The Frustration of Racism On Board

Flying into New York can be a daunting experience for international students.


Diya Jain, Deputy Opinion Editor

Just two days ago, I began the exhausting 25-hour journey from home in Mumbai to New York City as my summer came to an end. Armed with sleeping masks and spicy food, I braced myself for this long, expensive journey that, for many international students, can be lonely and tiresome. If saying goodbyes to close family and friends and trying to navigate time zone differences isn’t enough, this journey is often compounded by racist incidents

Examples of airport racism include pointed questions that are subtly offensive to certain groups, hostile behavior towards particular groups and discrimination toward more vulnerable minorities during their journey. Most international airports are a common place for this racism, because anything can be excused under the veil of authority. Some airport officials take advantage of vulnerable groups by displaying their inherent biases and inappropriate behavior, knowing they’ll get away with it. On a domestic flight in India, I saw a black man in traditional dress fight with air staff because they demanded proof that he was flying in Business Class after he had already boarded the flight. 

My own experience with airport racism began on an Emirates flight, early in my travels. Perhaps the best example was the tone of voice used when talking to brown families as compared to white ones. While flight attendants were perfectly cordial and polite towards white families, they were often hostile when dealing with requests made by brown ones. An elderly Muslim woman sitting next to me wasn’t paying attention to the food being served. “Do you want this?” the attendant yelled gruffly, loud enough to turn heads. She shrugged, rolled her eyes and moved on to the next row. I also noticed an old Indian man who was nervous to ask a passenger to move over so he could sit next to his son: “Can you help me?” he asked a flight attendant. “No!” came the response, as the flight attendant rushed away. In the airport lounge in Dubai, I asked an employee if I could have a glass of water at the bar. “Just take it,” she barked, and pointed towards a jar and glass with an angry expression. Minutes later, she smiled and served glasses of water to two white couples standing behind me.  

Finally, while leaving JFK, I tried to contact AT&T customer support to switch out my Indian number to a U.S. one. As I struggled with three heavy suitcases and a cell phone, a white TSA official glared at me. “Maybe if you weren’t on your phone, you could actually see where you were going!” he screamed from behind his booth. “The exit is the other way!” I would be lying if I said I did not feel an undercurrent of hurt and fear after hearing his words. I cannot imagine him doing the same to a white family travelling together. 

Airport racism is incredibly dangerous because of its insidiousness. There seems to be no easy way for vulnerable groups to protest against it. More concerningly, it sometimes takes a while for victims of airport racism to realize that this treatment is not okay. I only started noticing a difference in behavior towards me at airports and on planes a couple of years ago, as I became more educated about the issue. It is imperative that victims of airport racism speak out about their experiences to spread the message that it is not acceptable. 

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Email Diya Jain at [email protected]