A Sign of Trouble: Airport Security and the Body of Colour

Pippa Sterk, PhD student at Kings College London, discusses how racialisation emerges through communication at airport security.


As countries all over Europe are emerging from lockdown, traditional anxieties around contaminated, but also endangered and vulnerable bodies, are amplified in the mainstream media. The pandemic has shown that seemingly clear-cut lines of precarity are in fact more diffuse: the virus-infected body that is in a state of vulnerability, is also seen as a danger to others. How do we distinguish the contagious from the clean? How do we present ourselves as ‘safe’, or at least minimise the prospect of being marked ‘unsafe’? Who are ‘we’ if not an opposition to the ‘other’?

For some of us, these dichotomies have always collapsed into a singular entity of our body, as diasporic People of Colour in Europe form part of the nation state by virtue of our citizenship, but are still obviously visually ‘other’. Growing up as a visibly South-East Asian woman in the Netherlands, I was simultaneously ‘familiar’ and ‘strange’. Familiar, because I have a Dutch passport, speak Dutch as my first language, and grew up surrounded by Dutch culture. Strange, as I do not look Dutch. At once, the ‘other’ encroaching on Dutch culture, as well as the culture that was under attack.

In my working paper ‘Navigating airport security as a Person of Colour’, I explore the moment of realisation of being excluded from the safety of unquestioned linguistic citizenship which often occurs in the moment of address: in my case, it is the chronic inability of people in the Netherlands to address me in Dutch, particularly in securitised spaces like the airport. I am often addressed in an unprompted English by airport staff, even when I show my passport, which proclaims me to be a Dutch citizen. White friends and family are consistently addressed in Dutch, yet I am not. Similarly, I have been told by airport staff to stand in the non-EU queue for passport checks. When I asked why I should go in a different queue when I evidently have a Dutch passport, I was made out to be a ‘difficult’ passenger that was arguing with people who seemingly know better.

The conclusion of my essay is not simply that phenotypical assumptions that equate citizenship with a particular ‘look’ are bad (though obviously they are). I also argue that these assumptions have a way of alienating you from your own behaviour and body. You start seeing all the ways in which your own body betrays itself as suspicious, and thus you work to erase these bits, even if it means erasing parts that constitute your self-image. Nobody wants to be the ‘difficult’ passenger at the airport, because in a highly securitised space, ‘difficult’ is easily equated with ‘dangerous’.

To an extent, all bodies are implicated in this. The way in which written airport security tends to phrase its warnings towards passengers seems to be intentionally stating-the-obvious, i.e. ‘do not take any firearms, dry ice, or radioactive material on board, or you may be fined’. Here it is not necessarily offending passengers that are being addressed – they are probably already aware they are doing something illegal – rather, this is a signal towards non-offending passengers that measures are being taken to keep them safe, an outward-facing display of the functionality of the internal airport security system. This is an example of what Norman Fairclough calls, “meaning being subordinated to effect” (1993, p. 151). It creates an ambiguous situation in which the reader can be discursively constructed equally as the danger, or the one being protected. Everybody at the airport is subject to this double address when it comes to written communication.

Airport security sign at Schiphol Airport

Whether you are seen as an ally or an ‘other’ can be highly dependent on who is doing the seeing. However, this can create a highly unbalanced and coercive power relation between the observer (security personnel) and the observed (the passenger). These power relationships often express themselves in verbal encounters, like the ones mentioned above.

If, like myself, you experience frequent encounters where you are viewed as the ‘other’, then you may internalise this power relation. You, therefore, may start surveilling yourself, instead of waiting for someone to mark you as dangerous due to your obvious visible difference. This is to ensure that a fault can never be attributed to you in the first place. For instance, I have started speaking to security personnel in English because I know as an English-speaking tourist, I will be in a more powerful position than an out-of-place Dutch-speaking person. I have also found myself excessively smiling at security personnel and other passengers. I do this in the hope that others involved in the security process will think of me as a willing participant, even if this means consenting to, and thus implicitly legitimising a system that normalises suspicion towards certain bodies more than others.

In Strange Encounters, Sara Ahmed mentions her interaction with white police officers in Adelaide when she was 14 years old (2000, p.128). In this encounter, she was stopped by a police officer, who asked her if she was Aboriginal. The officer’s colleague then winked at her, and asked that it is “just a sun-tan, isn’t it?”, to which she merely smiled. Ahmed recognised that it was her instinctive response of smiling that contained the combination of collusion and fear: she desired to be seen as deserving protection in the eye of the surveilling authority, while also fearing the outcome if perceived as a threat and no longer worthy of protection.

Smiling or speaking a language that is not your first, may seem like relatively minor changes to have to make. Indeed, in terms of border control, my EU passport unarguably grants me many privileges that do not just go away because I am addressed in English, rather than Dutch. However, these behavioural adaptations still betray an internalisation of normative ideas we have about the ways nationalities, ethnicities, and bodies are supposed to line up, and how incongruence in this alignment is seen as a potential ‘break’ in security systems. Not to fall in line, means to be equated with trouble.


Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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