Still the Woman of Color at the Airport
by Shuhita Bhattacharjee, a graduate student in English at the University of Iowa – “Looking at Our Lives Through the Lens of Race” project
It has been a while since I have wanted to let this out. But it took me five extended plane journeys back and forth to USA, before I could put pen to paper.
At this point, I have made my home in several airports on forty eight hour journeys, living sleeping and feeding myself in a manner not unlike Hanks in The Terminal. Long before that, I’d d acquired the practiced ease of a frequent traveler, and if my parents lived in the era of frequent flyer miles, or if Indian Railways decided to honor loyal patrons, I would inherit a fortune of discounts. But this is the story of the woman of color flying abroad.
Warmth and welcome have greeted me on foreign shores, in friends who have loved and cherished me as part of a community that I was not born or naturalized into, in colleagues who have welcomed my difference with respectful interest, and in graduate classes brimming with motivating conversations about racist discrimination. Yet my experience of international travel has remained unsettling territory. It has loomed large almost as a rite of passage that I have to endure every single time I cross the Atlantic. I feel somehow — out of shape.
Of course, I have met countless gregarious airport staff, cheerful crew members, and helpful immigration officials. In fact my very first immigration officer, who looked at me over his scary eyeglasses, gave me a little tip about what not to miss in the Hawkeye-Cyclone football face-offs. I have been rescued from despairing situations by the most proactive security officers, and ushered into closest-to-comfort seats by concerned air hostesses.
Yet, I cannot but revisit today the discolorations under the corners of my glittering eiderdown. Quiet moments of initial shame and later contemplation, nudge me into discomfort. Especially that very first time when I did not know what my ‘first port of entry’ required of me.
Now, as my Mom would regretfully vouch, I am a very quick person. I jump through hoops of possible responses even before I am expected to begin articulating a reply. I run in rapid short steps and am averse to holding up the world for any reason that could conceivably be attributed to me. Nevertheless, I realized that first time I stepped into USA, that the Customs and Border Protection – the CBC – was the eccentric professor of times bygone who expected nothing short of intuitive genius. Well then, perfection thy name was me! I was being my usual efficient self, carefully scrutinizing videos that prepared me to face the formidable customs staff, even while I was queuing to walk up to the Immigration Officer. And I glided through the scary interview effortlessly. I even made my Immigration officer chat about football! I could frog-leap into the blues and do a little self-congratulatory somersault! Life was beautiful. I was fitting in just fine.
But then came the moment of reckoning. I had collected my heavy checked-in bags and was on my way now to reroute them onto my domestic US flight to my final destination. I had been trained on how this ritual had to be performed at the ‘first port of entry’. My heavy bags had been loaded onto a cart.
I was scuttling smoothly with these toward what seemed to me like security channels where they would be rerouted. Two well-dressed officials awaited my arrival . I halted with my cart. With a contorted body gesture I was trying to communicate my need of help to unload the bags for their rerouting. The gentlemen at the security channel looked at my clueless visage and then at each other. With what sounded like a suppressed guffaw, they resumed their disbelieving gaze at me. One of them said, “You’re good.” Figuring that he meant I could leave my checked baggage and move on toward my final flight, I prepared to deposit my heavy bags with what would have been some herculean effort. The man interrupted me with a snigger.
I stopped dead in my tracks. It seemed I had done something — something terrible and irredeemable. I prepared to clarify, first looking back to make sure that I was holding nobody up with my faux-pas. Thankfully, my histrionics did not have an audience. I ventured a stutter, “I thought this was where I check my baggage in again for my final destination….” I swallowed the rest of the words. “We are not the flight people. We are the CBP…” — the haughty grumble rolled into hilarity. What was previously a laugh, now grew into a snort, twisted into a hoot , and erupted as a cackle: “Now THAT’S a first one!” His companion nodded in merry assent.
So I was one in a long line of similarly clueless souls, foreign to the occult codes of airports, passing the limbo into the grand American dream. Bowing my head at what seemed to be a disgraceful beginning to my process of ‘cultural acclimatization,’ I walked away with my cartload of bags. My eyes welled up as I cursed my careless self, “Stupid, STUPID me.”
I write today, exactly two and a half years and fifteen international planes later. Such self-reproach has resounded within me on my several phases of international travel since. Sometimes even for my excessive friendliness such as when I smiled widely to another such security official and asked, “So is this where I go for my security check?” He looked me in the face with a smile not quite resembling my own and chortled, “Yeah baby, this is where you go baby, yeah baby…” Unable to fathom an appropriately outraged response, I hurried on for my flight.
I have revisited this string of words time and again to make sense of it. As I walked past the security channel that day, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a sturdy, serious–looking American gentleman glide past the officer with the grace of a magnificent swan. The officer did little else except to politely nod at him. Once again, my sense of inadequacy drowned my eyes in watery silence.
Of course, a friendly smiling face at a Starbucks counter, and the sumptuous sandwich accompanying it, rescued me from losing myself in oblivion. There is, I guess, something to be said for progressive capitalism that lets you buy your way out of insult with a Frappuccino and injury with a muffin.