The benefits of Travelling While White

I’ve just come back from the activity that has made me most think about white privilege. Travel. Every time I cross national borders, following all the rules we have deemed necessary to move from one arbitrary idea of place to another, I am slapped in the face again with how much easier it is to do this when you’re white.

Now I know this isn’t exactly news. Helen Clark even officially apologised in 2002 to Chinese New Zealanders about immigration discrimination going back to 1881 – when Chinese migrants had to pay 10 quid for migrating while being Chinese.

And then there were the dawn raids in the 1970s, when Pacifica people were targeted by the Police for “overstaying”. Were they? Yep, probably, some of them. But given Pacifica migration over that period was tiny in comparison with our largest group of temporary migrants (then as nearly always, British people), the dawn raids focus seems curious. After all, if the real issue was overloading social services and resources, as claimed, shouldn’t we have been worried about those pesky white people?

But travelling still prods me into thinking about being white. First there’s all that racial profiling that goes on in airports. You know, who customs officials stop and ‘randomly’ search. Disproportionately when travelling in Europe, the Caribbean, south east Asia, hell any airport I’ve walked through, the people who have been stopped and searched have been people of colour. So even though I often look like a bit of a scruffy hippy…..because I am a bit of a scruffy hippy…..I’ve been stopped maybe once. In quite a bit of travelling. But I’ve been on flights, several times, where the only people searched have been people of colour.

This, of course, has ramifications down the line. One of the manifestations of my dislike for national borders is my (extremely white privileged) recurring “forgetting to bring my passport” problem. I can blame this on thinking you should be in an airport to need it (rather than a train station or boat), I can say I’m ideologically opposed to immigration controls. Those things are both true. But somehow, I doubt my forgetting passport experiences would be quite as funny as stories if I wasn’t white, because I think the consequences would have been more serious.

Now I don’t want to make this sound like it’s every second trip. But I have been deported, denied entry, and, on one memorable occasion, held for 8 hours in Brussels in a room with a number of other people the Belgian immigration police were investigating. In that holding cell, I was the only white person. Everyone else being “investigated” was Black, from the Indian sub-continent, or Arabic looking. I couldn’t talk to everyone there as my language range is pretty limited, but since many people were allowed to leave while I was there, I don’t think I was in a cell with scary terrorists. I think I was in a cell with people Travelling While of Colour.

Another trip through Australia, a friend travelling on a British passport was strip-searched. Her passport wasn’t relevant, they didn’t look at it until afterwards. I’m not sure the same was true about her ethnicity – Egyptian mother, Indian father.

Travelling While of Colour again, what was she thinking?

Going into the UK remains an all-time low point for me, I have to say, and since I lived there for more than a decade, I’ve done it many, many times. I’ve sat waiting at Heathrow to go through immigration while an Arabic man vomited continuously next to me, and when I asked for medical attention from the officials, been told “he’s just putting it on to get into the country.”

Which brings me to another white privilege activity. I make up different professions for my immigration forms, because I object to being asked what I do for a living. So far I’ve been a rocket scientist, a farmer, an astronaut, a professional sportswoman, a rock star……the only time I’ve felt even vaguely guilty about this was when I said I was a brain surgeon. I’ve fainted about once or twice a year all of my adult life, so it’s likely if tested on this one I’d have had trouble.

I find the silly risk-taking to poke fun at such an irrelevent piece of bureaucracy amusing.

But then, I expect immigration to be something which is all White for me.

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2 thoughts on “The benefits of Travelling While White

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I have lived in the US for many years and travelled a lot in Asia as well. White is right in the US was what I used to say. The racial profiling in the US is disgusting and so blatantly obvious. While I have an American wife I was quasi-legal for a period of time and i would say that I was hiding in the open as no whitey would be really questioned. I know that if I was coloured this would not of been possible. Keep up the good work, this article touches on a much bigger issue that exists in our former land of plenty. now a plenty of land for a few.

  2. I’m tempted to agree with you, until I remember the amount of times I have been hauled out of the line at Heathrow or Gatwick or Stanstead or East Midlands Airport and questioned, searched or detained. I’m white, but being Irish as well was what did for me. No one ever asked for my political beliefs or whether I agreed with “the armed struggle”, they simply hauled me out because of my country of origin. Such things happen to others these days, but it isn’t and hasn’t always been about simply colour.

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