I was dressed in a dark blue shirt, rolled up at the sleeves and buttoned over an aztec print red crop top. I was wearing black leggings, navy blue and brown oxfords, and carried a mini backpack on my shoulders, just spacious enough to carry the new J.K. Rowling book, my wallet, and a few makeup essentials.
The only thing I hadn’t voluntarily put on was my brown skin color.
I arrived at the train station just a few minutes early in meeting a friend, whom I will refer to as Jen. I glanced at the the cops that were stationed in front of the other entrance of to the subway. The uptown six train had just stopped moments before, and masses of people were exiting the station. I was the only one there at the time not heading out or upstairs to a train. Through a gap in the crowd, I met the eyes of one policeman, who held my gaze briefly before tearing away to look at something else. I noticed that the others were determinedly avoiding looking at me.
I felt uneasy.
In the back of my mind, I already knew what was going to happen. Since I wasn’t going anywhere at that particular moment, it hadn’t happened yet. Jen arrived only five minutes later, although it felt like I was waiting a lifetime. By then, I had convinced myself that it wouldn’t happen, that I was being paranoid.
We strode towards the turnstiles only feet away, and I was in the middle of pulling out my Metrocard when it happened: a man clad in a navy blue police outfit unfolded his arms and approached me.
“Excuse me miss, we need to check your bag.”
My heart sank. I felt the heat rise up in my cheeks, humiliated. I followed the man to the check station, where I dumped my bag unceremoniously onto the table. I started to open it up, and the security stopped me.
“You don’t need to open your bag”, he said shortly. I pulled the rope that seals the bag shut, and he proceeded to rub some sort of cloth over the bag. I’m no expert in security checks but I have no idea how a piece of cloth identifies whether there is a homemade bomb or drugs concealed inside a small backpack or not. A few seconds later, I was free to go. The cops thanked me graciously and bid me a good day.
Fortunately, my sunglasses were able to hide the tears of fury and indignation that had sprung to my eyes. It had struck a nerve when they thanked me; I only snatched my bag back and stalked away.
I felt targeted. I was reeling with the injustice of what had just happened and the feeling of despair that there was nothing I could do about it.
Jen had been carrying a handbag much larger than my backpack. Although sharing part of the same ethnic background as myself, her eyes represented a nationality that set her apart from the targeted demographic.
Why do I believe that this was an act of racial profiling and not a “random” security check? Simple: this isn’t the first time I was stopped. On another occasion about two years earlier, I was in my train station accompanied by a friend who is Caucasian. He was wearing a large sized backpack, I was carrying a purse. The police happened to be randomly checking bags that day. Guess which of us was lucky enough to get searched?
As I am typing this out, I realize with a heavy heart how easily disregarded my story will be, simply because it isn’t a story. This is something that happens to people of specific backgrounds on such a regular basis that it has become the norm. It is widely accepted that this can and will happen; that is the ultimate tragedy here.
I was browsing the website Reddit the other day, and a photo that was on the front page caught my attention. Submitted into the subreddit “r/funny”, the photo in question was taken by a Sikh male heading into a security checkpoint at an airport. The photo in question:
Highly amusing at a glance, but when you get to the core of the issue, it starts appearing less humorous. This is real life for many, many, many people.
A more serious example: Seema Jilani, a Muslim and American doctor, experienced blatant racism at our very own White House Correspondents Dinner. Jilani, a physician at Afghanistan married to a noted journalist, shares a story that sends across one message: it is become increasingly apparent that no matter your profession or social status, your level of patriotism or lack thereof, one can and will be identified by one factor and one factor only: whether or not you fall into a certain category that is doomed to be discriminated against forever.
My personal issue may seem infinitesimally small next to much larger problems occurring in the world, but it all starts from the beginning. These are mild examples of the ongoing issue of racism and discrimination in a country that exhibits much more deep seated events like this one.
Change is a word that is often thrown about by people, especially when they experience something shocking for the first time. What exactly is change? How can we make it happen? How can we make people understand the pain of being racially targeted, when millions of people just like myself will never experience what I did because they are a different skin color from me? How can I stop the tens of thousands of men and woman, young and old, from being stopped at the police station, frisked in the street, for no reason other than being who they are? How?
I initially intended to relay my story as calmly as possible, but it ended up turning into something of a rant, so I apologize that. But really, I am open to suggestions for change. Anything.