What Does It Feel Like To Be Racially Profiled?


This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Samran Salik Virk:

I am a 22-year-old brown-skinned Pakistani Muslim living in a post 9/11 world.

How it all began: My first taste of racial profiling came when I left Pakistan for the first time in my life. I had been admitted to a well reputed private liberal arts college in the U.S. It was hard for my parents to send me away because I don’t have any siblings. I believe that my $35,000r annual scholarship package was the decisive factor, and so I left home feeling lucky, fresh, and excited!

First Experience with Airports, TSA, Customs, Homeland Security, and NSEERS: My first connection was at London Heathrow, and that’s when I first encountered U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a “border preclearance.” I was casually waiting in the middle of a queue when an officer grabbed me by my arm and took me to a screening area a few yards away. Apparently, it was a “random” security screening procedure (everyone else kept boarding). I was confused and startled, 18 at the time, this was my first interaction with a law enforcement officer. I was surprised because I had landed at Heathrow a few hours earlier and I never left the terminal waiting area. I couldn’t understand why they felt the need to search me again. The officer thoroughly patted me down and then asked me to take off my shoes; I complied. After my shoes were screened for traces of explosives, I was allowed to carry on.

Somewhat baffled, I went on to board the plane, unsurprisingly as I walked down the aisle, I found myself being observed by many curious eyes.

I had been traveling for six hours and it was another seven hours before the plane landed at JFK, New York. I was scheduled for a three hour layover in New York before I could fly to my final destination, which was Columbus, Ohio. This was my first time eating foreign food on a plane, trying to sleep in a seated position with little leg room accompanied by the loud engine noise. By the time we landed, I was extremely hungry and exhausted and to make matters worse, I had a really bad migraine. Nonetheless, I was in America!

The joy of finally making it to America was short-lived. I had to stand in a queue at the Immigration for another hour. When I finally got to the “yellow line,” I told myself that it was all going to be over very soon, this gave me some much needed energy. The officer at the immigration desk was polite, he even cracked a joke in the few seconds it takes to fingerprint. While everyone else’s passports were stamped after which they moved on to claim their luggage and leave (having observed it for over an hour from a glass wall), all my documents were placed in a yellow see-through folder and given to another Immigration officer. He asked me to follow him in an indifferent voice.

Completely helpless, I followed him to a nearby hall where I saw a few dozen young brown-skinned guys like myself waiting for their names to be called out. This was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) office. I quietly sat there waiting for my turn, I tried not to make eye contact with anyone else. This was surely not the place to be socializing, and besides everyone else seemed just as tired and frustrated as myself. Cell phones were not allowed in this hall and everyone was asked to leave their carry-on bags outside the hall. Essentially, I couldn’t even kill time with my phone, my iPod, or a book. There was a stack of see-through files like the one I was given siting on the table in front of two officers each of whom had a workstation in front of them. This was definitely the most agonizing part of my journey. I was tired, I was hungry, and I had a terrible headache. The worst thing about this waiting was that I had no idea how much longer it was going to take. In the meantime, I missed my connecting flight to Columbus, Ohio. Things couldn’t get any worse, but they did. The temperature in this hall was incredibly cold and I was wearing shorts, it kept getting worse as time went on. The two officers frequently left their workstations to escort more exotic species like myself to this hall. At times, they started talking to each other and a few times they were visited by other colleagues from the immigration department for chit-chats. Even four years later, I can clearly remember how one of the officers dropped his pen; it literally took him three attempts to pick it up. All this time, I could see my bags taking several trips around the conveyor belt through a glass wall. Eventually an airport employee took these bags off of the belt and placed them in a corner along some other unattended bags. Finally my name was called after four excruciating hours of physical and psychological torture. I was asked a few questions, many of which I don’t remember that clearly. Most of these questions were mundane formalities but I do remember being asked whether I was trained to use firearms and whether I had served in the Pakistani military.

Having missed my connection, I forgot all my pain and hunger and rushed towards Terminal 2, anxious to know what was next. It was late in the evening and the state that I was in, it was sort of hard to navigate through a gigantic airport that I hadn’t seen before. After pushing a cart that had three loaded bags around JFK for a while, I made it to Delta’s check-in counter at Terminal 2. I was told that there was nothing they could do to help (after all it was my fault that I was brown, Pakistani, and Muslim all at the same time) and that the next available flight to Columbus was not until the next morning. After paying $250 to secure my seat on the flight, I could not afford to spend another $150 to take a cab and stay in a hotel overnight, so I decided to crash at the airport. Terminal 2 remains closed at night so I dragged my sorry ass back to the International terminal where I finally got some food and crashed on the ground. The next morning, I woke up at 6 a.m on the airport floor surrounded by my bags and some amused passers-by. By then I had lost all self-esteem so I couldn’t care less, I picked myself up and went back to Terminal 2. Boarded my flight, arrived in Columbus, took a 45 minute cab and finally reached my destination. I had made it…

Next four years: In the several trips that I had to make back and forth between home and college, I dealt with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, United States Department of Homeland Security, National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, and Transportation Security Administration many times. I had to see NSEERS every time I was leaving the US as well. At times, I was asked to remove my shirt in front of everyone when for everyone else a simple pat down seemed to work. I was often told to empty my bag and assist in a physical baggage search. Explaining ordinary contents of my baggage became a norm. There was not a single occasion when I was trying to board a plane and I was not selected for a random security search. On several occasions, I found TSA cards in my luggage bags that notified me of a post check-in search in my absence.

Once I was flying from Chicago to Columbus and when I collected my bags at Columbus, I found out that the zip on one of my bags had been torn apart to check what was inside. Apparently they couldn’t unlock it and an X-ray scan wasn’t good enough.

Now: I graduated last summer and this ordeal is over. A new agony has taken its place. It’s ironic that in Pakistan, I’m labeled a “pro-American.” In social and political debates, my contributions are invalidated by the fact that I lived in America for four years, somehow that makes me an outsider. My concern for Pakistan is belittled and my neutrality and unbiasedness is perceived as western bias.

So how does it feel? I’d say it’s pretty hard to put it in words.

I would like to mention here that most of the ordinary people I met in the U.S. were polite, respectful, and friendly. Some of my best friends are Americans, and I plan to go see them in spite of all the problems that I face while traveling.

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