My kids just don't understand why Mom gets racially profiled at the airport
As a family, we fly a lot. Airport security is both familiar and tedious, and each trip is an opportunity to discuss respect, following rules, patience and empathy.
The last thing I want to talk about when we are traveling is profiling. We can acknowledge that Mom gets pulled aside a lot because of her funny name and dark skin, and Dad doesn’t. Or we can gloss over everything so that we don’t worry the boys and get on with our vacation.
My sons Jake and Sam have been flying since they were 3 months old. They politely answer questions when passing through immigration and customs. They wait patiently while the TSA agent scrutinizes the boarding passes. Because they used to take off their shoes, hats and jackets when they were younger, they keep forgetting the latest rule change means they don’t have to do that anymore. After Jake and Sam go through security, they take their stuff off the X-ray machine and sit on the benches, out of everyone’s way, until we are ready to go. It’s an oft-practiced drill, and they have it down pat.
Follow the rules, listen, and stay calm, and we will soon be at our gate.
Jake was about 18 months old when he was pulled out of my arms while I had to undergo secondary screening. Despite my pleas, the agents couldn’t wait the extra few minutes it would have taken for his dad to come and hold him. I will never forget hearing his frightened wails when a stranger was holding him and he couldn’t see me. Fortunately he doesn’t remember that, but he has seen me be stopped for one reason or other since then.
Sam was about 4 the first time he noticed that, after I went through the body scanner, I had to wait for a female officer to come over and pat me down, something other adults didn’t have to do.
“Why is she waiting? She is supposed to get her bag and shoes and keep moving,” Sam told his father. They were waiting by the benches, and I could hear his clear voice.
“Sometimes the officers want to do another check.”
“But why?” Sam pressed.
“That’s the rule. When TSA tells you to wait, you stop. You don’t argue.”
In Sam’s defense, he wanted a rule, an explanation for how the world operated, but we didn’t have one. It’s not a discussion we really want to have, especially in the airport, that because of politics, the actions of an extreme few and a deep suspicion of anything that seems different mean Mom, Uncle and cousins are automatically treated as a potential bad guy. In his world of Spider-Man and Superman, the villains and heroes don’t mix. How can anyone think his uncle, the one who laughs at his jokes and makes his world brighter every day, might be a bad guy? Mom might be strict about video games, but she wasn’t that bad.
For a while, we went through airport security as a family because four hands were better than two to manage an infant, a toddler and all the paraphernalia. We figured out that agents at some airports were confounded by my having a different last name from the family (hello, it’s 2016!), so at those airports, the boys went through with their dad, while I went alone. And sometimes I kept the boys. We play with different combinations in search for that easy and calm experience.
On a recent trip, I asked the boys to go through with their dad so that they wouldn’t have to watch me be stopped, again. They are getting older, and waiting for me while watching from a distance adds to their anxiety. I wanted to spare them, since it’s not something they have to experience, but their dad disagreed. Just because something doesn’t affect them doesn’t mean they should ignore it or look away. That was a luxury — a privilege — he didn’t want them to have. And besides, families stick together. If one person is having a hard time, we don’t just leave them behind.
Airport security is stressful, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Jake and Sam don’t have to deal with profiling now, but we don’t know if they will keep passing as they get older. I want to protect them, leave them in their innocent world, but if we are going to raise empathetic boys aware of other experiences and raise them to do what’s right, then we can’t hide those learning moments.
Even if it’s unpleasant.
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