Holiday plans come with TSA anxieties for some students

Photo by Magnus Rosendahl.

As we book flights or otherwise gear up for our holiday getaways, some of us are reminded that we will have to navigate the confines of public travel extra carefully.

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’ve called out of my internship because I “feel stressed” and “have too much homework.” As I scroll through a Buzzfeed quiz titled “How Privileged Are You” – while eating a salad I spent one hour preparing – I come across an answer choice that stops me in my tracks.

Designed to “Check(list) your privilege,” the quiz directs its taker to check off ticks next to statements that test how obstacle-free his or her life has been. Some are pretty obvious and hard to ignore: “I am white” – no check mark, “I have never been homeless” – check mark.

This call to be aware of one’s economic and social status in the United States in comparison with the vast number of colors, ethnicities, beliefs, economic statuses, disabilities, and sexual and gender identities that make up our nation is a direct result of the Internet-driven activism and political correctness said to have cost Democrats the election, according to Mark Lilla writing for the New York Times, or accused of blinding us to real problems, according to President-elect Donald J. Trump.

The sentence on the quiz that caught my eye read, “I am not nervous in airport security lines.” This was immediately followed by the accompanying, “I have never heard this statement: ‘You have been randomly selected for secondary passport control.’”

I was suddenly thrown back, salad bowl in hand, into what is probably the most embarrassing experience I’ve had in an airport, and I’ve had many — I once had to sit next to a guy who I’m pretty sure wanted me dead based on the fact that I was sick and kept wiping my snot on my jacket sleeve because I kept dozing in and out of sleep and forgetting to ask for a napkin.

It was February of this year, and I was leaving the Montreal airport with a group of friends from the school’s Model United Nations team after a conference where we drank a lot, but didn’t win much. Standing in the back of the security line with a couple of my teammates, I’m spotted by an employee and asked to stand in a separate line, bringing everyone who was with me.

The employee was black, and I thought for sure a brother would have my back, but I guess work rules supersede any kind of winking agreement people of color have with each other.

This alternative line had an entire population of me, my white friends, and an Indian family.

Getting a sense of what’s going on, I could hardly contain my indignant anger.

“Pretty random, I see,” I said.

“You’re actually picked beforehand, not by us,” he said in an attempt to absolve himself of any blame.

I’m legally a “White Hispanic,” an American college student, and my white friends are, well, white. My mind immediately raced with excuses as to how I’m different and not like other people who look like me.

“I’m an atheist, I don’t even have an ideology to want to die for. I’m a communications student and I listen to Lou Reed, for God’s sake,” I thought in a useless attempt to separate myself from the monolithic idea of a brown person that is probably embedded in their heads.

The only thing that would cause others to consider me a possible threat is my beard. A natural accessory I considered mature and fairly welcome in gay bars had suddenly betrayed me, making me a target.

I now bear the public humiliation of having done nothing, yet having my luggage opened and thoroughly searched while the rest of our group waits for us on the other side.

At the gate, I explained the weird and sobering occurrence to a white teammate who seemed shocked for a second before erupting in laughter. I sat in defeated confusion for the rest of the flight back to New York.

Now back on the couch in my apartment, I wonder why political correctness and privilege awareness hits such a sore spot for so many.

A possible explanation is that it forces people to confront what the Buzzfeed quiz tried to illuminate: that their leveled-up existence in the world comes with a responsibility of self-awareness and sensitivity. The thing is, that responsibility can seem like a lot of work.

My laughing teammate clearly had never considered the reality of being “randomly selected” before. That’s why it seemed like such a joke to him, something of a scene-stealer in a bad comedy. Sadly, it’s real, and it has a lasting impact.

Even self-affirmed liberals have a hard time defending those of us who look “Middle Eastern.” (I’m half-Pakistani, therefore making me Asian, but good luck explaining that on a whim.)

Comedian and talk show host Bill Maher frequently rants on his show against political correctness and in favor of racial profiling in airports, arguing that the country needs to focus on those people who commit the most terrorism.

Notwithstanding the feelings of guilt and powerlessness associated with being singled out and considered a threat because of your appearance, it is obvious why a sentiment like this would come from a white man who has never had to face this reality in his life – even if that person goes around calling himself a progressive.

A tip to my fellow traveling students this winter: take a deep breath, avoid conflict, cooperate and use every waking minute outside of that airport to educate and inspire those who are willing to listen about the dangers of discrimination and prejudice.

After an election that has taken our TSA line fears and multiplied them times 100, patience and dialogue are scarce but necessary resources.