New Internationalist

When colour is a crime

NI reader Leah Williams sees red when she witnesses the way passport control officers treat her non-white friends:

We shivered in the cold English summer night, pulled our cases out of the shuttle bus and tried to judge which was the shortest of the 20 or so queues, at the front of which, sitting behind their little wooden desks, on their precious pedestals, sit the passport checkers. I have an aversion to Passport Control, as I do to police. I have deep engrained memories of these people hassling my Dad. For all the cordial examples I have come across, my perception is forever tainted with the vision of the few with their beady eyes and arrogant manner, sweet as pie to little blonde me and nasty monsters to the likes of my Irish father and my Asian boyfriend.


So, we joined the shortest of the massive queues, with all the returning Brits, the Poles and the Spaniards that had just landed. I spotted a family of six up ahead, their belongings in plastic bags, their children grubby and scantily clad. I, prone to the odd stereotype and with an overactive imagination, imagined they were refugees or illegal migrants and was sure they'd be hassled by the stiff looking man wielding the UV light. They walked through without hassle and I felt guilty for thinking that all passport control officers are mean spirited wannabe-police on a power trip. 


Then it was finally our turn. I handed over my Irish passport and, as usual, got a smile and a thank you and wandered into Britain unimpeded. My darker half, British passport in hand, got a gruff noise and a hard stare. Passport Control handed his passport back and it seemed he had escaped without interrogation. But, like a Black guy in an Audi to the Metropolitan Police, a brown guy in the airport is just too good an opportunity to miss. The plainclothed officer, leaning against a wall trying too hard to look casual, leaped to attention, grabbed my boyfriend by the arm and began the usual line of questioning. Before the first question was even over my boyfriend blurted out: 'I'm not a Muslim. Not that I'd deserve to be pulled over for being Muslim, but I'm not. When are you going to learn that Islam is a religion, not a colour?'


I was expecting him to get dragged off and stripsearched for that. However, the officer looked a little shocked that someone had figured out his stop-and-hassle policy. His tight grip suddenly loosened and he waved his hand as if to say, 'just go'. 


I am sure this is a familiar scenario to anyone a few shades too dark to be Anglo-Saxon, but to anyone as pale as me, who doesn't know the agony of being stopped by every passing squad car because you've got a nicer car than the PC Plod and he wants to know how you can afford it, the flagrant stereotypes used in policing are a bit of a mystery. We all know that the police love to hassle Black men, but I am not sure anyone who isn't 'Muslim-looking' actually realizes how widespread and predictable the policy of stopping 'Muslim-looking' people actually is.


When I flew to Spain, with some friends, one of whom is mixed race and three of whom are Asian, we all had liquids in our hand luggage. In my bag there was a tin of hairspray, a 500ml bottle of lotion and a laptop complete with wire. I even beeped as I went through the metal detector, but my bag passed through the scanner without question and I wandered off into the airport, liquids and electronics in tow. My mixed race friend, fairly well accustomed to being followed by shop security guards, had a large bottle of shampoo, some conditioner and some hair gel in her bag; the security officers completely ignored her, for once. As my three Asian friends' bags went through the scanner, the man on the computer stopped and reversed the conveyor belt, scrutinizing the contents. Then, all three of them were pulled over, while their bags were searched and swabbed for explosives. Two of them were indeed harbouring shower gel and body cream. One of them had nothing illicit in her bag, but they emptied her knickers all over the desk for good measure. She was the only Muslim among us. 


I went to a function in the Houses of Parliament last year. I was told security would take 45 minutes. It took me five. As I passed the first security guard I heard his senior instructing him that he should stop anyone who looked like a security risk. 'You know,' he winked. Yes, he did know. So did I. We all know. I could have had a bomb strapped to my body, but he never bothered to run his metal detector over me and there was no woman present to pat me down, so he held the doors to the Houses of Parliament open for me, he even gave me a smile as he did it.
There are two reasons that I find these policies infuriating: 


There is no doubt that there is a generation of young people who grew up trying to juggle the cultural identity of their parents and their sense of identity as young people in Britain. The British preoccupation with 'where we really come from' has only served to further isolate young people who are trapped between their parents' cultural expectations and their desire to fit into a society that has always seen them as foreign. Now, as well as the tangible sense of being viewed as different because of their skin colour, the media is fuelling a moral panic about Islam, the police are victimising Asian people and the general public stand as far away as they can from young Asians on the Tube, because they are paranoid about being blown up. Surely anyone with any emotional intelligence can see that compounding Asian people's sense of isolation in Britain may well push young Muslims towards the militant groups in which they find a sense of acceptance and belonging that Britain does not offer them.  


The second reason that the policy of stopping 'Muslim-looking' people is ridiculous, is that Islam is a religion not a colour. My 'Muslim-looking' partner is a Jain, most Indians are Hindu and there are a hell of a lot of White and Black Muslims. There are plenty of blonde people from the Middle East and tons of European converts, who find a sense of belonging in Islam. If the police are going to work on the ridiculous premise that all Muslims are terrorists, they should at least realise that not all brown people are Muslims and not all Muslims are brown! Are they are so used to stereotyping people based on their skin colour or their accent that they can't get their heads around a more sophisticated form of discrimination? 'Sophisticated discrimination': there's an oxymoronic statement if ever one has been written.


So maybe the police and security services need to think about this. These supposedly highly-organized, multi-national terrorists you keep on eroding our freedoms over, have probably got your game. How long before a petite blonde terrorist gets fast tracked through airport security without being checked, because the security services are too busy hassling some Sikh about his turban? If your policies remain so predictable, we all might get an incredibly painful lesson in stereotyping.

Leah Williams is 24 and has been reading NI since she was about 17. 'I got interested in it while studying Politics A Level. I went on to study Politics and East European Studies at University College London and always enjoyed reading the New Internationalist because it presents a refreshingly international perspective and addresses world issues that really concern me. I am currently writing a novel about the dual themes of integration and multiculturalism in Britain and the flouting of justice under anti-terrorism legislation.'

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