The best podcast that I listen to (read: the only podcast that I listen to) is Another Round by BuzzFeed, hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu. Regardless of your feelings on BuzzFeed as a company, this podcast is absolutely exquisite. It’s the podcast version of Black Girl Magic. It’s as hilarious as it is insightful and inspiring, and Tracy and Heben always get fantastic guests and always ask unique questions. I highly recommend it if you’re in need of a refreshing breakaway from your day.
I didn’t start listening to it until maybe 6 months ago or so, so when I have time to kill, I’ll go back and listen to episodes that aired before then. One of the most recent ones I listened to was their podcast with Anil Dash. If you don’t already follow him on Twitter, please do yourself a favor and go do it right now. Anil is one of the most interesting people on Twitter and always engages with people there.
His episode of Another Round came at an unfortunately perfect time in my life. I listened to it maybe a day or two before I flew back to Houston to visit my family. In the interview, Tracy and Heben ask Anil how he deals with being randomly selected at airport security and what he thinks about the process. It was informative and interesting and, little did I know, would become starkly relevant to me in the days to come.
On my way to Houston, I had my laptop taken by some TSA agents and “tested” although they wouldn’t tell me what for. It set off something in the x-ray machine, apparently, so they had to test it. Ok. Whatever. It irked, definitely, but I shrugged it off because it wasn’t a huge deal after a few minutes. I went on with my trip and it was fine.
It was coming back that was the big issue.
I went through security, going through the stupid ritual of taking off my shoes and putting all my stuff in bins to go through the X-ray and whatever. Then I went through the full body scanner and waited until I was cleared to continue and get my shoes and stuff. I looked back at the screen that shows you the little image of a human and where the yellow boxes pop up if you don’t pass this stupid test. I was prepared for one to ping my hair, because it always does, regardless of how I wear it. Be it a twist out, a fro, cornrows, anything; it always goes off. Unfortunately, it was much worse this time and the entire picture was riddled with maybe 30 stupid yellow boxes.
One of the TSA ladies asked me to step to the side and gave me the whole “I’m gonna feel you up now” spiel and asked if I wanted to be taken to another room or if she could violate me in front of everyone. I had like 30 minutes until my boarding time so I told her to just do it there so I could get to my gate on time. So this random stranger rubbed up and down on my body while another TSA agent gathered my stuff to rifle through (and while the man behind me whistled at what was going on). They took my backpack, small suitcase, and my laptop and looked through everything before, just like in Houston, whisking my laptop away to check in some special scanner. The first TSA lady asked me to put out my hands so she could swab for something and I obliged because what else was I gonna do? She wiped my hands with some stuff and then took it away while I waited for the other woman to finish looking through my stuff.
Then the first lady came back. I didn’t pass the initial pat down, or the hand swab, or the laptop test so now I would have to go into a separate room for the “enhanced pat down.” I asked if I could get my stuff, and she said no because they needed to look into it more or whatever. Initially, my first thought was that I was going to miss my flight, but I put that out of my mind real quick. All I could think about now was that I was going to be stuck in a room being felt up again and questioned about stuff while people look through my stuff, and that I was in trouble.
Have you ever gotten detention in school for something you didn’t do? And it didn’t really matter how much you argued against it because the teacher decided you were guilty and they had the final say? I’ve gotten detention deservingly plenty of times when I did something wrong or stupid, but the times I was punished for something I didn’t do stick out the most.
In my 6th grade gym class, if we didn’t bring our gym clothes 3 times, we automatically got detention. I already missed having my gym clothes twice, so I made extra sure not to forget them again because I was a nerd and I didn’t want detention to go on my permanent record, whatever that is. I got to the locker rooms and my locker wouldn’t open. I tried to wiggle it open, but the thing wouldn’t budge, so I wasn’t able to change. I went out to the gym with my classmates in my school uniform and Coach Schmidt was pissed. She tried to make an example out of me, using me to show the other kids what would happen if you forgot your gym clothes three times. I told her that I didn’t forget them and they were in my locker, but it wouldn’t open. She didn’t believe me and reprimanded me for lying. I asked if she would just come with me to the locker rooms and help me open the locker then she would see that my gym clothes were in there, but she refused. So I got detention. I was distraught, man. I reported to detention crying because I was totally innocent. But I’d already been given a slip and the reason behind it didn’t matter anymore.
I bring up this situation because this is eerily similar to how I felt when I was locked in this cold room with two TSA agents. I knew from TV shows and horror stories I’ve been hearing since 9/11 how people are treated when they get detained by TSA. Similar to my wrongful detention sentences, I felt powerless to do anything because I knew the people that put me here could do whatever they wanted to me and there was nothing I could say or do to change their minds.
I’m probably being a bit dramatic here, but if you know me, you know how easy it is to get me to instantly fly into panic mode. I am the champion of jumping to the worst conclusions and immediately assuming the worst possible thing will happen. So many things were going through my head and I had to make myself calm down because I was already being detained by TSA and I knew that it would only make matters worse if I appeared nervous. But I couldn’t help but think about Anil Dash’s interview on Another Round and how he talked about how helpless he feels when he’s detained by TSA, or his article expressing the same sentiments, or how I feel like I’m 11 years old again and Coach Schmidt is yelling at me for forgetting my gym clothes even though I didn’t. I thought about how begrudgingly patient Anil seems with airport security theater because as a brown man who flies a lot, he’s just used to it. I thought about how I’m the wrong kind of brown for this to be happening to, and I’m not prepared for this kind of stereotyping. I thought maybe they do think I’m the right kind of brown for this, the one that gets “randomly selected” and has to go through a secondary screening, but then that doesn’t make any sense because I’m wearing my hair in a fro and I actually set off a bunch of alarms and oh my god maybe somebody set me up and threw something in my bag and is setting me up.
So, despite all these thoughts varying from “I hope I don’t miss my flight” to “dear god I am really going to Guantanamo in 10 minutes,” I remained calm. Well, as calm as I could. I answered stupid questions like “where are you going?” and “what were you doing in Houston?” and other dumb things. The thing I couldn’t control at all was my voice. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, my voice was high-pitched and shaky like I was gonna start crying in two seconds. I’m surprised I was even able to feel that modicum of embarrassment since I was 100% certain I would be arrested and thrown in jail, but the fact that I couldn’t get through this without that show of weakness was humiliating to me. However, on the smallest of levels, I do think that may have worked in my favor a bit; maybe the TSA agents were sympathetic to this girl who was near-tears now. Who knows.
After the questions, they told me in excruciating detail how they were going to pat me down again. I knew it was going to be even more uncomfortable than before, but I was trying to hold onto that shred of hope that since I hadn’t done anything wrong, I wouldn’t be punished. After it was done, I asked why did I set the X-ray machine off so bad and is there anything I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The TSA ladies looked at each other and the one who felt me up said that they don’t know, that it could be anything, even my hair care products. I said I don’t think that’s what it was because the yellow box things popped up all over my body. The other TSA lady suggested maybe a lotion or a soap. I didn’t respond to that, mainly because I wanted to leave, but also because I didn’t want to delve into how much sense it didn’t make that an X-ray machine would detect body lotions. I wanted to ask why my laptop didn’t pass or why my palm swab thing didn’t pass either, but they were letting me go so I didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to be let go.
This entire event transpired in maybe a half hour. I was barely able to make my flight back to San Jose without any further problems, but it was definitely one of the most nerve-wracking things that’s happened to me recently. I texted my friends and family about it, and tweeted about how ridiculous the entire thing was, but writing about it now and remembering what happened and reliving it is bringing up those feelings of anxiety I felt last month.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Middle Eastern or Indian or wear a turban or burka or fit the description of who TSA is looking for. I can’t imagine going through this every time I fly, or even have the thought that it might happen before every flight. I took a class in college about the surveillance of people of color and we talked about airport security theater until we were blue in the face. Learning about it and living it are two different things, clearly, but I didn’t understand the weight of it until then, and until now.
There’s no way to fully retain all of your dignity after a TSA agent puts you in a cold room and sticks two gloved fingers in your waistband. There’s just not. It’s humiliating and embarrassing, and it feels just like being thrown in detention for something you didn’t do, only on a much grander scale. The helplessness that comes with it is sort of indescribable, and it really just stems from knowing you have no power in the situation, no matter what you do. There’s really nothing you can do or say to get out of it. You just have to deal with it.