Monday, October 27, 2008

How I got off the terrorist watch-list

draft 2

This is a draft and I am interested in editorial comments. Please do not share it (except by linking to this page) until it's finished.

I am particularly in feedback about the use of metaphor, which is definitely not my strong suit, and about how my analysis speaks or fails to speak to your experience. You can write feedback as a comment or email me.

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 carryon bags.

At that time most travelers – at least, most white, U.S. citizen travelers - 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 because of irrational suspicions based on their presumed race, ethnicity, or religion.

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 about to fall off. 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 transgender 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 seemed to stress 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 Florida 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, and 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 traveled there for a few months before I was born, and I know just enough Hindi to pronounce my own name. There’s no reason that I would “look” Indian at all.

“Huh.” The TSA agent shrugged. The moment was over, and she was all efficiency again. 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. Many other of McIntosh’s examples apply to me only because they include phrases like “because of my race,” or “based on my skin color.” They describe privileges that are denied to me for reasons other than race. I could understand that I was white, and that these examples described privileges of whiteness, but it was hard to reconcile that with the fact that I did not have access to those privileges.

A handful of McIntosh’s examples of white privilege are true for me, and that’s how I started learning about white privilege. But even once I knew what to look for, I rarely saw it operating in my life. The concrete, everyday examples that make The Invisible Knapsack so compelling just didn’t apply to me. I knew that I had white privilege in an abstract sense, and I tried to increase my awareness of race playing out in everyday interactions. Still, my primary experience was that of being targeted as untrustworthy, un-valued, or an outsider, because of identities other than race.

These were the kinds of experiences that were 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, 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 probably 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.

McIntosh calls her knapsack “invisible” because white people usually don’t notice the privileges we have as being related to whiteness. We may assume that everybody has them, or that they are results of our own personal effort or merits. Even though white people often don’t notice our own white privilege playing out (sometimes even when we try to), the fact of our whiteness – the fact of our membership in the category of “white” – is not invisible. In order to be afforded those privileges, we have to be recognized, by other people and by systems (banks, police, schools, etc.), as white. Rather than a knapsack, it’s more like a tiny transmitter that sends out constant signals wherever we go, saying, “white person. white person. white person.People around us may be conscious or unconscious of the signal, but either way they know to treat us like white people.

I was a white person before and after 9-11, but sometimes the signal was jammed. Because of my other identities, and in this case because I have a South Asian name, my privilege was obscured not only to me but to the system. The TSA failed to recognize me as white and therefore did not afford me the white privilege of being considered above suspicion. On the contrary, I was racially profiled as a presumed South Asian and, I can only guess, put on some sort of list to receive extra scrutiny.

Ironically, it took an Indian TSA agent to see through my unusually opaque knapsack. Despite my whiteness signal being jammed by an Indian name and a “special” boarding pass, she noticed that I was white. She pushed the white button, and the system ceased to suspect or even to notice me. 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 recognized as white.