When I was growing up in Africa I often wondered when my first opportunity to travel by air would come. In the end I did not have to wait too long, as the opportunity arrived when I flew to a nearby country to undertake my third-level education.
Although travelling by air was then a luxury, over time I would become a regular flyer both for work and leisure. And if, at this point, you’re tempted to ask, “What does migration have to do with flying?” you need look no further than discussions around the possible impact of Brexit on air travel to be reminded.
This blog post, however, will not revisit such debates. Instead, it will explore my experience of travelling within Europe on an EU passport while not being ‘phenotypically’ European. Indeed, I could easily fill a book with my experiences at airports – and rest assured that many others have similar stories.
However, I didn’t comprehend what underpinned my experiences at check-in and immigration desks until Professor Ash Amin introduced me to the concept of biopolitics at a conference a number of years ago, when he gave a preview of an article he subsequently published as The Remainders of Race. I was aware of Michel Foucault’s work in the 1970s on biopolitics and biopower (see The Will to Knowledge: History of Sexuality Volume I), but had underestimated how these concepts could affect me personally and make me question my acquired Europeanness. (Even more of a challenge in the case of second-generation minorities who — unlike myself— were born in and only know Europe. Maybe, in the future, we could use this platform to discuss what second-generation migrants call ‘normality’?)
Biopolitics in action first became evident to me when I travelled to a European capital and an immigration officer asked me to explain how I had acquired a European passport. As the passport was authentic, I could not understand why I was being ‘othered’ – that is, treated differently. This, however, was only a taste of what was to come. Years later – ironically while returning from a conference on migration and integration – a colleague and I were asked the same question as we checked in. Although I had advised him to keep calm, when he was questioned about his residency in our country of destination – despite having a residency permit – his emotions took over and he began to argue with the airline official. In the end, he missed his flight and it was left to me to alert the conference organisers and ask them to call the airport to ensure he was able to catch the next flight.
Personally, my most challenging experience was missing a connecting flight at one of Europe’s busiest airports because immigration officials were checking the authenticity of my European passport. Although a quick Google search would have helped them to establish who I was, when I asked to speak to a supervisor I was advised to keep my mouth shut or risk being arrested.
The airline officials, at least, were more understanding. After they’d booked me onto the next flight, they even gave me vouchers for refreshments and access to the internet. Indeed, the three-hour delay gave me a chance to add a punchline to the paper I was presenting at a conference the following day, at which I was able share my experience. It gave me the opportunity to highlight the need to raise awareness, improve training and monitor the experiences of black and ethnic minority Europeans at European ports of entry, including airports. Unfortunately, however, it was not the last time I was able to use a story about my experience at an airport as an icebreaker to my presentations on immigration, integration, citizenship and identity.
Such experiences have compelled many to develop coping mechanism. A couple of weeks ago, for example, a friend described how insistently he had been questioned on his way back from holiday. His mistake? To dress like any other holidaymaker. He was convinced that if he had been in a suit (as I had suggested), his experience would have been very different. But he did not understand why he should need to pretend he was travelling on business to avoid being questioned by airline officials. Officials who are now – thanks to the introduction of the Immigration (Carriers’ Liability) Act in 1987 (although subsequently repealed, its provisions still feature in follow-up legislation) – de facto immigration officers.
So what’s my personal coping strategy? What do I do when I approach check-in and immigration desks? I keep calm, try to look professional, carry all documentation that could possibly be deemed necessary (including hotel bookings, return flights, invitation letters and business cards) and always have a back-up plan in case I am not allowed to board my flight. This does not mean that I have given in, far from it. I use any platform I can to challenge those who would misuse biopolitics and biopower to make me feel an alien in a place I call home and in which I am a fully-fledged member of society.
As a minority activist myself, I concur with Professor Amin’s assertion that in dealing with phenotypical racism and biopolitics, ethnic minority activists should engage in a politics of common human concerns (such as health, housing, work, education and security), and a politics of common human emotions (such as fear, hope, anxiety, love and hate). This will explain to many of those with whom I regularly interact my passion for social justice, social cohesion, equality, human rights and for taking a stand against hate.
There should be no incompatibility between my Europeanness and my ethnicity. As a firm believer in citizenship based on presence, I will always endeavour to make a difference within the communities in which I live, work and partake in social and cultural rituals. Interacting with others is my second nature – and I will never allow biopolitics to stop me.