Saturday, June 07, 2008

Taking My Knapsack of Privilege through Airport Security

or, "How I got off the terrorist watch-list"
or, "She pushed the white button"

This is a DRAFT and I am interested in editorial comments. Please DO NOT SHARE it (except by linking to this page) until I'm done with it.

After 9/11, I got stopped every single time I went through airport security. In the very beginning I got stopped twice in each airport – once at the regular screening point, and once again at the gate for an additional search of my carry-on bags.

At that time we were just getting used to being really scrutinized in airports. Everyone was annoyed at the long lines, and at having to remove their shoes and jackets. It seemed like overkill. It was overkill. But even in that context, my experiences with airport security stood out as notably ludicrous.

For one thing, the numbers did not add up. They told us that the second screening of carryon bags at the gate occurred for one in ten randomly selected passengers. I got selected ten times out of ten. For another thing, metal detectors didn’t seem to like me. No matter how hard I tried to remove any clothes with metal pieces, and any stray scraps of foil in my pockets, I always set it off.

After a little while, I got know the signs and procedures. When I picked up my boarding pass, I checked for the row of Ss across the bottom that meant I had to go through the special line. (It was always there.) Most of the people I shared the line with were white men in suits – business travelers. I figured they really had been selected randomly. There were also a few Arab, African and South Asian men, who looked accustomed and resigned to the extra scrutiny. I figured they had been profiled, selected no more “randomly” than I.

In line, I removed my shoes, hoodie, cap, and belt and placed them neatly in plastic bins to be x-rayed. I shuffled through the metal detector, trying to look like my pants weren’t falling off my tush. Because I was in the special line, officers would search my bags even if I didn’t set off the metal detector, but I hoped at least to avoid a personal screening (i.e. a pat-down).

The pat-down or wand-check (with a handheld metal detector) is not exactly a joy for anyone, and it can be particularly traumatic for trans people. A few times, officers got into arguments about who should pat me down. The screening is supposed to be performed by an officer of the same gender as the person being examined, to avoid the appearance of inappropriate touching. The officers weren’t certain of my gender, and it stressed them out. “Should you pat her down?” “No, I think you should pat him down.” “I’m pretty sure you should pat her down.” “Just pat him down please!”

Needless to say, I worked hard to avoid this situation. I took to flying in pyjama pants, so the rivets on my jeans wouldn’t set off the metal detector. I replaced my steel earrings with wooden ones. I even tried removing my Star of David necklace, which I almost never do. It’s a tiny pennant on a silver chain that’s hardly big enough even to count as metal, much less to set off a metal detector, but I was willing to try anything.

It didn’t matter. Inevitably, the metal detector went off anyway. At least once I think I really had succeeded in removing every discernable trace of metal, because the detector didn’t sound immediately. I took a few steps past it and felt a sense of elation – at last, I did it! No argument about my gender! No confused TSA agent fastidiously touching every inch of me with the backs of his or her hands! And then of course the detector went off. They must have a button back there, I thought. Just in case a freaky, suspicious-looking person like me fails to set it off on their own. They must have pushed the freak button.

I thought I had it all figured out. It was obvious to me why I was getting searched more often, and more intrusively, than most people I knew. I attributed the unequal treatment to those aspects of my identity that were most salient to me. I thought, “It’s because I’m young, because I’m poor, because I’m queer, because I’m transgender.” Actually, it was something else.

I found this out in 2005, traveling to FL to be with my extended family. My boarding pass had the row of Ss like usual. In the special line, the TSA agent rattled off, “Remove your shoes and jacket and put any metal from your pockets in this dish …” and then she turned to me, realized I had already done all that, and commented, “You’re pretty good at this.” I noticed her for the first time them, because this was the most personable thing a TSA agent had ever said to me. She was a petit woman of South Asian descent. She looked tired. The id badge pinned to her uniform had a Hindi name on it. It occurred to me that this must be an awkward job for an Indian woman to have, what with the rampant racial profiling of South Asians.

“I’ve had some practice,” I said. She nodded sympathetically. I handed her my id and boarding pass. She glanced at them and almost immediately looked up and said, “Gita??” Gita is my legal first name. In India, it is a very common name for girls. I had a moment of panic, thinking this was yet another gender confusion. Sometimes when people read me as a guy, they don’t believe my id is really mine.

“Yeah,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“You don’t look Indian,” the TSA agent said. That caught me off guard. All of a sudden we were having a totally different conversation from the one I had thought we were having.

“Yeah, that’s true,” I said. I am white, after all. I’m sure there are some people in India who look like me, but the truth is my connection to that country is tenuous at best. My parents lived there for a little while before I was born, and I know just enough Hindi to pronounce my own name. There’s absolutely no reason that I would “look” Indian at all.

“Huh.” The TSA agent shrugged. With her right hand, she typed something into her computer, while with her left hand she returned my id and boarding pass to me. “Have a nice flight,” she said.

On the other side of the check point, tying my shoes and trying to regroup, I puzzled over the exchange. I second guessed everything I had said, wondering what I could have done differently to be more friendly, or less suspicious, or … something. I knew I was missing something.

I continued puzzling over it for the entire trip, until I arrived at the airport for the return flight. I looked at my boarding pass and noticed: No Ss! I went through the ordinary, non-special check point, and lo and behold, the metal detector did not go off!

Up until that trip, I had been stopped every single time I flew for about four years. In the three years since then, I have never once been stopped by airport security.

I think I was probably right about the freak button. But I think they have another button back there, too. When the friendly Indian TSA agent realized I was not South Asian at all, but rather a white kid with a Hindi name, I think she hit the white button.

Peggy McIntosh writes of a knapsack of white privilege. The idea is that white people carry around a whole package of unearned advantages, which we may not even be aware of, that privilege us in a system of racism. McIntosh’s article has been described as groundbreaking for folks who do work around racism and other systems of oppression. I’ve found it useful as a teaching tool, but it always frustrated me on a personal level. When I first read McIntosh’s article, I wanted to understand that I had white privilege. And yet many of the specific examples on McIntosh’s list did not apply to me because I am disadvantaged by other systems of oppression – for example, because I am young (and young-looking), working-class, Jewish, queer, and transgender.

These other identities tend to mask my white privilege in many situations. One of McIntosh’s examples is “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.” As a young-looking, poor-looking, gender-ambiguous queer kid, I was followed and harassed pretty consistently in stores. Now I don’t look quite as young or as poor as I did then, but I still get harassed from time to time because of gender. Another example from McIntosh’s list is “I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.” As a Jew whose family has been impacted by McCarthyism, that one didn’t make much sense to me either.

These are the kinds of experiences that are most salient to me, and these were the kind of explanations I turned to when I realized I was being targeted in airport security. The effects of other systems of oppression don’t negate my white privilege, but they do make it even more difficult to put my finger on ways in which I personally benefit because of my race. In this case, something far stranger occurred. My attention to these other factors distracted me from noticing that I was being mistakenly targeted because someone perceived me as non-white.

I still think that classism, adultism, transgender oppression and maybe antisemitism play out for me in airports. But they are not as central in that context as race is. I was put on a list of some kind, set aside to be particularly hassled in the airport, because I had a South Asian name. I was taken off the list when a South Asian woman noticed I was white.

I was carrying my knapsack of privilege the whole time, but it wasn’t obvious. They usually aren’t, to the people carrying them – most white people find it difficult to see the privileges that we have. But usually the knapsacks are at least clear enough that the system knows to treat us like white folks. In my case, the contents of my privilege knapsack were obscured by my other identities and by having a South Asian name.

But that TSA agent saw right through it. She x-rayed my knapsack of privilege, and saw that I was white, and she pushed the white button. And that is the essence of privilege. I didn’t do anything wrong to get on the watch list, and I didn’t do anything right to get off it. All I had to do was show up and be white.

This is a DRAFT and I am interested in editorial comments. Please DO NOT SHARE it (except by linking to this page) until I'm done with it.