I was pulled out of a line at @HeathrowAirport recently, 'randomly'. I didn't object, but said "what a surprise". The officer became very annoyed.
"What do you mean by that?"
- "You want me to be honest?"
This is what happened. Bear with me. It's important.
#Thread #Race
- "I hardly find it surprising that you stop a man with a beard who looks non-white."
"Oh, we're going down *that* road, are we? You have a chip on your shoulder, huh?"
- "A chip on my shoulder? No. I just study & research this as an academic. So, no, I don't find it surprising."
"You teach this stuff? That's very troubling."
- "No, mate, it's troubling that you find that troubling. You want to take a look in the bag, be my guest."
"It's not mate, it's officer."
- "oh? It's Dr Hellyer, FYI."
"OK. Show me your passport, please sir."
- "Here you go."
"What do you do, sir?"
- "I am a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and (among other things) I research counterterrorism. Which is why I don't find this surprising."
"If you research this, you must know that's not what we look for. But that I saw a single male arriving from Egypt, and hence you fit a certain type of profile."
(At this point, I didn't even notice he was assuming all sorts about Egypt.)
- "It is called racial profiling."
- "I am looking around, and all the people you have stopped I wouldn't identify as white." (Indeed: they were all people of colour.)
At this point I am not sure if he was just trying to get past me, or if he had finished up, but he went on to say:
"I understand your perspective. But you're basically calling me racist for doing my job and I took that personally."
- "No, I'm not calling you racist personally. But let's imagine, just for argument's sake: I am not looking at you. I am looking at the system you operate within."
- "And you have been polite, so let me say this: can you possibly entertain the possibility that there is some unconscious bias that led you to stop me, as opposed to someone you identified as white? Look around. No one else who has been stopped is white."
"I've been doing this for 16 years, not how I work. But I can't speak to your personal experience. I appreciate you're looking at the system as a whole."
- "I appreciate your perspective. I didn't mean to offend you. I will consider your perspective. But please: consider mine."
I shook the officer's hand, and left.

Now, I didn't write all of this to complain. On the contrary, I consider myself privileged. I am in authoritarian countries a lot, and this treatment is like being in a 5 star hotel in comparison. But there is a lot to take away from this.
The officer was a bit lippy to begin with. But he was polite apart from that. Was it because he realised he is dealing with someone who is an expert in the field? Is it because he saw my red British passport? Is it because I pushed back, but was fully cooperative? I don't know.
A friend reminded me that we still consider class ahead of race in the UK; and it may well have been why the officer became a lot less confrontational; because he identified me as coming from a more privileged socio-economic class than his own. I honestly do not know.
What I do know: every other person who was stopped was far darker than me. (I'm actually English, and my father is white, but when I have a full beard, I at least look Mediterranean, and hardly Anglo-Saxon).
I looked around, and I saw a lady who was brown, and whom I am pretty sure was Indian coming from India (there was a flight that had come in at around the same time). I didn't see her saying a word, and I wouldn't have recommended she do so either. I am incredibly privileged.
I never feel threatened at Heathrow. I know the law, and as a Brit in the UK, I know entirely what I can do in these situations. I wasn't in that much of a rush, and frankly, if they wanted to go the full nine yards, I would have a field day. As I said, I felt very privileged.
That Indian lady would not have felt so privileged. I don't when I am travelling in the US or many other countries, let alone when I am in genuinely authoritarian or autocratic states. The vulnerability that she must have felt is very real. I didn't feel any of it. I'm blessed.
But precisely because I am privileged, I felt it was important to be clear to the officer, and also to relay the experience. As a friend put it well: Implicit bias is something we need to examine & discuss openly if we're going to make any progress at all in just about any field.
It's delicate, and people are quick to assume you are calling them racist by forcing them to confront the uncomfortable reality of their own biases. If they can't admit they have biases informed by race - even if they're not racist - they're not part of the solution.
I love this country. I was a Briton from the day I was born, and I wouldn't have it any other way. We are still a nation of law. But when we deny that race continues, indelibly, to affect our lives, we deny ourselves the opportunity to set things aright.
I should say... it's intriguing how nearly every negative response to this thread is by someone who has likely never faced racism in their lives, and whose twitter feeds seem to invariably include indignant protestations about racism being a thing
As noted, @HeathrowAirport has contacted me wanting to discuss this further. I have told them I trust an actual named individual will be in touch with me by today to do so. A number of people have asked me to write about this in the media, so I hope to include Heathrow's reply.
-@HeathrowAirport's response is that it was a border force official who stopped me, who are employed by the @ukhomeoffice, who act independently of Heathrow, without any direct control over them from Heathrow. No communication from any named official from Heathrow at all.
Heathrow claims that the Home Office will be in touch with me instead about this case. But @HeathrowAirport's own communications strategy thus far has involved anonymous Twitter DMs; no email, no named representative, just unaccountable messaging.
It was clear from the outset that whoever stopped me was border control. @HeathrowAirport, days later, raises that as a way to deflect any direct engagement on the issue of profiling. Pity. If Heathrow were serious about engagement on the issue, they'd be more transparent.
I'm in touch with media outlets whom I hope will be publishing on it soon. It's a pity that @HeathrowAirport and the @UKHomeOffice have not been more forthcoming. I hope they will be more so very soon.
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