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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

I travelled recently to visit my daughter in Halifax, my first time in an airport since the pandemic hit. I was so excited. We had plans for exploring South Shore beaches, Annapolis Valley wineries, new restaurants in the city. I couldn’t wait to hug my girl. I’d missed the excitement of boarding a plane and heading off on a new adventure but, as I walked into Toronto’s Pearson airport, I was quickly reminded of the ugly side of travel – the ordeal of getting through security unscathed. I am a BIPOC woman and border security is not my friend.

In the priority line, I was standing behind a Black businessman – well-dressed, carrying expensive luggage and a beautiful leather briefcase (not that any of that should matter). As we approached the queues, he was brusquely told by an agent to get into Aisle 2, which he did. A second agent, who was busy laughing and joking with other passengers, suddenly shouted at him, called him back with a hooked finger and said he had no business moving ahead without permission. Pointing to the end of the line, he yelled, “Get over there. I’ll deal with you later.” The gentleman was fully masked, not causing trouble and had been waiting his turn like the rest of us. There was no reason for him to go to the end of the line. He and I exchanged knowing glances and, clearly frustrated but composed, he did as he was told. What else could he do? We are not in a position of power in these situations. I wished him luck and he nodded with resignation as he left.

On my return from Halifax to Toronto, travelling with a business-class ticket, my experience was similar. I’d arrived more than two-and-a-half hours early for the domestic flight, knowing I could run into similar issues, but really hoping to relax with a glass of wine in the bar if all went well.

The agents seemed East Coast friendly, chatting away with travellers near the gate. An officer approached me and sternly asked me to step aside. I asked if there was a problem, but got no reply. My hands were swept at a scanner and I was advised that an illegal substance had been detected (although nothing was lit up on the device). The only thing that had touched them was the lavender soap I’d purchased at the Halifax market earlier that week, but I smiled co-operatively, knowing not to make waves. I was told I’d need to go through the full-body scanner and, of course, complied. I was then told I’d be undergoing a full-body pat-down with a female agent and offered a private room. I declined. I always feel safer for this to happen in full view. The agent worked me over, top to bottom, running her hands under my breasts, into my armpits, inside the waist of my jeans, up my pant legs. Used to the drill, I held my arms out and waited patiently. I was asked to identify my luggage and belongings and told everything would need to be searched for drugs. I was asked if I had a job. I said I was retired. I was asked where I used to work. I said I was a deputy minister in the Ontario provincial government. My luggage was taken apart, my leather purse turned inside out, its strap broken in the process.

Foolishly thinking I was done, I prepared to move on. But then the female agent returned and said she had to search me again. Apparently, the shirt I was wearing – my lucky travelling top, a black Donna Karan jersey which I’ve worn on flights for years – was a “security risk” as the draping in front could be used to hide dangerous substances. I noticed people wearing oversized hoodies with kangaroo pockets that could indeed conceal all manner of sinister things, but no one seemed concerned about them. When I looked around, many passengers were unmasked or wearing masks inappropriately but no one was being reprimanded. I was offered a private room again. I declined again. I underwent another full-body search, with a lot of extra groping under the suspect shirt fabric. My hair was checked both times. I was made to turn on my laptop for a review of contents. I was not asked where I’d been nor whether I’d been vaccinated. And then, danger averted, I was dismissed.

I fixed my purse strap with an elastic band and left security. Needless to say, I had no time to sit in a bar and enjoy that glass of wine while waiting for my flight. I barely made it on time for boarding.

The thing is, none of this came as a surprise. It happens almost every time I travel, especially in North America. I just escaped on the way out because the poor sucker in front of me got nailed first. Most of my BIPOC friends have similar experiences. It’s systemic racism at best, overt at worst. It’s unpleasant, unfair, frustrating, tiring – but it’s what happens. For me, what makes it worse is how shocked everyone is every single time it does.

I fully understand the need for tight security at airports and borders. It just needs to apply to everyone, not only people that security agents target because of bias. I also don’t labour under the misapprehension that any of this will change any time soon. These are complex issues that require genuine will, deliberate action and concentrated effort. There would need to be an overhaul of policies, sensitivity training, accountability measures, active monitoring. Sadly, we likely won’t make strides unless we educate children on all forms of bigotry from a young age and attract the right people to these jobs. We’re a far cry from all that.

But what would help is if white people who care could absorb that this (and so much more) is part of day-to-day life for their BIPOC friends and family, even those of us they see as “mainstream.” Perhaps they could be courageous and call it out, even if it might inconvenience them in the process. Demand fairness and action. Make systemic racism an election issue. Be part of the solution, so that this stops being routine.

But, at the very least, stop being shocked every time it happens. That shock comes from privilege and all it does is rub salt in an already gaping wound.

Shirley Phillips lives in Toronto.

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