I had a 2 p.m. class to attend a few weeks ago, a required course to complete my master's degree in social work. I arrived late. Shortly after showing my citizenship to a U.S. border guard at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, two customs officers charged at my vehicle, attempting to strip me of my dignity.
I am visibly a person of color and I have a "foreign" surname. I was questioned about my intent to visit the United States, why I had chosen to study social work and to pronounce and spell my surname in front of two customs officers. Furthermore, I was questioned about what religion I practice.
I am a Canadian citizen of East Indian and South African roots. My family arrived in Canada from South Africa some 35 years ago, and I have lived in Toronto all my life. It is one of those bizarre things that you never think is going to happen to you. I was told this was a random inspection.
When I complained to officials at the Canada Border Services Agency, an officer said, "this type of thing happens all the time." Was this a routine border check or racial profiling? It was most definitely racial profiling. Citizens of Asian and Middle Eastern origin face intrusive questioning when returning home or visiting.
So what exactly is racial profiling? One study published in the Canadian Review of Policing Research defined it as "a racial disparity in police stop and search practices, customs searches at airports and border crossings, in police patrols in minority neighborhoods and in undercover activities or sting operations which target particular ethnic groups."
It infringes on the human rights of citizens. Not only does racial profiling affect people from all backgrounds, it has also proven to undermine the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies when they narrowly focus on a limited group of suspects. It is a disturbing practice and an ineffective means of conducting police work.
Racial profiling seems to have become the norm at U.S. borders. Citizens are routinely profiled and questioned about their political views, religious practices and other lawful activities while U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers search through their books, laptop computers, private papers and other possessions.
Racial profiling alienates people of ethnic backgrounds. It promotes the segregation of suspects within the minds of law enforcement officers and it creates a second-class citizenship for people of color. Furthermore, the reliance on racial profiling, I believe, distracts border officers from more relevant indicators of suspicion and should be eliminated by law.
It is a very unpleasant experience to be interrogated when you have documented proof that you are attending a U.S. school, you have never committed a crime and you care about the security of every U.S. and Canadian citizen.
As a Canadian citizen, I expect -- and I have a right to -- a certain level of protection. However, I was left with the feeling that there was nothing random about the closer look, that I was stopped and subjected to extra scrutiny because of my race and ethnicity. In a country that prides itself as being a beacon for immigrants and one that celebrates its relatively rich cultural mosaic, the idea that authorities would use the simple visibility of certain minorities as an investigative tool reeks of racism.
Customs officers should be provided with cultural awareness training and education with anti-racism components. Perhaps that way I will not expect harassment and discriminatory treatment at our nation's doorstep.
Sophia Keshavjee, who lives in Ontario, is completing her master's degree in social work at the University at Buffalo.