Airport Racism Has Stolen My Joy of Flying

By Nikko Viquiera Sep 29, 2017

I am not afraid of flying. I am, however, terrified of airports.

As a nonprofit worker in the Philippines I once flew several times a month. Being at airports was something I enjoyed greatly; it symbolized the thrill of going from place to place, seeing new towns and meeting new people. But recently, as a relatively new immigrant to the United States, I have become anxious about the very thought of air travel. President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and my experiences with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) shortly before he was elected have marred what was once a place of positive possibility.

Although the Philippines is not included, Trump’s most recent travel ban still exacerbates my fears. The September 25 order adds Chad, North Korea and Venezuela to five Muslim-majority countries already targeted: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Even with the addition of nations that aren’t predominantly Muslim, it’s clear that the policy singles out certain people, mostly of color. That targeting breathes life into the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that brought Trump to power. 

Last year, within the span of a few months, I was subjected to "random" special inspections for three of my flights. The TSA website describes these screenings as “A pat-down [which] may include inspection of the head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. This includes head coverings and sensitive areas such as breasts, groin, and the buttocks.” I’d say that that’s a pretty accurate description of what goes down.

The first time it happened I was shaken but left it to coincidence. By the third time, when one of the TSA agents looked at me and then at her fellow agent who nodded yes to testing my hands for bomb residue, I found myself trying not to cry. No explanation was given for the extra inspection, and I knew that if I’d asked for one I would have only made things worse for myself. I went straight to the bathroom, took a good look in the mirror and wondered what made the TSA agents target me. Ironically, I was on my way to a racial justice conference.

Trump’s latest travel ban is particularly distressing given the many stories of abuse–the phones and laptops seized without warrant, the widespread detention–that have empowered state forces to racially profile, discriminate against, abuse and attack people and communities of color. While I have been able to follow the legal path to immigration that Trump’s administration claims it embraces, I still don’t feel safe. More than a few friends and relatives from the Philippines have postponed travels to the U.S.. because of fear. In these uncertain times, a simple security screening can quickly escalate into unwarranted inspections, deportations and even violence.

Most recently, I have been preparing for my flights the way I would for a job interview. I shave, iron my dress shirt and pants and shine my leather Oxfords. I try to look "safe," or to meet the standard for what I think TSA agents will see as “safe”: a person who must be going to a very important business meeting. I observe White folks going around the airport in shorts and sports jerseys knowing that if I dressed that way, as a person with brown skin, I would be unfairly inspected.

Sadly, I have internalized the idea that I must look a certain way (“Maybe I’ll wear my reading glasses…”) if I want to make it past the TSA unscathed. I want to escape my brownness so that I may live with the privilege of invisibility—the safety that Whiteness brings.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Nikko Viquiera worked in the nonprofit sector most of his life before coming to the United States less than six years ago to complete his graduate studies in development and economics. He currently lives in The Bronx, New York, and works as a senior program associate for Colorlines’ publisher, Race Forward.