Airports are becoming more traumatic for brown-skinned U.S. travelers.

Airport Security Has Long Been Traumatic for Brown-Skinned Travelers. It’s Getting Worse.

Airport Security Has Long Been Traumatic for Brown-Skinned Travelers. It’s Getting Worse.

The cities of today and tomorrow.
Sept. 7 2017 4:54 PM

Flying While Brown Is Getting More Traumatic

The screenings that are often forced on travelers send a clearer and clearer message: Go away.

170906_TERMINAL_Flying-While-Brown

Mark Nerys

If your skin is brown and you spend as much time going through security in American airports as I do, you’re likely to eventually lose your cool. For me, it happened in customs coming into one of New York’s airports, on the tail end of a work trip I took last year to India.

Exhausted, I was looking forward to clearing the line and catching the final leg of my trip back to the Bay Area, where I live. My colleague, also brown, cleared the line. As I thought I was about to follow her, a Customs and Border Protection agent looked at me and directed me to the “special screening” line. There, I knew, agents would open my bags one by one and give me a pat-down.

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Without thinking, I snapped back at the officer: “This happens to me every single time I come back through customs, and no one else. Is this racially motivated?

The officer was thrown. “Uh, no not that I know of,” he said. “We just picked you randomly.” But this wasn’t the first time I’ve been taken out of the line. It had already happened to me in customs that January, and I was singled out for an extra security screening entering the Seattle airport on another trip—meaning an extra pat-down, followed by agents rifling through and messing up my bags. I’ve been “randomly” pulled out of line returning to SFO, my own airport. On a trip in July 2015, I was coming back from a vacation in Amsterdam. As I walked up, a white CBP agent gave me a derisive look and said, “Yo dawg, you coming back from the Netherlands—you have any drugs on you?” I actually had eaten a pot cookie in Amsterdam to make the flight easier—he didn’t need to know that—which felt especially justified once I encountered the agent. These are just some of the humiliating experiences I’ve had traveling through U.S. airports. After I cleared that special screening in Philadelphia, my co-worker ruefully said to me, “It’s because you are brown and traveling with a beard.” When I shared my experience later with a good friend who is a white woman, she said, “Airports are just like a big mall to me. I don’t get hassled.”

Whether you’ve had these kinds experiences or simply heard of them, they are not new: Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu travelers with brown skin have known to expect extra scrutiny at the airport for a long time. And yet—perhaps because of my frequent travel, or perhaps because of my day job, which makes me hyperaware of broad-brush surveillance against communities of color—it is clear to me that this experience has become even worse during the presidency of Donald Trump.

I was born in New York City to parents who emigrated from India. I grew in New Mexico and made my adult home in California. I’m a brown kid, a little on the hippie side, sometimes with brown hair, and sometimes I grow a beard because I’m just that lazy about shaving. I work as a technologist—helping analyze how computing technologies such as encryption, machine learning, and networking impact surveillance and expression throughout the world. As such, I know that moving through the airport is just one of many places that makes us vulnerable to the modern panopticon.

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That panopticon has had its eye trained intently on a lot of Americans for a long time. While some kind of screening is of course necessary for air travel, TSA and CBP’s methods are traumatic for many groups, as I hear often from my trans friends, my friends with disabilities, my immigrant friends. While we don’t have reliable statistics on discrimination against Muslims and other groups in airport screenings, many advocacy groups have sounded alarms about the issue for years, responding to countless shocking anecdotes. Earlier this year, the Muslim travel ban resulted in another round of arbitrary and near-malicious conditions of travel, dropping a dragnet not only on immigrants and refugees but even U.S. citizens, including small children detained away from their families and engineers who had their work devices confiscated. It felt like a sudden and violent expression of a more subtle message brown-skinned travelers have been hearing from airport officials for a long time: Leave this place.

But I also now hear that message in another way. Since the introduction of full-body scanners to the standard security procedure in the last decade, I have also been one of the small group of travelers that opts out of this process. Sometimes, one may choose a pat-down instead of the scanner because of a disability; sometimes you are randomly chosen, as I have been. I have many personal and political reasons for choosing to opt out, as do others: I have unresolved health concerns as well as a general desire to have my biometric data be kept to myself. I first came to that decision because of the scandal in which TSA agents traded nude images produced by the scanner. However, as machine-learning technology improves, I also want to protect the data of a 3-D profile of my body from future automated scanners. The manufacturers of such scanners can rely on data produced from the terrawave scanners as a training data set, much like current cameras with facial recognition technology can be trained on your social media. If this data is properly harvested, then it can provide the basis for new surveillance technology based on the contours of your body.

I noticed a change in Transportation Security Administration protocol not long after Trump’s inauguration. During the pat-downs I’ve experienced since this spring, agents performed a genital screening. In order to get to my flight, I first had to endure TSA agents rubbing their hands three times over my genitals. This screening method has left me feeling profoundly violated every time—so much so that I want to avoid flying itself. It says the same thing as the travel ban: Leave this place. And also: Submit.

The TSA rolled out this policy, which it calls more “comprehensive” and which one Pennsylvania traveler described as “groin security” to his hometown paper, in March. This more “intimate” approach (which varies slightly by airport) was already one of several options agents had to use when conducting pat-downs; now it’s the only one, according to Bloomberg. And it has caused some controversy already, including an incident in which a distraught mother posted a video of the TSA applying the more invasive pat-down to her disabled son. I thought of that family’s experience on a recent flight from the Southwest, before which a TSA agent seemed to take extra delight in the pat-down, tightening my clothes and rubbing my genitals in front of my father. When I have asked TSA management at an airport on how to give feedback on these policies or a particular agent, I have been told to “talk to my senator.”

I don’t think that agents should have such arbitrary powers, or that our screening process should be so invasive as a rule. (Nor do I think every TSA agent abuses those powers. I’ve experienced large and small kindnesses from many of them, and understand they have a difficult and important job.) Our needs of security need to be balanced with needs of basic human dignity. American travelers should have methods for redress and feedback while traveling domestically or internationally. And no groups should ever feel that airports are a place where they don’t belong.

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Prashant Sinha is a software engineer, facilitator, and researcher in the San Francisco area with a background in application development.