Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
Dutch author Niels Gerson Lohman published a blog post yesterday titled “Why I Will Never Return To The USA,” documenting his experiences at the hands of U.S. Customs officials upon his recent attempt to enter the country via Canada. Lohman describes in great detail how he was detained, searched, and questioned for several hours before ultimately being denied entry. The post went viral after getting picked up by filmmaker Michael Moore on his Facebook page, where he framed it as an indictment against America’s national security state. But the only thing Lohman’s post manages to frame is just how thickly white privilege coats those who benefit from it.
As a caveat, I want to make it clear that my intent is not to belittle Lohman’s experience. I’ve not traveled outside the country since I was a small child, and our world is much different place now than it was when I was boy. I’ve never dealt with customs agents, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a broad assortment of your civil liberties flagrantly violated under the pretense of suspicion. What I do know is that my sympathy for Lohman’s plight was all but undone by the following statement, made at the close of his entry.
“I have been cursed at a Chinese border. In Dubai, my passport was studied by three veiled women for over an hour and my suitcase completely dismembered. In the Philippines I had to bribe someone in order to get my visa extended for a few days. Borders, they can be tough, especially in countries known for corruption.
But never, ever, will I return to the United States of America.”
You get a sense after reading this that Lohman finds it inconceivable that he, of all people, was stopped at the border (the classic dog-whistle racist euphemism “taken aback” comes to mind). After all, he doesn’t look like a Arab Muslim terrorist, so how could he possibly be a problem? Sure, brown and yellow people have every right to be suspicious of white people coming into their respective nations, but why on Earth would white folks be so suspicious of one of their own? Never mind the fact that his passport shows that he’s spent time in somewhere around half a dozen terrorism hot spots, or that his story, while likely true, does come off rather flimsy, or that he’s carrying a few thousand dollars worth of digital equipment that could potentially be tied to both. Never let the facts intrude upon a healthy bout of self-pity.
What Lohman fails to understand or quantify in his post is that his experience mirrors, albeit rather poorly, that of millions of people of color worldwide, especially those of Arabic descent. Consider the story of Khaled Ahmed, a young Islamic man who was detained along with family and friends at the Canadian border last month upon returning from a wedding, who’s story was featured on WNYC’s On The Media podcast.
KHALED AHMED: I got called in at least five or six separate occasions. Every single time they called me in, they would . . . aggressively search me, push my forehead up against the concrete wall, going in between my legs, digging in my private areas. And they’d send me back for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes and call me back again and search me again.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN (HOST): Did you ask them why they had to do a body search every time? I mean –
KHALED AHMED: I’d just laugh. I, I kept – the only way I knew how to deal is laugh. I just kept laughing. I was like – do you have any weapons on you? “No, sir. You just searched me and I went and sat back down in the same seat. I don’t know where you think I could have gotten weapons from,” you know? At some point, you — to get over the depression of the situation, you just have to treat it as a joke.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Some of the treatment, I think, can be fairly dehumanizing. For example, when CBP cuffs a parent in front of their kids that can be terrifying to families. And it seems really needlessly terrifying. And that’s exactly what happened to Khaled at the Detroit border.
KHALED AHMED: After we had been there about five and a half hours, a man came out, put handcuffs on me and took me to a back room that was basically a jail cell. They didn’t tell me what was going on. My only request was I just asked one of them, “Whenever you guys find out what’s going on, can you please just tell my family, can you just inform my family?”
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: Not only did they not tell his family what was going on, they led them to think the worst. While Khaled was still in the jail cell, the rest of his group got their passports back and were told they could leave. Here’s his wife Alaa.
ALAA AHMED: Khaled’s brother asked, you know, where’s Khaled. And I just told him, “Oh, I’m sure he’s coming out right now.” And then, when I’ve already walked away from the desk, the agent tells me, oh, he won’t be joining you guys. I was like, [LAUGHS] what? You know, and I go up to the desk and like, “What do you mean?” He’s like, oh, there’s an agency coming to pick him up. I go like, “Well, what agency?” He’s like, I can’t disclose that information with you. I’m like, “He’s my husband, you need to tell me where he is going. We waited here six hours. We’re American citizens. Don’t treat us like we’re criminals. Don’t treat us like we’ve done something wrong.” And he made it seem like it was the FBI coming to get him, like this was something serious. And then I just broke down.
SARAH ABDURRAHMAN: It turned out Khaled had an unpaid ticket for having a crooked license plate, which he got back in 2006. The other agency coming to get him was Michigan State Police.
It appears that our Flying Dutchman could benefit from a broadening of his perspective. Of course, between lamenting his mistreatment as abomination and sampling only the best of what the third world has to offer, I wouldn’t count on that happening any time soon.