Was It Racial Playing or Profiling by 3 TSA Officers?

Being a person of color means, unfortunately, that we will have to contend with some people who will engage in forms of “racist playing” –as if they were cats and we, their mice.

It is my experience that some Whites engage in forms of racial playing because it has social utility.  By this I mean by playing with people of color while other Whites are present it forms a basis for laughter.  Laughter serves as a way to unify people because it involves sophisticated knowledge about a culture learned over time.  Playing with people of color can be used as a way to bond with other Whites, and as a way to deflect the actors’ prejudicial intent.  The person of color who is the target of the joke is placed into a complex social position; either play along or be perceived as breaking social unity.  In other words, if we are all laughing and joking together what harm could there possibly be?  This concept of some Whites toying with people of color , as if we were both on the same side of a joke is a complex social issue to contend with.  Prejudicial behaviors that are cloaked in forms of social play marginalize the emotional reaction of people of color.  When I have not participated in this form of racial playing I am castigated, treated as not having a sense of humor or spoiling the fun.  The psychological literature, as far as I know, does not discuss this aspect of racism.  This blog posting examines how people of color are often coerced through jokes situated in forms of racial play, and how racial play can be deeply connected to racial profiling. Both racial playing and racial profiling share micro-invalidate and are often aggressive in nature.  Confronting this type of prejudicial and discriminatory play can be done in a variety of ways; turning the encounter into something more humorous, avoiding it, rationalizing it, or in my case, confronting it through education and writing.

We, as people of color are left few options in confronting the myriad of ways in which we have to deal with racial, ethnic, or gendered prejudice; when we try to seek legislative solutions these are often rescinded, when we try to write about it we are often marginalized and ridiculed, when we talk about it in our counseling sessions, we may spend lots of time educating our therapists on our lived experiences with intersectionality (e.g., the ways that sexism relates to racism, racism relates to skin color, and so forth).  Psychotherapy that support theories that blame us, as if the experience we encounter because of our Black and Brown bodies and the reaction to it, are ineffective. We should not have to debate with our counselors that our natural responses to aggression should not be treated as a neurotic impulse.  Therapy is often conducted as if the purpose of our psychotherapy is to make major psychological adjustments to our inner psyches, to learn how to cope with being in our own skin, as opposed to wanting psychotherapy that contextualizes our lives within inequitable systems often racist, powerful, and designed to substantiate white privilege.  We often find few social spaces where we can feel safe enough to talk about our reactions to racist play, racial profiling, prejudice, and grapple with its daily and cumulative effects.

We know racism like a heart knows its heartbeat.  Spending our energy looking for others to affirm our experience in a society that often questions our very existence can seem futile.

Racism is replete across many of our social and governmental structures, through its unwritten codes, use of symbolic language, and the ability of those who identify with these structures, who claim these structures as their own.  It is the alliance between individual Whites, who through their allegiance to White supremacy and how they use their roles within these structures, that form the base of institutional racism.   Institutional racism is sustainable through the contributions of those who support the racism within its structure.

We have seen the recalcitrant nature of prejudice and racial discrimination, that even a two-time, Black US president has recoiled in the face of its tenacity. We should be concerned how quasi officers use their roles within government authority positions and their engagement in forms of both racist playing with the public and racial profiling. We need to demand anti-racist training for these officers.  Just as we must confront police officers who unwittingly use implicit racial bias within their work we must also address implicit bias that operateds across TSA agents and others.

If you or someone you know is racially profiled by a TSA (Transportation Security Agent) agent, you can write your complaint here- https://www.tsa.gov/contact-center/form/civil_rights_liberties

My recent experience with TSA Agents

On Wednesday, January 27th 2016, I arrived at my regional airport and had several unfortunate incidents with several of TSA officers. I believe my arrival time was between 5:30 am and 7:00 am.  I did not record the officer’s names, all were White women. The first officer was about 5 ft 4, about 60 years old, the officer who was most problematic had blond hair, 5ft 2, blue eyes, and the third officer, was a white woman about 5, 7, brunette in late 20s, early 30s.

As general background, I am a 6ft 1, robust, African American man, college administrator, researcher, and licensed clinical psychologist (IL) who works for a leading distance learning institution.  I was traveling for business to attend our annual national faculty meeting and graduation ceremony. As I tried to describe to your agents that I was attending my graduation ceremony to participate in a hooding ceremony (whereby I, the dissertation chair place the academic hood over my dissertation student’s academic robe which marks the transition of them becoming a doctor).

Shortly after one of your agents checked my ID and stamped my ticket, prior to me placing my items in the security bins, one of your officers, a White woman, with grey-brown sandy hair, began questioning me…Where I was going, What type of work do I do, do I travel often?..etc. At first, I thought she was making casual conversation and I motioned to move toward the bin and then, I think, she placed her hands on her hips or engaged in some body movement that suggested to me that this was not a typical TSA form of questioning. I paused and shared that I was a professor and going to hood my graduate student, etc….and this explanation seemed to confuse her and then I restated that I was going to a graduation ceremony for work and proceeded in placing all of my items in the bins.

I went through the metal detector scanning, and proceeded to retrieve my items from the bin.  A second officer positioned herself on the opposite side of the conveyor, directly in front of me as I tried to begin collecting my items. The same sets of questions that the first officer asked me was repeated by this officer.  Where did I live, was my flight business or pleasure, what type of work do I do, How often do I fly, and so forth.  The tone of her question suggested an unwarranted level of questioning, whose intention seemed to be provoking and incendiary.  By this I mean the officer was asking me the questions in a manner that I have never experienced before, having traveled in the past 10 years, twice or 3 times per year for my job, as well as traveling to London, Paris, Hong Kong, Australia, and Peru.  I explained to her that I was a professor, a college faculty member attending a graduation ceremony, that I taught psychology as a professor.  She commented that my computer looked “banged up,” and I shared that it was my work computer and a bit old.

She then questioned me about why I was sweating, and I responded to her that I had high blood pressure.  She then proceeded to comment, that I should take better care of myself as I only had one life to live.  I responded to her that her beliefs about the longevity of my life, apparently was connected to her belief system.  I shared that as a Buddhist, I believed that people had multiple lives.

At this point, I became further anxious (as I think anyone would) because of the level of her questioning and was surprised that she did not ask for detailed baggage search. I shared with the agent that I did not understand why she was asking so many questions and why there was this level of scrutiny. She commented, “What scrutiny?…that we were only chatting.  I shared with the officer that I was aware that she might be a behavior detection officer and that I understood what she was doing, and asked if she had additional questions.  She then responded, offhandedly with what I perceived with hostile and sarcastic intent, “in my training, I was taught to ask about anything that is outside of the normal environmental context.” I was stunned by this blatant admission actually, that somehow I could be perceived as not part of the environmental context while traveling through this airport.  As I have mentioned, I fly with moderate frequency through this airport, and am familiar with TSA officer questioning and professional demeanor.

In any event, I asked her what made me outside of the normal context in her eyes, I shared that I realized that I was an African American man living in a predominately all White state, and asked her if this was what she meant about me being outside of the environmental context?  She looked at me smiled, while another White passenger (or possible a plain clothed supervisor I am not sure) looked on and then proceeded to shake my hand.  At some point in our conversation, another agent, this was the younger white woman with black hair chimed in, “Where I was going? I responded “Orlando”…she then responded with “Lucky you.” Both officers chuckled about this.

As you can see this experience was a bit humiliating for me.  Having to be questioned by two officers, and a chiming in by a third officer, in this manner as if I was presenting some form of domestic threat was disheartening.  I also think the third officer, upon learning that I was traveling to Orlando for work made a flippant comment about how lucky I was.  Because I travel for work should not be considered lucky, nor should it be the brunt of a joke with TSA officers.

In my estimation, if the first officer had a serious concern then a full body pat down or a more extensive search of my items might have been warranted.  This did not happen, which leaves me quite perplexed.  However, to be questioned by the second officer, with the same sets of questions asked by the first officer, and to have an officer to comment on my personal health status (e.g., why was I sweating), and to imply that something about my personhood made her think I was outside of the normal environmental context, implied a form of racial profiling that is unacceptable to me.  Further, to imply through her rounds of questioning that there was something about my behavior that warranted this level of scrutiny without requesting a full search of myself or my materials, further suggested that her engagement bordered on a slippery form of racial harassment.  Finally, to have a third officer to say to me that I was lucky for traveling while working once again calls into question the level and scope of racial diversity training offered to your officers.

As you have mentioned to me, that my complaint will be treated with all seriousness, and that if I choose to send this information to other authorities within the TSA system that they would be routed to your attention as well.  I am upset by this experience, believe that these officers should undergo additional training and to be reprimanded for their behavior. My sincere hope is that I will not encounter this form of treatment when flying through the regional airport.

I appreciate your professionalism in our conversation and that you listened to me about my unfortunate experience.

If there are any further questions, or points of clarifications you might need after viewing the videos, or if you have any questions about what I have written, please let me know. Once again, any information that you are allowed to share with me about your investigation and subsequent follow up to this writing, would certainly help me in resolving this matter.

Postscript: I have spoken to the regional Homeland Security Administration officer with this complaint (February 1, 2016), a version of this letter was sent to his attention, and am awaiting his follow up.

In addition, I have submitted this complaint to the TSA Civil Rights website. https://www.tsa.gov/contact-center/form/civil_rights_liberties.

Update: Feb 12, 2016.  I have rec’d a notice from Multicultural branch that they are investigating.  The regional officer recently informed me that he will have to wait until they release their findings and his investigation has now been “trumped” or “neutralized”, as he tried to explain it to me in our original conversation.  I shared with him that I look forward to our continuing dialog on the resolution of this matter.

Update: March 2, 2016. I have rec’d notice from the Multicultural Branch, they stated the following key excerpt below. Boldface my emphasis.

“When determining whether a traveler complaint is substantiated, the Multicultural Branch inquires with the airport into the traveler’s complaint. Taking all information into account, including your complaint, personnel statements, and a summary of the CCTV footage, we have determined that your security screening through the checkpoint was conducted properly. To address your concerns about potentially being treated differently, please note that TSA adheres to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) commitment to neutrality in our security screening programs.

TSA must ensure that all persons and their accessible property passing through the security checkpoint undergo screening to protect against the introduction of weapons, explosives and incendiary devices into the sterile area of an airport and onboard an aircraft.

The manner in which TSA screens travelers and their accessible property depends, in some cases, on how they present at the checkpoint. However, TSA neither uses nor condones unlawful profiling in our security screening activities. Pursuant to TSA’s Civil Rights Policy,Transportation Security Officers are prohibited from basing screening decisions on a traveler’s protected status. Therefore, all screening decisions are made based on the interests of aviation security and TSA’s screening procedures are used on a wide section of the traveling population to ensure that all persons and their property undergo screening.

Our findings do not invalidate your belief about your screening experience. In this regard, please be assured that TSA will continue to strive to improve our screening protocols to strike an  appropriate balance between aviation security and civil rights and liberty.

Update: July 17, 2016.

It happened to me again…please see here.


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