This afternoon I spoke with an Indian-American friend of mine who was recently detained in London Heathrow Airport on his stop over from New York to Paris. The security attendant allegedly stopped him for carrying a travel-sized shaving cream, which technically counts as a liquid, in his hand luggage. Whether or not he was stopped for the shaving cream or for his racial profile remains a mystery, but it struck a chord. I recently suggested we engage in a frank and honest national conversation about the “relevance and success rate in employing racial profiling as a tactic to preserve safety” in the August 28th, 2009 issue of “India Abroad” newspaper in response to Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan’s detainment in Newark airport, a dialogue that still needs to be had.
“India Abroad” August 28, 2009
“The end of racial profiling?” by Kavita Ramdya
August 15 Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was detained at the Newark Liberty International Airport on his way to Chicago. Unfortunately for the Customs and Border Patrol officials at Newark’s airport, Shah Rukh Khan is also completing a film about the racial profiling of Indian Muslims in the United States since 9/11.
Call me cynical, but the stars could not be more favorably aligned to promote Khan’s project. It is a stroke of kismet for Khan that he was questioned by the CBP at Newark on his way to celebrating India’s independence from British colonial rule. In terms of free press, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The New York Times coverage of the incident describes how fellow Bollywood stars suggested that Indian airports treat Hollywood actors and actresses similarly: By frisking them as they enter and exit India. However, this notion of tit-for-tat reveals an ignorance of the situation at hand. Khan wasn’t pulled aside because he is a movie star; he was questioned because of his name. If Indian security is to be consistent, they would not only stop Brangelina but any Tom, Dick, or Harry that has a conspicuously non-Indian name.
I commend Khan for reversing his initial indignation. The central issue should not be Khan’s ego; he is not the only actor or actress to be questioned at an airport. I will never forget seeing Maggie Gyllenhaal looking bored as airport security questioned her five years ago on my trip from New York to Las Vegas.
The issue, instead, is whether Khan’s name is what motivated airport security to take him aside versus a fellow passenger with a non-Muslim name. Such is the definition of racial profiling: Considering race when ‘seeking suspected criminals.’ In a post-9/11 world, men with Muslim names are racially profiled by airport security just as African-American men are by police in our cities. Ultimately, recent incidents such as Harvard Professor Dr Henry Louis Gates’s arrest outside his Cambridge home and Shah Rukh’s questioning in
Newark should spur debate around the relevance and success rate in employing racial profiling as a tactic to preserve safety.