Monday, March 23, 2009

An Anonymous Traveler in Barbados

Sunday, March 22, 2009
Barbadian Racism?

I usually half-joke that it's best to transit Grantley Adams International Airport when an international flight has just landed. Those're the only times I've found more than a couple immigration officers on duty and the "NOTHING TO DECLARE" part of the customs area unblocked.

So when I came off LIAT's last flight from St Vincent tonight and saw a Virgin plane on the ground, I felt pretty lucky. My spirits fell a bit when, as I walked past the glass wall, I noticed that all the immigration desks were empty, but by the time I got to the desks there were more than two immigration officers on duty -- a sign that the Virgin passengers hadn't been cleared too long ago. That sign was confirmed a few moments later when I headed towards the bag section and saw a good number of white travellers in that area.

Things got even better, it seemed, when I only had to wait a few minutes for my bag to come onto the carousel. This is great, I thought as I approached the almost-double line of people at the customs section. I say 'almost-double line' because there seemed to be one line -- or rather, a gathering of people and suitcases -- near the back, but there were apparently two at the front near the customs officers. One of the lines was roughly towards the red sign marked ITEMS TO DECLARE on the left and the other towards the green sign marked NOTHING TO DECLARE on the right.

There didn't seem to be anything special about the lines at first; they were a fairly ordinary mixture of West Indians and Britons (if the plane on the ground and the accent of the woman I accidentally bumped into are anything to go by), some white and some black. The kind of racial mixing typical of a Caribbean airport, right? When I looked ahead in the region of the signs and the customs officers, though, I had to look again. It seemed as though only white people were being allowed through the NOTHING TO DECLARE section.

"But surely not", I thought. "Look longer."

And longer I looked. I watched as some black people towards the front of the line on the left headed towards the NOTHING TO DECLARE branch in apparent confusion and were pointed to the ITEMS TO DECLARE side by a customs officer who apparently had no need to glance at their passports or customs forms. I watched as some other black people in the NOTHING TO DECLARE line were pointed to the ITEMS TO DECLARE branch when they got to the customs officer at the front of their line. I watched as a customs officers took some white travellers' forms from the fronts of both lines and let them pass the NOTHING TO DECLARE sign without so much as glancing at the forms. And I watched and listened to an exchange between a customs officer and a white traveller a person or two ahead of me.

"Where are you coming from?", the black customs officer asked the white traveller.
"St Vincent", the traveller replied. As as he said that I remembered seeing him on the same flight as me.
The customs officer then said something else that I didn't make out, and the traveller said something in response that I also didn't make out. What I did make out, though, is what happened next: the customs officer waved him over to the NOTHING TO DECLARE SECTION.

I barely had time to register my shock before it was my turn.

"Are you coming from Jamaica too?", the customs officer asked me.
Jamaica? I thought. "No, St Vincent", I replied.

And with that he dismissed me with a point to the ITEMS TO DECLARE branch and a look at the next person behind me. He didn't ask me anything else. He didn't glance at my passport. He didn't look at my customs form. But I'm certain he saw my skin colour, and he must've recognised my accent -- what it wasn't, I'm sure, if not what it was -- and that was enough for him.

And being a submissive black West Indian, I wordlessly did as he directed.

posted by Antillean @ 6:54 PM