Wanded for being nonwhite
WASHINGTON — 'Call it as you see it," one of my editors says to me as we exchange stories of travel hassles. So let me do so in national print: Racial profiling is rampant in airports.
"Random computer-determined searches," I'm told. "Your ticket has been randomly flagged," they insist. "We're searching every eighth person," I hear.
Call it what you will. But I literally can't remember the last time I made it on to an airplane without being quietly pulled aside and asked to open all my bags.
Last time, a little old lady who so sweetly approached me with, "Ma'am, may I randomly search you, please?" actually lifted up my shirt high enough to expose quite a bit of midriff to make sure it was just the button holding my pants closed that was causing her wand to beep.
Only the reminder of the loaded rifles all around me kept me from smacking her hand away.
Post-Sept. 11, I realize we're living in an era of heightened airport security. And I do my best to cooperate without fuss, without grumbling, without confrontation. I take off my shoes I keep them loosely tied so they just slip right back on I open up my bags and any zippered compartments without being asked, I sit quietly on the designated plastic chair while everything is swabbed and wanded, including me.
I've made 17 trips since Memorial Day. I've passed through many cities by air, including Washington, San Francisco, Atlanta, Tallahassee, New York, Dallas, San Diego, Los Angeles, and London. And I have not left a single airport without being chosen "at random."
I'm Asian-American. While I might not necessarily resemble the post-Sept. 11 enemy, I do look different.
Being an ethnic minority in a country where a "real" American connotes white European descent has always been a problematic liability, made even more so since Sept. 11.
Never mind that people who look like me have been in this country since the 1700s, helped build the transcontinental railroads in the 1800s, and created the country's agricultural infrastructure system in the early 1900s. Never mind that people who looked like me comprised the most decorated unit during World War II even while their families were being held in concentration camps throughout the Western states.
And never mind that people who looked like me helped to save and care for victims of Sept. 11 alongside all the other heroes on that tragic day.
Regardless of our long history in this country, people who look like me are still considered the "other."
According to a report aptly titled "Backlash: When America Turned on Its Own" released this March by the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC), racial violence against Asian-Americans, particularly darker-skinned South Asians, has spiked significantly nationwide since the events of Sept. 11.
The "You're either with us or with the terrorists" mentality spouted by President Bush has resulted in a misplaced, overly zealous patriotism, where people who might vaguely resemble the enemy are being locked away without evidence, and deported en masse. In some communities, Asian-Americans are being harassed, bullied, injured, and even killed.
So here's the obvious: I stand out. I know without a doubt that I am an easy "random" choice. Unfortunately, the more often my two very young children travel with me, the more "randomly" they are chosen, as well.
My 4-year-old son is quickly becoming a favorite. On our last family trip, in both directions to and from London, my son was again wanded for hidden metal, his small sneakers removed and checked, his backpack filled with travel toys emptied and examined in great detail and finally his blunt, plastic, kid-safe scissors confiscated.
Small price for security, I know. But as the guard commented, laughing to another guard, "Look, the little boy already knows what do to," as my son stood before her, arms outstretched in a "T." My frustrated comments of "For heaven's sake, he's only 4 years old!" were met with, "Ma'am, it's all random, it's just the computer."
Yeah, sure. Random. Right.
NAPALC at least has no illusions: On its informative website (www.napalc.org) is a report called "Airport Profiling" with clear directions on how to file a formal complaint against the overzealous. "The U.S. Department of Transportation's Air Consumer Protection Division is receiving and documenting complaints of profiling and discrimination at airports," the site reveals.
At least I know I'm not alone.
Terry Hong is a freelance writer.