The Art of Travel: Brown Edition

Aaron Pinto

They say travel is the university student’s calling, and it’s true; I’ll never get as good a chance to travel as I have now. So, why don’t I?

From the moment I announced I’d be travelling unaccompanied to India  for a week in the mid-semester break, my family had “ten-dozen heart attacks”, as my mother put it. Not because they thought I was too young to be travelling alone, but because they knew something of the chore ahead.

“Beta, you better shave before going, you know what they’ll think if you have a beard.”

“Why isn’t mummy going with you?”

Growing up in a large Indian family, I became familiar with the problems my relatives faced while travelling. It seemed every January there would be a new story of someone being pulled aside to have their luggage searched upon returning from India. Or how their elderly parents underwent excessive security screenings when arriving upon Australian shores. The advantage is, having grown up with these stories, I was well prepared to face the airport on my own.

And so I was driving to the airport, ticking off my mental checklist: Do I look Australian enough to avoid questioning? Does my moustache make me look too Indian? Do I have enough time to get through customs? Is my visa valid? What do I do if I get stopped? I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like to not have to think about this. How easy it must be to just not be brown; I tried to think about the amazing experiences I would have on the other side of the border, rather than the frustrating ones before it. Finally satisfied with my preparation, I waved goodbye to my mum and made my way through to security.

As expected, I was pulled aside for a ‘random’ drug and explosive detection. So ‘random’ three out of the four other people pulled up with me also happened to be brown. A happy accident. I passed the test easily, but I was annoyed. I like to think of myself as an agreeable person, so why should I be forced to undergo extra security screenings? Travellers across the world have a peculiar habit of affecting a false bravado in transit. It’s been pointed out to me on more than one occasion that the bulk of these voyagers are brown, whether South Asian, South-East Asian or Middle Eastern, and with a cursory glance, I can see why this misperception exists. I’ve heard it attributed to a culture of ‘rudeness’, a refusal to travel like ‘normal’ people. That is, a refusal to travel like non-brown people. But, why should we? We are brown.

There exists a separate global standard for the brown community as we travel, one that focuses on special selection (read: targeting) for ‘security screening’. The idea that we want to own our foreignness is an affront to the idealised Western social system, one which they must rectify to restore its dominance. The systematic ‘shaking down’ of brown people at travel hubs worldwide is a means by which to force us to assimilate to avoid such treatment. Brown travellers across the world are thus seen as potential threats; as dangerous cargo, not holidaymakers. It’s the dangerous type of story that seems truer the more it’s heard. It’s in the looks I draw as I stride through customs at Sydney. It’s in the hushed whispers of the old, white couple in the lounge at Hong Kong Airport.

The narrative of ‘brown guilt’ perpetuated by the systems of travel continues to prevail in the minds of non-brown travellers around the world. ‘Rudeness’ and ‘arrogance’ are bandied about as rationale for our treatment as second-class travellers. In truth, our only fault is that we are proud people who refuse to be humbled. We are brown. And we won’t apologise for it.