups the ante. For me, flying routines start with a mental meditation on acceptance of the stares and questions I am going to get from airport security. Then comes the part where I actually get to the airport, stand in line to get my boarding pass and do the mental math of how many people of color are going to be on the plane with me, how many other people who are perceived as a "threat to the national security" are going to be on the same plane as me.
Going through baggage checks is a torment of its own. Even after following every detailed rule, putting my electronics in a separate bin, liquid containers in another and removing my jacket and shoes, as I walk through the scanning machines, I hear how the tone of the officials changes as they address me. The "please" and smiles are instantly dropped and I'm told to stand a little straighter, and raise my hands a little higher. Luckily for me, I can still pick up my bags after this and move on while I look back at my fellow people of color who are asked to open their bags and spill their possessions out for everyone's observation.
Getting into the plane is barely half the battle. The real test of my safety comes when I land. When I have a connecting flight, I'm almost always asked at the connecting airport why I chose this particular country to fly through and this particular airport. I wonder if they just pretend like they don't know I don't have control over how connecting tickets are paired or whether they are just oblivious to the existence of travel agents. When I land at my destination, after the general scrutiny, I am asked to step aside, back to the wall because I need secondary inspection. As all my fellow jet lagged passengers walk past me, onward to get their bags and go back to their cozy beds and warm food, they watch me pitifully. And when another person of color is among those given the liberty to leave, they nod at me sympathetically, silently relieved that they are not standing in my place this time. Jet lagged, I stand there, watching more people receive their stamp of approval. Hearing the official whisper in his radio about the "situation" he has here. Then comes the official to escort me telling me that he is only taking me for "routine secondary investigation," pretending that I have not done this before, pretending that I don't know I am being taken there because I call an Islamic country my home. I fight back the routine tears of humiliation, anxiety and fear. Why am I afraid? I have never committed a crime. Perhaps because of the possibility of what they can do to me even though I haven't committed a crime.
The detention center or the "secondary checking room" is ironically brighter and whiter than all the other rooms in the airport. The room is covered in posters stating "Sexual or physical abuse isn't permitted in this facility," and "Know your rights." My heart stops at the thought of those who have actually had to use the information on these helpful posters. Minutes pass as I sit waiting for my paperwork to be verified again. I see the white male who recently visited Iraq and came in this room after me and left before me, the white couple who just toured a Muslim country and now are facing the consequences and the Muslim couple where the woman wears a hijab and sits close to her husband, clutching his hand out of fear. After what seems like an eternity, the official calls me and the only question he asks is "Where do you study?" As I answer the question I can't help but think why I wasn't asked more questions if I was seen as enough of a threat to be held for nearly an hour. Was the purpose verification or humiliation?
With this new executive order banning people because of the piece of land they were born on, my heart doesn't just break for myself, it also breaks for those people whose hour in the detention center never comes to an end.