My White Friends Wear Sweatpants On Airplanes, But I Can't

by Rebecca Stevens

I’m a 50-year-old black woman, and one of my dreams is to one day be able to travel in a comfortable pair of sweatpants.

You may wonder why something so insignificant, which may be unimportant to you, is something that I cherish, but that’s because you’ve never quite experienced racism the way that I as a black woman have.

I’ve always had jobs that required me to travel. Traveling is also one of my hobbies. I love discovering new faces and new places, new food, new cultures, and traditions, and am usually up for any type of travel. I’ve traveled to over 50+ countries and one thing that has always intrigued me is how the way I am dressed exposes me to racism or does not. There seems to be a direct correlation between a black person wearing sweatpants and the most abhorrent forms of racism in countries like the U.K., U.S., Germany, France, Italy, and France to name a few. If, on the contrary, I wear a classy pantsuit, I face little to no racism at all.

It’s as though airport immigration and customs officials associate black people in sweatpants with being drug smugglers, troublemakers, criminals, or individuals that cannot be trusted. So when I do wear that most comfortable article of clothing for travel, I automatically get selected for the so-called random search, and my passport is examined meticulously because hey, I may be trying to pass with a forged document. The consistency with which I have been racially profiled while wearing sweatpants is so predictable, that I sometimes even bet money with my white friends that I‘ll get stopped. Guess what? I’ve won every single bet.


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There are so many things that we as black people do to avoid trouble. For example, someone will be overtly racist, but we won’t complain to not cause a stir. We may have bad service in a restaurant because of the color of our skin and we’ll remain stoic to not cause a scene. We’ll get stopped by police for no other reason than the fact that we are black and we’ll comply with their demands even if we haven’t done anything wrong, to not cause trouble. Being black in a racist world means that you need to swallow your anger and your pride when you face some of the worst injustices and inequalities. It takes a lot of maturity and resilience to do so.

The night before I travel, I usually set out some of my nicest clothes to wear. Deep down inside, however, I resent the fact that I have to do this. I resent the fact that I have to adhere to this unspoken rule, I resent the fact that racism has such a grip on my life. But what is the other solution, wearing my sweatpants and on top of the existing anxiety of travel in a post 9/11 and Covid 19 world, having to deal with racism as well? No, no thank you, there is only so much one can deal with if one wants to preserve one’s mental health.

With the increase of electronic checkpoints at airports, I now encounter less racial profiling at immigration. Even though there is talk of biased and racist algorithms in these machines, I have personally not faced any issues with these electronic checkpoints yet. I’m even at the stage where I am relieved to be screened by one rather than a human being. I feel I stand more of a chance of being evaluated more fairly by a machine than by a human with his or her conscious and unconscious bias. In some airports, there are still immigration officials standing right behind the electronic checkpoints screening passengers. I always feel stressed when I see them because I know they have the power to override the electronic checkpoints and can still pull me aside for a random check. But while electronic portals are being used for immigration, human beings are still in charge of security checks. And until that changes, I’m still going to stick to my fancy pantsuit for travel.


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I often ask myself how much money airports waste because their employees systematically target black people for body searches and whatnot while the real criminals, the real terrorists may be white people. I have traveled a lot with white friends who have smuggled anything from luxury goods to alcohol to cigarettes into countries without getting so much as a stare from an immigration or customs official. Some of my white friends even feel invincible because they get away with this all the time.

Writing about racism forces me to confront the reality about how it shapes my life — what I chose to do and not do. A lot of readers tell me that I shouldn’t let racism control my life, but that is much easier said than done. Racism creates trauma so one tries to avoid it as much as one can. In my 50 years on earth, I’ve become an expert at identifying situations where I will encounter it, so I try as best possible to avoid those situations and the associated pain and humiliation. I am sure that if you were in my shoes, you would too. Wouldn’t you?