Thursday, 23 June 2011

The benefits of Travelling While White

I've just come back from the activity that has made me most think about white privilege. Travel. Every time I cross national borders, following all the rules we have deemed necessary to move from one arbitrary idea of place to another, I am slapped in the face again with how much easier it is to do this when you're white.

Now I know this isn't exactly news. Helen Clark even officially apologised in 2002 to Chinese New Zealanders about immigration discrimination going back to 1881 - when Chinese migrants had to pay 10 quid for migrating while being Chinese.

And then there were the dawn raids in the 1970s, when Pacifica people were targeted by the Police for "overstaying". Were they? Yep, probably, some of them. But given Pacifica migration over that period was tiny in comparison with our largest group of temporary migrants (then as nearly always, British people), the dawn raids focus seems curious. After all, if the real issue was overloading social services and resources, as claimed, shouldn't we have been worried about those pesky white people?

But travelling still prods me into thinking about being white. First there's all that racial profiling that goes on in airports. You know, who customs officials stop and 'randomly' search. Disproportionately when travelling in Europe, the Caribbean, south east Asia, hell any airport I've walked through, the people who have been stopped and searched have been people of colour. So even though I often look like a bit of a scruffy hippy.....because I am a bit of a scruffy hippy.....I've been stopped maybe once. In quite a bit of travelling. But I've been on flights, several times, where the only people searched have been people of colour.

This, of course, has ramifications down the line. One of the manifestations of my dislike for national borders is my (extremely white privileged) recurring "forgetting to bring my passport" problem. I can blame this on thinking you should be in an airport to need it (rather than a train station or boat), I can say I'm ideologically opposed to immigration controls. Those things are both true. But somehow, I doubt my forgetting passport experiences would be quite as funny as stories if I wasn't white, because I think the consequences would have been more serious.

Now I don't want to make this sound like it's every second trip. But I have been deported, denied entry, and, on one memorable occasion, held for 8 hours in Brussels in a room with a number of other people the Belgian immigration police were investigating. In that holding cell, I was the only white person. Everyone else being "investigated" was Black, from the Indian sub-continent, or Arabic looking. I couldn't talk to everyone there as my language range is pretty limited, but since many people were allowed to leave while I was there, I don't think I was in a cell with scary terrorists. I think I was in a cell with people Travelling While of Colour.

Another trip through Australia, a friend travelling on a British passport was strip-searched. Her passport wasn't relevant, they didn't look at it until afterwards. I'm not sure the same was true about her ethnicity - Egyptian mother, Indian father.

Travelling While of Colour again, what was she thinking?

Going into the UK remains an all-time low point for me, I have to say, and since I lived there for more than a decade, I've done it many, many times. I've sat waiting at Heathrow to go through immigration while an Arabic man vomited continuously next to me, and when I asked for medical attention from the officials, been told "he's just putting it on to get into the country."

Which brings me to another white privilege activity.

I make up different professions for my immigration forms, because I object to being asked what I do for a living. So far I've been a rocket scientist, a farmer, an astronaut, a professional sportswoman, a rock star......the only time I've felt even vaguely guilty about this was when I said I was a brain surgeon. I've fainted about once or twice a year all of my adult life, so it's likely if tested on this one I'd have had trouble.

I find the silly risk-taking to poke fun at such an irrelevent piece of bureaucracy amusing.

But then, I expect immigration to be something which is all White for me.


Fish on bicycle said...

Feeling better?
If there were an airport sensor for liberal status preening and decorative white guilt, you would be right off the charts!
Either way, as long as you come out feeling morally superior that is the main thing.

stargazer said...

uh, fish, we expect a better quality of comment on this site. the fact that you can't actually respond to anything in the post shows that you don't have anything to say.

thanx for the post LJ. i'm reminded of the meeting the muslim community had with customs, immigration, police & SIS a couple of months back. the stories of travel experiences and treatment in nz was bad enough. i know that many overseas countries are much worse.

Brett Dale said...

So you lie on your visitor visa before entering another country? Thats not a good idea.

It must be awful to be profiled, it happens to all, it never happens to that guy, but it happens to the other guy.

Bicycle with fish said...

Having all this “White Privilege” TM. doesn’t seem to work for me, in fact I seem to get profiled a lot. I think the security people need to fill a quota and they pick me out because they sense that I am such a cheerful and tolerant person, and I won’t complain.
Yes my privileged life has been made so much easier ever since those presbyterians started hijacking planes.

And those 70 year old nuns get the once over too, we all know what mayhem nuns have caused in the air. The 20 something Arab guys with the headress and the religious beards, yes they should go sailing through.

A question for you – would you be happier getting on the same plane knowing that the old nuns had been searched,but not the young guys with the middle eastern dress and religious beards? All safe in the knowledge that no-one had been stereotyped or had their feelings hurt? After all, not hurting feelings is so important.

LudditeJourno said...

Hey stargazer, yeah, was thinking when I was writing this about more recent migration experiences to NZ, and how I'm sure there are stories to be told.
I've met one woman, arriving as a refugee from a long way away, who wasn't told which country she was coming to and initially believed she was in Australia.
Brett - yep, I know my juvenile profession thing is pretty dumb. No excuses.

stargazer said...

and that's where your stupidity is showing through fish person. they guys blowing planes were clean-shaven & in western dress. how about getting a clue? it's not like this stuff isn't all over the papers. in fact, if you look at the figures in europe, fare more damage has been caused by white extremisits in the last decade than by guys in headress & beards.

you're so fussed by "feelings" that you can't understand the concept of justice. and brett, just piss off. it doesn't "happen to all", and it doesn't happen in an equal manner. customs in nz openly say they profile by country. they say that their profiling system throws up about 8,000 people for searches, of which about 1 or 2 was ever correct. in fact they are thinking of ditching the whole system because it provides such useless results.

LudditeJourno said...

Hi Bicycle,
this isn't about having hurt feelings. It's about being treated differently because of the colour of your skin. Which has enormous, real life impacts in all kinds of ways on our health, our access to resources, our ability to treat ourselves and each other with respect, being able to find work we're qualified for or a house we want to live in or whatever.
I don't think stereotyping "young guys with middle eastern dress and religious beards" (code for Muslim I'm guessing????) as needing to be searched is ok. No, I wouldn't be happier if they were searched on a plane I was on.

Fish needing bike said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
stargazer said...

Most muslims are not hijackers, but most hijackers are muslim

bullshit. and i'm not prepared to tolerate that kind of bigotry here. there are plenty of places on the internet you can go to peddle that kind of that commentary, this isn't one of them.

apologies LJ, hope you don't mind me deleting this comment.

Brett Dale said...


I always get profiled, Im a short, sleazy ugly looking fucker, according to my parents, I look like the guy from midnight express, and that is why I always get searched according to them, I always get picked for a routine bag search, if I go to a mall, I always get followed by store security.

It happens to people of all races, if you are an ugly son of a gun and white, you arent going to get as good as treament as a good looking looking white guy.

I have been profiled for what I look like and my statue, if I complain, people shout from the rooftops, "Short guy Syndrome"

Believe me Not every white person has white privilege, or getting great because of the colour of their skin.

stargazer said...

oops, i didn't meant to delete completely fish, but when i said i'm not going to tolerate that stuff on this site, i meant it.

brett, i don't doubt your experience. i'm saying to you that racial & ethnic profiling does occur, most governments are open about it, and the eivdence shows that it's pretty much a waste of time - at least that's what we were told by a senior staff member of nz customs.

anthea said...

@Brett, that's not the point. No-one's saying that other people can't get profiled. I used to - and sometimes still do - probably because I had an unusual passport, traveled long haul with only hand luggage, struggle to make eye contact and often look generally anxious. The point is - and I'm acutely aware of this - that if I were identifiably Muslim I'd get it a whole lot more. I'd imagine the same would apply to you.

@LJ Thanks for this post. I engage in petty acts of protest too, and this is a worthy reminder that not everyone can.

Snapper on a tricycle said...

I work in horticulture and for some reason I am always stopped at bio-security, and questioned closely, sometimes even my baggage has been searched. That is because I am honest about my profession.

Perhaps MAF think that I might be bringing in seeds or plants into the country? Perhaps the demographic I am in leads them to suspect, through past experience that I might be more likely than the next person to do such a thing?

Hard to believe they would think such a thing , but it is true.
Do I get shrill and complain about this vicious profiling of gardeners? No I breathe deeply and suffer the inconvenience for the good of my country.

I understand that as a muslim your frustration is quite justified and valid, but I attempted to explain the reasons for the current situation in my perfectly good posts which you apprehended at the border.

stargazer said...

read the comments policy: we don't have discussions on moderation in comments thread. if you have a problem with decisions, email us. also, if you read the words above the comments box, you'll see we ask you to use a consistent handle. if you want to keep commenting here, i suggest you learn to respect the rules of this space.

as to your substantive comment: profession does not equal race or ethnicity. moreover, checking particular types of products does not equal racial or ethnic profiling. and at the moment, you're the only one whose sounding shrill and whiny here.

Hugh said...

When I used to work for the Department of Internal Affairs we profiled quite extensively on the basis of ethnicity. I was initially uncomfortable with it, but after several years working there it seemed to be justified.

Rebecca said...

thanks for a refreshing, honest post. i have had many experiences in airports all over the world of sailing through customs while people of colour got hassled and hassled and hassled - even when i was re-entering the UK on someone else's visa and when asked where he was, waving vaguely and saying "just over there" (being chatted to a few desks down) was just fine, thank you very much ma'am, have a nice day.

meanwhile, the tall, kaftan-ed African man next to me was grilled extensively, before/during/after my breeze through. i don't know if he got through customs OK, because i was already on the tube on my way home.

i really think that if any white person can't be helped to see the extent of white privilege fairly easily, they are really kidding themselves. it just seems so obvious.

LudditeJourno said...

Thanks stargazer, for dealing with Fish/Bicycle/Snapper whatever's comment and binning it. In complete agreement that was the right thing to do because F/B/S your continued offensive comments about Muslims are discriminatory, not "perfectly valid".
To Brett - of course people are treated differently if they look pretty - that's not what this post is about though. And I think I'd misunderstood your first comment, because I thought you were expressing sympathy around profiling.
I do believe every white person has white privilege - but that it plays out differently in different situations depending on your gender, sexuality, age, country of origin, religion etc etc etc - of course.
Anthea, Rebecca, ta :-)
The Shrill Whining Liberal Preener ;-)

Foggy in Nelson said...

Slight tangent here but....Someone I know who is high up and well known in the NZ Classical music industry once wrote 'musician' on her form, and was searched (not sure if it was strip searched, or just her belongings).

From then on, she has written "professor" without any problems.

Profiling sux.

Maia said...

I have deleted an anonymous comment. Remember we don't allow anonymous commenting.