Never go with the Black dude
When I was younger, my less than orthodox appearance also led to predictable secondary inspections at United States immigration checkpoints. Several years ago an immigration official asked what I do and I told him that I was a college professor. He laughed and said I looked like a college professor and waved me through. I sighed a deep sigh of relief and I thought that turning gray meant that finally my days of being hassled by immigration were over.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned that as a person of German heritage I will least likely be hassled by the biggest, whitest, most nazi-looking immigration officials because they have little to prove to their colleagues. It is a matter of empirical observation, and I assume that somewhere academic studies exist to prove this, that women and those of non-European heritage are under pressure to prove themselves in ways that those from the dominant culture do not experience. In my goal to move through immigration and other security checkpoints, I have learned to play these racial dynamics to my advantage.
In coming back from Ecuador recently, I had a choice between 2 lines at customs. I tried to look through the doorway to see who was sitting at the desk and all I saw was 2 big dudes so I selected the slightly shorter line. I almost immediately regretted my decision, and probably should have moved to the other line. As the other line with the mean-looking nazi moved quickly, my line with the darker-looking dude slowed to a crawl. This was the general line of questioning when it was finally my turn:
Where are you coming from?
What were you doing there?
How long were you there?
Why do you have so much luggage for such a short trip?
I am a historian and I buy lots of books.
At this point, the customs official reached over and tried to lift one of my 50-pound suitcases and said “offfft.” I thought I had convinced him of the veracity of my story, but instead he sent me to secondary inspection where they ignored me until I almost missed my connection. When an official in secondary finally opened one of my bags and saw only books, he asked what I was doing in Ecuador. I explained I was there for a book launch. He asked if I was a writer, and I said I was a historian. He did a cursory riffle through the suitcase and, of course, all he found was books. And I was finally on my way.
To top it all off, when I returned home I saw that the contents of the other suitcase had also been riffled through. The bag did not contain a TSA flyer and the code on my combination lock had been changed, so apparently someone in Quito had successfully broken into the bag and dumped all the contents upside down. I feel violated every time TSA searches my bag, and it is even worse when an airline employee opens the bag looking for something to rob. I complained to American Airlines, but they made it clear that they were not going to do anything about it. American Airlines does not care. They do not have to care. They are too big to care.
Earlier this spring, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz came to campus to give a talk as part of a tour with her excellent new book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. When she left our tiny Kirksville airport, the TSA officials ran her thru the mill. I later apologized for the hassle, but Roxanne said she did not mind. “With their minimum wage pay,” she said, “they deserve a little power tripping as a bonus.” Roxanne is a better person than I am, and I’m probably a worse person for being so willing to play the race card when it is to my advantage.