The published version can be found on Glamour
Sitting in Business Class with a glass of champagne my friend, blessed with creamy skin and long legs, sent me a message on WhatsApp: “WHERE ARE YOU?”
I was nowhere near the flight – I had been held behind by security. As she was sipping away I was watching two sniffer dogs go through my belongings. I had been searched not once, not twice, but six times with no real explanation as to why. As I was replying to her message a member of the ground staff approached me again, I put down my phone, stood in formation and let them pat me down for a seventh time.
Not long after checking in at London Heathrow Airport I was told by a staff member that I was a “random selectee.” I rolled my eyes, I was too excited about flying in Club for the first time and spending 10 days in Miami to concern myself over a phrase I’d heard many times before.
My Pakistani name, paired with a coffee-coloured complexion, were the only reasons airport security needed to stop and search me. I often wonder how different my life would be if I was the “Anna Salem” auto correct thinks I am instead of the Amna Saleem that rarely gets to fly without security insisting on getting in some extra quality time.
It’s safe to say that I know the drill, but this was the most extensive encounter that I had experienced yet. While I was repeatedly searched, my fellow passengers strolled past me to board the flight pretending not to watch as my belongings were rifled through, raising their eyebrows in curiosity while my face flushed with embarrassment.
Feeling incredibly self conscious, I couldn’t help but think about my parents who had made sure to instil a respect of authority in me and my siblings. That alongside teaching us how to ride a bike they had to make sure we knew how to handle precarious situations with patience, manners and good grace because they knew before we did, how often we would need to employ them. Being very firmly patted down in public during the first set of searches was merely irritating, but after the fifth search it began to feel like a damn near violation of my body. I hadn’t realised how public these searches would be and by the end I felt practically naked. I had even started to think that maybe I had unwittingly done something wrong, other than travel with brown skin.
The sniffer dogs, which I still struggled to believe had been requested for me, had been brought over by two policemen after my fifth search. When I had packed the night before, giddy with anticipation, I never imagined the same sundresses I’d carefully decided upon would have dogs pawing through them the next day. The more I tried to take stock of the situation at hand the more surreal and confusing it became that I was waiting to be cleared. That I had to endure a standard humiliation just to go on holiday only encouraged the compare and contrast exercise I was mentally playing out in my head.
While I am not naive enough to believe that precautions aren’t necessary, the systematic nature of being penalised for the colour of my skin gets old really fast. I couldn’t help but reflect on other occasions that left me with the same hot tears in my eyes. I thought back to when I was 14 and I would cry myself to sleep after some pupils in my high school encouraged each other to avoid partnering up with me incase the “brown rubbed off.” It was the same insecurity that came every time I achieved something only for people to whisper that I only earned it through a quota. A life of constantly justifying your existence can become very tiring. This was just another moment in a series of moments in my life where I felt like I was being punished for not being white. Another lesson to remind me that my Celtic supporting, Spice Girls loving, Take Me Out watching self will always boil down to “other” for many people, and there isn’t much I can do about it.
The officers were lovely, and also quite attractive, which put me in an even more awkward position – have you ever tried to flirt while trying not to cry from humiliation? They tried to alleviate the tension, and promised me that I’d be on the flight soon. I mainly nodded in response to their questions until one of them made a joke about my Scottish accent that made me laugh. But the laughter soon unexpectedly dissolved into tears as my frustration poured out. Embarrassed, I wiped my eyes and explained that I felt like I had lost my voice, that I didn’t realise I was expected to trade my dignity for some sunshine.
Finally, I was given the all-clear to make it onto the delayed flight. One of the policemen collected my bags and we walked the long ramp to the plane. I found the energy to make a distasteful comment about handcuffs to which he chuckled and remarked that he was glad I had found my voice. I was glad too.
As I boarded the plane I avoided eye contact with the other passengers out of shame. I scanned the floor for my friend’s new shoes but she spotted me first. She playfully welcomed me, champagne still in hand, with: “sit down you’re embarrassing me.”
Determined not to ruin my friend’s experience and knowing she wouldn’t be able to quite understand, I put aside my turbulent emotions. I focused on appreciating my fancy surroundings, but the opulence that I had been so eager to experience had lost its shine even for my economy ass.
Despite having the best time in Miami it’s still fairly unnerving to remember what it took just to get there.