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27 Feb 2015 00:00
In many airports around the world, certain groups of travellers are suspected of being threats, either to security or health, solely by virtue of their race or religion. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)
Once upon a time, living in the world of the enlightened meant, in my view, adopting the rule to never use the “race card” under any circumstances. Things could be explained in other terms – which often end with “ism” – and often there were many reasons for the way people were treated that were beyond racism.
With time, as a black person who often finds herself in white spaces, the idea of looking beyond race has become more and more its own “ism”, namely denialism.
The further away I look from racism, the tighter its grip, forcing me to look back at it, over and over again, one passport control point after another.
I have travelled the Brussels-Johannesburg route several times and my experiences in both airports have been, in a word, enlightening.
The plane lands at the rainy Brussels airport. I stand in the queue for non-European Union passports and get ready to endure the unwelcoming questions: Who are you visiting? How long will you stay? What is the exact address during your stay? Where is your return ticket?
Then two minutes of staring at me and staring back at the picture on the visa to make sure it’s really me, and sometimes a slight scratching of the visa to make sure it’s not fake and, finally, a hesitant stamping of my passport.
I proceed to fetch my luggage from the carousel where the majority of passengers are white. They all get their luggage and exit through the arrivals door to meet their loved ones. But not me. After I get my luggage, I’m stopped just before the exit.
Scanning my bag
I am once again asked similar questions to those I’ve already endured at passport control, followed by the scanning of my bag. When I look around, the officer questioning me and scanning my bag is surrounded by other people he has stopped, all of whom are either black or presumably Muslim. Clearly these are the only criteria for being a suspect.
A few weeks or months later, the plane lands at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg or the Bulawayo airport in Zimbabwe. Passengers go to their relevant passport control queues. The Europeans do not need visas; they get them at the airport on arrival.
A few questions are asked, mainly with the aim of trying to find out how long they are staying. No return tickets are required, no awkward stares to verify their passport photo and the conversation with the passport control officer usually ends with “Enjoy your stay!”
Again, weeks or months later, the plane lands in Doha in transit from Dubai to Brussels. I stand in the boarding queue with a white colleague, having a conversation. An official comes to me and asks to check my passport and identity card. As I hand them over, my white colleague innocently assumes it’s time for documents to be checked so she also produces her passport. Without so much as glancing at or touching her passport, the official says: “That’s OK, ma’am, you may proceed.”
Somewhat confused and embarrassed by her obvious privilege, my white colleague apologises to me. “That’s OK, I’m used to it,” I respond half-laughingly, feeling slightly embarrassed. But can anyone really get used to constant humiliation?
Weeks or months later I stand in the non-European Union passports queue at the Brussels Eurostar terminal for the London train. This time I am travelling with my husband. When we started travelling together we soon learned that his whiteness protected me from passport control dehumanisation. So we agreed that, as a rule, we never pass through passport control points together or show any connection to each other, because to accept that kind of protection would be to accept that certain people are only valid if they are under the protection of whiteness.
Anyway, I present my two-year business visa to the passport control officer and he asks: “Are you travelling alone?” I suddenly realise that I can no longer answer such questions with a yes or no.
“I don’t see what that has to do with my visa,” I respond.
“It’s a simple question – just answer the question!”
“I’m on a business visa that allows me to travel alone. I don’t see what difference travelling alone or with someone else makes.” (The United Kingdom issues a spousal visa on which a non-EU citizen can only travel to the UK when travelling with their EU spouse). The officer at the next counter intervenes: “He’s asking because it’s easier for us if you are travelling together. Just answer the question.”
“Together with whom? I’m sorry, but I have a business visa and should be treated like a normal business traveller. I am an individual and would like to be treated as such.”
Exposure to the Ebola virus
Coincidentally my husband is re-directed from his original queue to the counter where I am. When it becomes obvious that we are travelling together, the officer moves on to ask me whether I have had any exposure to the Ebola virus.
Interestingly, this question is not asked of my husband or the white passenger after him. Yet, ironically, all the people I know who have been to Ebola-affected countries are white Westerners working in the development aid sector. I wonder to myself how well the racial profiling strategy will work in preventing Ebola in the UK.
On the way back to Brussels, the French border control officer takes my identity card and stares at me and back at my card several times. He asks me to take off my woollen hat and to face different directions as he tries to verify that the photo on my identity card is really me.
My husband, who is standing behind me, grinds his teeth but honours our agreement not to intervene. At his turn, he asks: “Is it really necessary to stare at one person for four minutes and at another for hardly three seconds?” “I’m just doing my job! Some people are harder to identify than others,” the officer replies.
When my husband joins me on the other side of the counter we stand there for a while to observe whether the people in the queue, particularly those with woollen hats, are scrutinised in the same way. One black man is made to take off his hat and is examined for a few minutes. Three white women wearing woollen hats and some wearing glasses pass the checkpoint in seconds and none of them are made to take off their hats.
A global and acceptable norm
These experiences are just a few examples of many such incidents I have endured. The bottom line is that, even in 2015, racial profiling persists and, if anything, has become a global and acceptable norm, particularly at border control points.
Officials say it is for reasons of security, but it continues to be based on, and perpetuates, perceptions that only certain groups are a threat, whether to security or to public health.
White privilege has imposed a kind of entitlement on migration and mobility. Whereas some people are considered to be citizens of the world, who can choose where they want to live and travel without much scrutiny, others, including those who welcome the same global citizens, are considered suspects purely because of the colour of their skin.
Past struggles against racial discrimination have taught us that it is always up to the victim to pursue his or her own liberation. In the case of border control, this is obviously very difficult. When the discriminator stands at the border of his territory and determines, however brutally, the conditions of entry, who do you go to to claim your humanity?
It is necessary to consider what kind of a world we would live in if the black world began to apply similar discriminatory border policies.
Zdena Mtetwa-Middernacht, of Zimbabwean origin, is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. She lives in Belgium
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