When Racial Profiling at the Airport Has Nothing to Do With Your Appearance

When Racial Profiling at the Airport Has Nothing to Do With Your Appearance
Source: AP
Source: AP

"You don't look Arabic." I hear it on dates, and from colleagues.

I'm quick to correct them: "I don't look like an Arab or Middle Eastern; Arabic is a language."

However they phrase it, they are mostly right. My Palestinian father's dark eyes, hair and skin aren't reflected much in me. I have my mother's pale skin, my maternal grandfather's blue eyes. Starbucks baristas and Uber drivers constantly tell me, sometimes more subtly than others, that there is a disconnect between my face and my name.

I feel it less frequently but more viscerally at airports.

The author, as a young boy, with his father.
Source: Courtesy, Khalid El Khatib

The airport panic: Last month, my colleague and I stood at the Cathay Pacific check-in counter at the Vancouver airport, my well-worn passport in the hands of a customer service representative. "Sir, you haven't been cleared by U.S. Customs," she said. "There appears to be a problem with your passport."

"This happened on my way here to Vancouver," I said. "The representative just had to call someone and give my Known Traveler ID number. Do you want that?"

She reached for the phone but kept her eyes on the screen. "Let me keep trying here first." She swiped again.

Instead of feeling panicked, I felt more of a familiar, dull anxiety. The moment took me back to my early 20s in 2006 and 2007, when I was stopped and searched with regularity in Washington, D.C., New York, London and Paris.

I was pulled into rooms and led through narrow hallways to meet humorless men and women, only to be asked funny questions like "What were you doing on Nov. 13, 2005?" and "Have you ever operated or do you have any familiarity with bazookas?" I have been shown pictures of dark, bearded men and asked if I was seeing their face for the first time.

In 2007, on spring break my junior year of college, on a cruise to the Caribbean, my roommate and I were told to wait in our rooms when we docked in Key West after visiting the Bahamas. It took more than two hours for us to be cleared. Our tiny room was swept by several U.S. Customs agents while more than a dozen of our friends engaged in a bar crawl on shore. We waited on the floor of the hallway in front of our room; we were wearing T-shirts with iron-on decals of a bikini-clad woman and the words "Cruisin' for a Boozin'."

In Washington, D.C., in 2006, upon returning from a trip to Europe, my suitcase was meticulously unpacked and carefully examined by a gruff Transportation Security Administration agent. As he lifted a pair of tightly rolled skinny jeans, he asked, impressed, "You a military man like me?"

"No — not a military man," I replied. A little more nervous then.

They know it's not right: On the third swipe of my passport, the Cathay Pacific customer service rep smiled. "Good news, you've been cleared." She handed me my boarding pass. "But unfortunately," she pointed to a stamped "S" on the boarding pass, "you were randomly selected to go through additional security." I didn't react, and she continued after a beat, more quietly: "I'm sorry. This happens with people who have names like you. I think it's kind of like discrimination."

My colleague half-smiled at me, squinting. "Kind of weird she said that to you, right?"

"Happens a lot," I said.

I don't just mean that I am stopped, searched or flagged often. I mean that those who do it are quick to admit that it's likely because my name and often acknowledge it's unfair. I can't help but feel this is because of my whiteness, the sameness I share with these airport workers. I can't imagine a gate agent would tell my father, with his accent and thick black mustache, that they're sorry — that he probably doesn't deserve the extra hassle.

What's in a name? The most egregious example of this off-the-cuff discrimination seemingly rooted in camaraderie happened almost two years ago at Newark Airport. I was headed to Edinburgh on United Airlines. When I swiped my passport at the kiosk, I was told to see a gate agent. 

It had been more than five years since I had issues with TSA — in the years since, I'd achieved frequent flier status on two major airlines and signed up for Global Entry, an expedited clearance program. I assumed that the problem with checking in must be with the space in my last name, El Khatib, something that's given me trouble with a number of automated systems. I explained this to the gate agent, a middle-aged white man with a thick New Jersey accent.

He took my passport in his hand and grinned while he pecked at the keyboard, "It must be tough having a name like this." I casually smiled back, unsure if he was referring to the unfortunate placement of the space or the supposed uniqueness of my name.

He looked me up and down. I was dressed like a yuppie in a trendy peacoat, unbuttoned Oxford, tight jeans and boat shoes without socks. "Why'd your parents give you such a sinister name? Very Middle Eastern." 

I didn't get defensive. I reacted meekly, texting a colleague who was waiting a couple of hundred feet away that I felt like the check-in rep was being "kinda racist." By the time she came over, I had my boarding pass.

After security, I sat with my colleagues at an airport restaurant and reflected on the experience. I was getting increasingly upset and wasn't exactly sure why. Was it because he felt comfortable to say something so racist or was it that had I looked differently, he would have been thinking something racist?

It is infuriating to think an airline employee would say to someone who had a more stereotypical Middle Eastern appearance, "Too bad you were born as you are." 

A recent photo of the author with his father.
Source: Courtesy, Khalid El Khatib

This country is plagued by racial division, and the past several months have shown that our police force is in desperate need of continued education and an open dialogue about systemic problems. The conversation around racism towards Arabs is quieter, but we need look no further than our airports to know that it's a problem. While harassment towards Islamic religious groups and desecration of mosques have made headlines, there's increasing danger in the prevalence of quiet assumptions around what Islam is and what a terrorist looks like.

There isn't much useful, public empirical data on airport security screenings or how airline reps and TSA agents act in their exchanges. So I asked my father, who is stopped less frequently than me but stopped nonetheless, "Are airline representatives or gate agents ever uncomfortably empathetic with you? Do they apologize for the inconvenience of being stopped?"

He doesn't hesitate: "No."