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What It's Like for People of Color Traveling Through US Airports

TravelPulse logo TravelPulse 2/17/2020 Alex Temblador
a woman sitting on a table: black woman, tsa, security, airport © E+ / AzmanL black woman, tsa, security, airport

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of Microsoft News or Microsoft. MSN Travel Voices features first-person essays and stories from diverse points of view. Click hereto see more Voices content from MSN Lifestyle, Health and Travel. 

As a teenager, I remember returning from vacation in Cancun with my family and an unnerving experience we had with a Customs official. He looked between my father, myself, and my brother and then looked at my mother. I saw his utter confusion as to why my white mother with blonde hair and blue eyes was returning from Cancun to Texas with three Mexican-Americans.

I recalled this instance again two years ago, at 6 a.m. when I arrived at a small Florida airport to return to Texas. I put my suitcase on the conveyer belt and walked through the full-body security scanner without a hiccup, but when I went to grab my bags, a TSA officer pulled it aside.

I asked, “Did something go off?” Maybe I had filled up my water bottle and forgot to empty it before going through security or maybe those small little scissors in my makeup bag had set off the machine.

“No, but I’m going to do a random security check,” he replied.

That seemed odd. The airport had just opened at 6 a.m. and I had been the second person in the TSA security line. To randomly check the second person at the beginning of the day didn’t add up. As he did his “random search” through my bags, I looked around the airport.

There was not one other person of color among the passengers or employees.

The travel industry is not a perfect industry, and if breaking news stories about airports and airline companies are any indication – neither is the aviation industry. Beyond those viral stories of racism caught on video during a flight, there is one aspect of the aviation industry that doesn’t get enough attention: what people of color experience in airports.

As a Latinx woman, my experience in U.S. airports, for the most part, have been positive. I do fly often domestically and abroad, and besides the experiences I mentioned and a few other “random checks” when I’ve been pulled aside and had my hands and laptop swabbed for explosives, I can’t say I’ve been severely traumatized. Rather, the experiences leave me with this cringing gut-feeling that something is not right, and I’m not alone.

There is proof that bias, racism, and xenophobia is alive and well in airports, especially among the airport security sectors. In 2018, an investigation was launched by the Office of Inspector General at the Orlando International Airport after air marshals went public that their TSA supervisor pressured them to point out minorities, and African American and Hispanic travelers with “tattoos, baggy clothes, and gaudy jewelry,” for potential additional screening.

Then in 2019, ProPublica released an article that highlighted how TSA body scanners are biased toward black women and women of color, resulting in “intrusive, degrading searches” by TSA centered on their hair. The claims came to no surprise, as facial recognition software in airports is known to be less accurate in reading the faces of racial and ethnic minorities.

African American, New York City-based travel and lifestyle writer, Patrice J. Williams, has been on the receiving end of these invasive searches, which happen often she says, as she travels about once or twice a month.

“One time while flying out of JFK, I had my natural hair in a high bun,” Williams said. “The agent, a black woman, didn’t tell me she was going to search my hair or pat my down she just reached up with her hands and patted my bun down. Literally just smashed me hair down on my head.”

Williams has plenty more stories, including another when a TSA agent ran her hands down a few of Williams’ individual long twists for no particular reason.

Following ProPublica’s piece, TSA responded by saying their searches are not biased toward black women, but Williams refutes this: “There’s only been one time I’ve seen a non-Black woman have her hair searched so it’s absolutely an issue of discrimination and plain ignorance.”

Williams explains that traveling through airports is stressful knowing she is always going to receive this biased treatment. “Each incident left me annoyed but I always travel with the expectation that my hair might be searched. I hate that I’ve just come to expect this,” she said.

Unfortunately, people of color don’t just have issues with TSA. Going through Customs upon returning from abroad also comes with its own problems.

Max Cordova, an Ecuadorian-American was born and raised in Central Jersey after his parents immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador. Today, he lives with his wife in Philadelphia and works as a freelancer. However, he lived abroad for seven years and upon a return visit to the U.S., he landed in Newark Airport and had an odd experience with Customs officials.

“They asked for my 'green card' as soon as they looked at me,” he said. “I stared at them in shock for a few microseconds, but I didn't think much of it because I was in a rush nor did I want to cause a scene, so I just handed them my U.S. passport. They didn't even apologize.”

Cordova and his wife were in the U.S. citizen line, which was not the same line as those who are lawful permanent residents with green cards, meaning the Customs officer should have only expected a passport from all travelers in his line.

Asking how it made him feel, Cordova said, “Sure, they shouldn't have assumed that I wasn't a citizen. The bigger question is why? Why did they make that assumption?”

“Maybe it's something Americans in certain areas and cultures [who] grow up assuming certain things that over time get ingrained and perpetuates in these kinds of situations and then that gets passed down and the cycle continues. But we are all conscious and free thinkers and we also have a choice whether or not we are going to pick up on these negative assumptions about people,” he added.

Cordova’s experience as a U.S. citizen is appalling, but the experiences of immigrants of color in airports are similarly shocking and have been an ongoing problem for decades.

I spoke with one woman who we'll call "Heather", as she requested to be anonymous. Heather had grown up in the U.S. without paperwork. Although her mother had tried to get them the proper paperwork to stay, they ran into so many issues that they decided to voluntarily self deport to South Korea.

“At [John F. Kennedy International Airport], when my mom showed TSA her paperwork, they literally laughed in her face, threw the passport around, and said ‘Well you’re never coming back to the US,’” Heather explained.

“I was already a crying mess, but it was one of the cruelest things.”

In speaking with "Sara" (who also requested to remain anonymous for fear of any possible repercussions the next time she returns to the US), who is a British citizen by birth, Bangladeshi by ethnic background, and a U.S. green card holder through her mother, experiences like this are common at U.S. airports and sometimes, worse.

“Every checked bag I have had since 2007, bar one time, has been checked by airlines, and more often than not, have been destroyed. I have had to replace several suitcases,” Sara said. “In 2011, returning to LHR [London Heathrow] from JFK, my suitcase zip was torn, the contents lying all over the conveyor belt, and several pairs of my underwear were missing.”

Sara, who works as an advertising consultant in NYC today, told me of times in which she’s been targeted for extra screening, including frisking and gunpowder residue swabs, before getting on planes along with other passengers “who were deemed required more screening – aka brown people with funny-sounding names.”

Another time, a white, female Customs officer accused her of trying to work illegally in the U.S. without a visa, when she was visiting NYC as a fashion stylist for Fashion Week, even though the same officer had just allowed an international white male photographer through the line who did admit to coming to NYC to work during Fashion Week and never once asked him about a visa.

Sara said, “I had to pull out my Permanent Resident card to show her, and that's after she made me wait after other passengers.”

Perhaps the worst experience she ever had was going through Customs at Newark International Airport.

“The officer at border control – Bangladeshi origin, late 20s, name of Mohammed Zaman which is how I knew he was of Bangladeshi background – asked why I had been out of the country for almost a year. I responded that I was based in the UK and had not made the permanent move yet,” Sara said.

“He kept asking why. I told him I was a student and was still studying. He pressed me to ask if I was going to move over, I said yes, I would need a job. He seemed incredibly put out upon that I didn't seem to be extolling the virtues of the U.S.,” she said.

From there, Sara was led into a separate screening room where Officer Zaman remained hostile toward her, while she was questioned by another white male officer in his 40s who effectively cleared her to go.

“I was 22 years old, brown, a Muslim woman and just feeling very uncomfortable,” Sara remembers.

“Right before I left the room Officer Zaman said to me, ‘We gave you your green card, I can take it away just like that if I don't think you deserve it.’”

Sara’s not shocked that people of color are targets of racism, bias, harassment, or invasive searches at airports.

“I think travel and airports are places where you can see very obvious and blatant examples of prejudice and racism, and not the kind that people with privilege turn a blind eye to,” she said. “The travel industry is catered to and designed around white people. Through my travels as a consumer and as a journalist, I've seen that time and time again, not just in the U.S.”

When it comes to airports, many people of color have similar experiences to those I interviewed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, immigrant, or visitor, the reality is that people of color aren’t being treated with the same dignity and respect as other passengers, and it's not because they're higher risks in terms of security.

So, what’s the answer? According to a few people I interviewed, it's education.

“Educating agents and employees on how to perform a search (if necessary) should be key,” said Williams. “I’ve had full-body pat-downs and each time the agent asks permission to search me and even walks me through what’s happening. But when it comes to black women and hair, the pat-downs are done with a complete lack of care or consideration.”

Sara echoed this by saying, “The only real option is education. And not those bare minimum diversity training videos or assuming that because someone has ticked a box agreeing to the Equal Opportunity Act. Actual real training on unconscious bias.”

“Airlines and border control need to take a serious look at their own conduct and actually work on actual inclusion and safety,” she added.

Cordova is a little less hopeful that education will work: “The industry could do all these professional training and awareness courses but is that really going to change anything? In my opinion, no. Everyone has grown up with personal/cultural biases and that's how it's going to be no matter what corporate training they receive.”

As for me, I think the answer lies not only in education but in examining the fabric of leadership and employee diversity in airports. A quick look shows that the Key Leaders of U.S. Customs and Border Protection are overwhelmingly white and male. Of the nine leaders, only one is a woman and one is a Latino man.

On the side of TSA, 55.7 percent of security screeners are white, 23.1 percent are black, followed by 9.83 percent titled “Other.” Among the top leaders of TSA, the male-to-female ratio is nearly equal, but in terms of race, there are only two black women among 11 leaders (though one person is not pictured).

Sometimes if we want to change at the bottom – in this case, within our airports – we need to look at diversifying the top. When systems are put in place by one group of people, those who don’t fit within that group are the bearers of negative treatment, and that may be especially true within our airports.

People of color deserve better treatment while traveling and that may come with a lot of education and more diversity among leaders and employees who run our security systems at airports.

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