Polite racial profiling – experienced daily in a town near you

Posted on April 2, 2012


A weird thing happened the other day.  Weird that I should have to experience something as much it was disconcerting as I left Tesco. After paying for my goods, and heading for the exit, I had a customer service rep, who must’ve been no older than 20 or 21 years of age grab my shoulder and asked me to empty my plastic bag and asked to see my receipt as proof of purchase. Now normally, I would’ve gladly obliged, by showing him a strip of paper and walking off going about my business.

But this felt different. There was an air of nervousness in his voice after he’d realised that he was in the wrong and I had everyone in their heads tut-tutting staring right at me. Also, I was wearing a traditional Palestinian Kuffieyeh, which is a cotton lightweight scarf, which he’d noticed – that was when things turned really awkward.

I then put two and two together and so did he. He suddenly saw the error of his ways and immediately apologised to me as though he’d forgot to pay me for my goods, rather than the other way around. To really turn the air though, I gave a cold, blank stare, not saying a word and walking off with a face like thunder.

Am I over-reacting here? In this day and age if I’m wearing a backpack on a train and haven’t shaved in a few weeks I’m bound to get a few looks, and to be honest – and this goes against my better judgement – do I blame them for a myopic, superficial first impression?

No. Not really.

Our eyes transmit signals to the brain that provoke instinctive thoughts that trigger first impressions that tick a mental box in our heads. And that’s the trouble with a first impression – you only get one. I also once went through a ticket gate when stopped by a transport policeman with an intimidating attack dog asking to search my near-empty bag, claiming that I had been randomly selected for a search. Oh I’d been randomly searched alright – a randomly searched ethnic.

Bear in mind that this particular incident took place at the height of red alerts of anti-terrorism in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London. So a double-etched sword had been weilded – but the funniest thing of all was when I was asked where I going by the politely racial policeman? To see my lawyers for the record label I co-ran at the time I replied. Oh, how I love to spin on things the devilish so and so that I am.

Is everyone a little bit racist? Only the very pious and righteous among us would perhaps disagree but I think there’s a tickbox in our heads that corroborates with that – headscarf – check, long beard – check, Arabian style robe – check. Speaking in foreign tongue and not white – check.

Another example of this was in my early twenties working briefly at an airport ticketing desk and taught in training that sometimes stereotypes absolutely hold true with certain nationalities. For instance, the Chinese arrive efficiently at check in with as long a line as their long wall, in contrast Nigerians arrive 15 minutes after the desk opens and Arabs will try and blag the best seats and discounts on tickets by sussing out your nationality. If you’re a fellow Semite, then a haggling bargain ensues to no avail. I also learned to assume everyone is stupid. Another matter entirely but it has stuck with me to this very day – words to live by.

Yes we live in a society with all the colours of the rainbow in terms of skin. Ish. But if you think the issue of race and profiling doesn’t exist, stop, look and think again.

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