Border Crossings: Black Skin, White Borders
Once upon a time living in the world of the enlightened in my view meant adopting the rule to never use the ‘race card’ in any circumstance. Things could be explained in other terms and often there were many reasons for the way people were treated that were beyond the ills that the world had fought so hard for so long to overcome, like racism and many other ‘isms’.
With time, as a black person who often finds themselves in white spaces, the idea of looking beyond race has become more and more of its own ‘ism’, namely, denialism. The further away I look from it, the tighter its grip on the arm, forcing me to look back at it, over and over again, one passport control point after another.
I have travelled the Brussels-Johannesburg route to and fro several times and my airport experiences in both airports have been, in a word, enlightening. The plane lands at the rainy Brussels airport. I stand in the queue for non-EU passports and get ready for the unwelcoming questions I’m about to endure. They are usually questions like: Who are you visiting, how long will you stay, what is the exact address of your stay, where is your return ticket (very important because I was once almost denied entry when I couldn’t produce my return ticket) and then of course, the 2 minutes of eyes that stare at me and stare back at the picture on the visa to make sure it’s really me, and sometimes a slight scratching of the visa to make sure it’s not fake and finally, a hesitant stamping of my passport. I proceed to fetch my luggage from the carousel where the majority of other passengers are white. They all get their luggage and exit through the arrivals door to meet their loved ones. But not me! After I get my luggage, I’m stopped just before I exit. I am once again asked similar questions to those I’ve already endured at passport control followed by the scanning of my bag. When I look around, the officer questioning me and scanning my bag is surrounded by other people he has stopped, all of whom are either black or presumably Muslim. Clearly this is the only criteria for being a suspect.
A few weeks or months later, we turn around and the plane lands at Johannesburg or Bulawayo airport. Passengers go to their relevant passport control queues. The European does not need a visa, he gets his visa at the airport on arrival. A few questions are asked, mainly with the aim of trying to find out how long he/she is staying so as to know how many days to grant a visa for. No return tickets are required, no awkward stares to verify his/her passport photo and the conversation with the passport control officer usually ends with “Enjoy your stay!”
Again, weeks or months later, the plane lands in Doha in transit from Dubai to Brussels. I stand in the boarding queue with a white colleague, having a conversation. A man comes to me and asks to check my passport and identity card. As I hand them over, my white colleague innocently assumes it’s time for documents to be checked so she also produces her passport. Without so much as glancing at or touching her passport, the Middle-eastern man says,
‘That’s ok, ma’am, you may proceed’.
Somewhat confused and embarrassed at her obvious privilege, my white colleague apologises to me. ‘That’s ok, I’m used to it’, I respond half laughing, feeling slightly embarrassed myself. But can anyone really get used to constant humiliation?
Weeks or months later I stand in the non-EU passports queue at the Brussels Eurostar terminal for the London train. This time I am travelling with my husband. When we started travelling together we soon learned that his whiteness protected me from passport control dehumanisation. So we agreed that as a rule we NEVER pass through passport control points together or show any connection to each other, because to accept that kind of protection would be to accept that certain people are only valid if they are under the protection of whiteness.
Anyway, I present my 2-year business visa to the passport control officer and he asks me “Are you travelling alone?” I suddenly realise that I can no longer answer such questions with yes or no answers.
“I don’t see what that has to do with my visa”, I responded.
“It’s a simple question, just answer the question!”
“I’m on a business visa that allows me to travel alone. I don’t see what difference travelling alone or with someone else makes” (the UK has a spousal visa on which a non- EU citizen can only travel to the UK when travelling with their EU spouse).
The officer at the next counter intervenes…
“He’s asking because it’s easier for us if you are travelling together, just answer the question!”
“Together with whom? I’m sorry but I have a business visa and should be treated like a normal business traveller. I am an individual and would like to be treated as such.”
Coincidentally my husband is re-directed from his original queue to the counter of the latter. When it becomes obvious that we are travelling together, the officer moves on to ask me questions related to any previous exposure to Ebola. Interestingly Ebola questions are not asked to my husband or the white passenger after him. Yet, ironically, all the people I know who have been to Ebola affected countries are white westerners working in the development aid sector. I wonder to myself how well the racial profiling strategy will work in preventing Ebola in the UK.
On the way back to Brussels, the French border control officer takes my identity card and stares at me, and back at my card several times. He asks me to take off my woollen hat and to face different directions as he tries to verify that the photo on my identity card is really me. My husband, who is standing behind me, grinds his teeth but honours our agreement not to intervene. At his turn, he asks “Is it really necessary to stare at one person for 4 minutes and at another for hardly 3 seconds?”
“I’m just doing my job! Some people are harder to identify than others.” He replies, without realising that we have the same surname and might therefore be together, suggesting that he did not scrutinize my husband’s identity card as he did mine.
When my husband joins me on the other side of the counter we stand there for 5 minutes to observe if the following people, particularly those with woollen hats, are scrutinized the same way. One black man is made to take off his hat and is scrutinized for a few minutes. The 3 white women with woollen hats, some with glasses, pass the checkpoint within seconds and none of them are made to take off their hats.
These experiences are a few selected examples of many incidents. The bottom line is that even in 2015, racial profiling persists and if anything, it has become global and an acceptable norm, particularly in border control. While such a practice hides behind reasons of security, it continues to be based on and perpetuates perceptions that only certain groups are a threat, whether to security or to public health. White privilege has imposed a kind of entitlement to migration and mobility. Whilst some are seen as citizens of the world who can choose where they want to live and travel without much scrutiny, others, including those who welcome the same global citizens, are considered suspects based purely on the colour of their skin. Past struggles against racial discrimination have taught us that it is always up to the victim to pursue his own liberation. In the case of border control, this is obviously very difficult. When the discriminator stands at the border of his territory and determines, however brutally, the conditions of entry, who do you go to to claim your humanness?
The practice of closing white borders to black skin assumes that the black world has no contribution to make, that the black person is there only to take and not to give. Yet if this were true, why would the rest of the world continue to fight tooth and nail to have a stake in that world? It is necessary to consider what kind of a world we would live in if the black world began to apply similar discriminatory border policies.
Zdena Mtetwa-Middernacht is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent Brussels School of International Studies. She is of Zimbabwean origin, is married and lives in Belgium. This post was first published for The European Network Against Racism (ENAR): http://www.enargywebzine.eu/spip.php?article384&lang=en.