I arrived at Athens airport as the sun just began its descent in the vivid, blue sky. The end of a grad trip holiday, filled with laughs and booze, that had now left me with a hangover for the Ages. However, this picturesque setting lessened the impact of my relentless headache. My friend Josephine and I were leaving two days before every one else, as I had to return to London for a charity event. We both said our goodbyes and headed in, dreading the 2 hour entr’acte before our flight home.
Now, jokes are often made about the ordeals that people from South Asia and the Middle East have to endure at an airport, and I myself have joked about the “random searches” that always seem to occur. As I’ve grown older (and wiser on occasion), I have started to find it less amusing. I cannot remember a time that I was not randomly searched in an airport. Say what you will to this claim, perhaps that with heightened security at present everyone gets searched thoroughly, or that I am simply overthinking. The fact is, if you speak to the majority of those who share my skin colour, you will receive a similar response.
I now get slightly anxious when I walk around an airport, especially so when encountering security. These fears are founded in both intuition and reality. Back in 2013, the Guardian published a piece that Asian people were 11 times more likely than white people to be stopped at UK borders, suggestive of racial stereotyping amongst officials. Amid the development of Brexit 4 years ago, hostility to immigrants, especially Muslims (which for some special individuals means literally any brown person) has seemingly increased. This has led to a feeling that you are being watched closely, like a hawk, an intense stare that tries to unravel you. An unsettling feeling. It is as if you have done something wrong, having to prove that you are actually just trying to go on your merry way like everyone else. Apart from the countless “random searches”, I had never encountered systematic racism of any kind. After all, I have a British passport and I have a Western sounding name, so I am sure that I am stereotyped to a lesser degree.
So, let us return to Athens on that glorious summer day, to recount the tale I wish to tell. Stood in line for security, the nerves began to set in. A thousand questions swirling around my head. ‘I wasn’t going to get done for the small scissors in my plastic wallet was I? That couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted as a weapon? No No No… stop being stupid Luke. But, was there anything they could pull up? Did I have my boarding pass?’, and so on. A tumultuous period for my brain. Of course, I did get the check, but only a brief one this time. The security guard rummaged through my bag, pulled the odd item out, then double tapped the bag to indicate I was good to go. A smooth transition if I may so… but the worst was yet to come.
As we sauntered through the large duty free area towards our gate, there was another security check for boarding passes. After receiving my boarding pass back, the thought of home became ever-more enticing. I could feel the warmth of my bed, the covers wrapped around me. Then, the strangest thing happened. A female security guard walked out from her desk and asked to see my passport. I duly obliged, expecting it to be the same process for all those behind me. How wrong I was. Her eyes flitted several times between the passport and my face, checking every detail. A longer check than I was used to. Again, my brain went into overdrive: “Do I look like my passport photo? I don’t do I.. Sh*t! Am I going to get pulled aside for questions? Surely not? Keep calm Luke, don’t look anxious or you’ll become more suspicious”. After what felt like 10 minutes of scrupulous examination, I was handed my passport. Yet, I still remember the smirk that appeared on her face, with a hint malice appearing in the corner of her lips. I moved forward and waited for Josephine to have her passport checked. Nothing. The security guard returned to her station after I walked through. We were both gobsmacked at this seemingly overt racism. There was nothing I could do except laugh at the situation.
After taking the travelators to the area our gate was situated, we relaxed momentarily, still discussing what had just happened. I told myself it was a unique occurrence and gave it a positive spin, as I could use it as an example of how racism was alive and well, helping white people gain a deeper understanding of the problems minorities face. How meta.
We reached the final passport check before our gate and obviously I was more nervous now. Maybe it showed. Anyway, I handed over my passport to the security sentinel, the final barrier to my flight. One look up. Another. A third look. Okay, this was becoming a bit ridiculous now, I thought to myself. An anger boiled up inside of me. Yet, he kept checking. He held the passport up further, next to my face. A stern look appeared on his face. I am not exaggerating here, he must have checked my passport upwards of 10 times. Have you ever had that? He then beckoned to another security guard, who also began his rigorous checks. They asked where I was travelling to and if I was travelling with anyone. Trying to suppress my anger, I pointed to Josephine, who, of course, had been allowed through in mere seconds. She was blonde and freshly tanned from 2 weeks in Greece, a quintessential Western vibe. The guards turned to look and then returned my passport. I don’t really like to think what would have happened if I was travelling alone. Would I have been pulled aside for questioning? I did absolutely nothing wrong, but it felt like I had. It was an unnerving experience, and this one I could not laugh off. I felt embarrassed. I felt dehumanised.
As I sat down on the plane, I gazed out the window, rage and sadness bubbling under the surface. Two displays of systematic racism within an hour. There is something sinister about the combination of open racism and the authority that the respective guards possessed, which as I say, made it hard to just “laugh it off”. I took solace in the fact the ordeal was over, and now I could relax a bit more, read my book and switch off. I could talk to my Dad about it when I got home and vent. But the trial was not over yet.
There was a man stood near us as we were boarding the plane, clearly a few pints deep, and talking loudly, as if what he was saying was very important to all those around him. I was hoping more than anything I would not be sat next to him, because I was in a deflated mood and wanted some peace. You guessed it though, he sat next to me. He seemed friendly enough, asking how the holiday was and more. I tried to give subtle hints that I would like to be left alone to read my book, but he just didn’t seem pick it up. Eventually, after about 20 minutes he stopped tapping my shoulder and asking me questions. Finally, I thought. Then he asked the question that, pardon the profanity, pisses me off the most. I knew it was coming from the look in his eye. He turned and exclaimed loudly” “So, where are you from originally?”. I swear I could hear a collective sigh from those seated near me. I wasn’t as annoyed as usual, as I could have been travelling from India through Greece for all he knew. I responded with the answer I have perfected over the past 3 years. I stated that I lived in Manchester, but I was originally from London, having lived there for the first 10 years of my life. Usually, if someone responds like this, then take the hint not to probe further. But the delightful man did, using a a variant of the classic phrase, “No, but you know what I mean, pal?”. Of course I know what you f*cking mean (a verbatim account of what was being said in my head), you mean why are you brown. You’re not really from Britain, because you’re brown.
This is how I interpret it, maybe others won’t. I was also in a bad mood at the time, my patience tested. So, to end the conversation there, I said my mother was born in India. But he kept probing. I was sat next to him for the best part of 3 hours, so I didn’t want to kick-off. On reflection, I should have said I wanted to be left alone to read my book, but at the time it wasn’t that simple. I felt this could have riled him up more. Anyway, this next line of questioning is the most irritating of all for any minority. He asked where I was based in Manchester. I said south. He then proceeded to ask if I knew random Asian people he had come into contact with who lived south of central Manchester. Would you ever ask a white person if they knew random white people who lived vaguely near them? No, you wouldn’t. After about 5 names, the man sat on the other side of him told him to stop. “I’m only having a laugh with him”. HA-F*CKING-HA, mate.
People need to know that many minorities have to deal with racism of all forms on a daily basis. If you don’t understand why something may be perceived as racist, then try to understand, rather than doubling-down as to why you think it isn’t. Ask questions. Dialogue is the key to dealing with any taboo topic, which I view racism as. It is a serious problem all over the world and I hope this tale helps people gain a new perspective.