Crossposted at WireTap Magazine
Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s recent two hour questioning by authorities at Newark Airport continues to raise questions and speculations about exactly why he was pulled aside. On his way to Chicago for India’s Independence Day, immigration officials at Newark questioned him because, the celebrity speculates, of his last name being Khan. He was released after Indian consular officials stepped in to vouch that he was indeed, a famous celebrity. Theories are circulating like crazy: some have wondered if the whole experience was a publicity stunt for the star’s upcoming movie, while Jen Friedberg of the NY and NJ Port Authority claims that the agency did not ask for Khan to be detained.
All I can say is, I don’t know many people who are lucky enough to have their identity vouched for them at the airport when they are pulled aside for questioning. Khan’s experience with “Flying While Brown” echoes some of the class issues that were raised during the Gates discussion: not even a man with a nearly worldwide reputation can be protected from racial profiling when he travels. But his socioeconomic status does allow him to eventually make his experience with racism a worldwide event.
The truth is, as others have pointed out, this is an experience many South Asian, Muslim and Middle Eastern passengers have faced while flying. The xenophobia and racism that has emerged after 9/11 created an unsettling trend in which brown men are detained at the border, facing questions and attitudes that strip them of their civil and human rights.
According to “Returning Home,” a report put out earlier this year by the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and Stanford Law School, over 40 complaints have been registered with ALC from individuals who have faced “intrusive questioning and searches at U.S. land borders and international airports.” The report points out that the consequences of racial profiling and relying on a terrorist watchlist by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection are dire: “Profiling stigmatizes some Americas as disloyal and wrongly brands them as outsiders. CBP’s unwarranted use of profiling distracts border officers from more relevant indicators of suspicion, diminishes trust in law enforcement, discourages international commerce and tourism, and harms U.S. relationships with other nations” (PDF)
The report encourages individuals to be aware of their rights in case of inspection, and calls for a reformation of the terrorist watchlist and a restoration of civil liberties in boarder questioning and searches. Without these changes, it won’t just be celebrities who continue to have trouble with racism when they travel.