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Mom in Translation: The Dreaded Conversation Every Mom of a Brown Boy Must Have in America

The mother of a 6-month-old and an unplanned encounter at the airport

Published on: May 18, 2017

Airport screening security

“Should I wear my baby in his carrier, check in the stroller and carry the car seat, or check the car seat and carrier and keep him in his stroller?” Variations of this question dominated the conversation in my home during the days leading up to an upcoming international trip. 

I’m normally an intrepid traveler thanks to living on three different continents in the last decade. But this would be a first: a voyage from Seattle to Singapore with a 6-month-old sans another adult. That’s 8,059 miles and a 19-hour, two-flight journey. 

The most nerve-wracking part was the thought of flying through SeaTac without an adult to help. I knew security could be punishing when there were long lines and fumbling passengers. On previous trips, I’d overheard people angrily mumbling as families with multiple kids held up the line. I was terrified of being that passenger. 

As to what to check and what to carry, I eventually settled on the first option. I’d wear my son, Veer, through security. That would leave one carry-on suitcase, a stroller and a bulging baby bag for me to take onboard. 

The day of in security, I effortlessly took off my shoes, folded the stroller with one hand, removed my laptop and Veer’s milk bottles for inspection — all while he slept snugly against my chest. I made it through security and, on the other end of the line, breathed a sigh of relief as I waited to collect my things. 

A TSA agent jolted me from my reverie: “Ma’am, we need you to open these milk bottles for further screening.”

Startled, I replied: “I can’t do that. They have to remain uncontaminated so I can feed my son. I have nearly 24 hours of flying ahead and that’s if there are no delays.”

She was unmoved. “You have two choices: We can screen these, or do a full-body pat down.”

Desperate to not rock the boat and to keep my baby from waking up, I chose the latter. But it didn't make sense — I had previously flown through Sea-Tac with the same bottles and never experienced such a hold-up.

I would later learn that such a request to screen milk bottles is technically allowed but rarely enforced. (Not to mention that as frequent travelers, my husband and I paid $100 each to apply for the U.S. Global Entry program last year. The expedited clearance only came through after the required extensive reviews of our professional, personal and legal histories and face-to-face interviews with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent.)

I saw family after family walking through the detectors, undeterred. The only difference between me and them? My brown skin.

What followed was a 20-minute search by two agents of every part of my body that wasn’t covered by my son. They initially asked me to remove my son from his carrier, but fortunately one was kind enough to tell the other to let it be when I protested that it would wake him. Eventually, the jostling did rouse him — and he screamed loud enough for everyone to hear. Throughout, I saw family after family walking through the detectors, undeterred. The only difference between me and them? My brown skin.

Sadly, stories like mine aren’t rare. Although no official data exists, the TSA has been routinely accused of racially profiling passengers by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Council on American-Islamic Relations and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 2013, a Department of Homeland Security investigation found: "[The] TSA cannot ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective or reasonably justify the program’s expansion." The program in question is called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) and costs taxpayers upwards of $800 million a year, but has so far not shown to be an objective security measure.

As for my trip with my son, after a 40-minute hold-up in all, the two officers cast us aside with no explanation as to the cause of the search. I gathered myself and my belongings and walked tearfully toward my gate, barely a moment to spare to change the crying Veer’s diaper before boarding our flight. 

As the mother of a brown boy, I knew I would have to prepare him for a life of random selections, of being interrogated by authorities and being called names denigrating the color of his skin if he ever tried to question wrongdoing.

I just didn’t think I’d have to start the conversation when he was 6 months old.

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