Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

I have confused feelings about this story: an Australian writer, Mem Fox, was treated to American-style customs.

The room was like a waiting room in a hospital but a bit more grim than that. There was a notice on the wall that was far too small, saying no cellphones allowed, and anybody who did use a cellphone had someone stand in front of them and yell: “Don’t use that phone!” Everything was yelled, and everything was public, and this was the most awful thing, I heard things happening in that room happening to other people that made me ashamed to be human.

There was an Iranian woman in a wheelchair, she was about 80, wearing a little mauve cardigan, and they were yelling at her – “Arabic? Arabic?”. They screamed at her “ARABIC?” at the top of their voices, and finally she intuited what they wanted and I heard her say “Farsi”. And I thought heaven help her, she’s Iranian, what’s going to happen?

There was a woman from Taiwan, being yelled at about at about how she made her money, but she didn’t understand the question. The officer was yelling at her: “Where does your money come from, does it grow on trees? Does it fall from the sky?” It was awful.

There was no toilet, no water, and there was this woman with a baby. If I had been holed up in that room with a pouch on my chest, and a baby crying, or needing to be fed, oh God … the agony I was surrounded by in that room was like a razor blade across my heart.

There are some things I’m not confused about: that was criminal and horrific, and ought to bring deep shame to all Americans. What kind of stupid people are doing this job that they think YELLING at someone who doesn’t understand their language somehow makes them comprehensible?

But what bugs me is that this story becomes newsworthy only when it happens to a white woman — as if the injustice is amplified because the target is someone innocent of the crime of being brown. No criticism of Mem Fox intended, but of the media and the people who assume it isn’t news if it’s not happening to someone who looks like them.

Where is the story of the Iranian woman in a wheelchair, the Taiwanese woman, the woman with a baby? Is anyone following up with them, or is their story not as credible or sympathetic as that of a white woman?

And most importantly, where is the follow-up to expose the immigration thugs who are perpetrating these offenses?


  1. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    Those are good questions. But at least we should note that she didn’t just write about how bad it was for her. She at least was trying to amplify their stories as much as she could. Yes, it should be newsworthy about all of them. But if it is pointed out to people who think themselves ‘safe’ that it *could* happen to them, maybe they’ll not be in such a hurry to cheer it on.

  2. says

    Since I’m a security practitioner, I was curious about the “no cell phones” so I asked. I waited until I was through though. The answers I got were incredibly stupid:
    – cell phones can be used to set of IEDs
    – cell phones can be used to record security practices to analyze and defeat them

    Well, I suppose in principle the first one is true, but that would presuppose that I got an IED through security, onto a plane, and then off the plane and through customs.
    The second one presupposes that I’m incapable of remembering anything, and that I’d be too stupid to use an unobtrusive camera. Which is also funny because I’ve hand-carried by DSLR through customs (usually because my camera bag gets crowded with books…).

    The real reason, presumably is that cellphones can be used to record ICE agents acting like authoritarians. Or that gaining compliance about one thing is more likely to control compliance on others.

  3. says

    But what bugs me is that this story becomes newsworthy only when it happens to a white woman

    To be fair, she’s also a well-known person who already has a public platform and a professional writer who works in the English language.

  4. says

    PS – “on the media” podcast did a bit about ICE earlier this month. It’s a litany of irrational and horrible abusive practices, including things like families being separated, people being left in questioning rooms for hours, people with names like “mohammed” being detained while the state police are called to come take them away for an unpaid traffic ticket… And that’s just the wedding guests returning from Canada:

  5. peptron says

    To me it feels like they are trying to push people beyond the breaking point, to then use the breaking as proof that the person has something to hide.

    It reminds me of the story of a woman I know, who was visiting the Niagara Falls. She and her husband were on the Canadian side, and she knew about special american visas that are valid for a few hours, to allow Canadians to look at the falls from the american side. So she went to the customs to ask about it, and seeing that it would take a while, her husband got out of his car to talk with the customs. Well, that was interpreted that as forceful invasion of the country and they were treated as such. They had a hard time believing that it was not a joke.

  6. says

    Yes, I’m not criticizing Mem Fox, and it’s good that she uses her reputation to get the word out.

    I’m just kind of appalled that the word of an 80 year old Iranian woman in a wheelchair is less noteworthy.

  7. says

    Mrs. Fox did right by telling this story.

    And there have been countless stories like this over the years. It started even before 11 sept. 2001. So forgive me for being disgusted, again, but not surprised.

    I don’t expect to visit the US anymore in the foreseeable future. Even when there are people there I would like to meet and places I would like to visit. I am not rich and would have to save up for a trip, so I am not going to risk being held and intimidated at customs and sent back (or worse) because no, dear border control person, you fucking can’t have the password to my e-mail and other accounts.

    It feels as though these practices by your government services are designed to repel visitors – and it is working.

    Of course, to be fair it is not just the US anymore.

  8. Dunc says

    I think one impression the world is getting from all this, aside from the stupidity, is that Americans are very easily frightened.

    Also, don’t go to the USA. Me, I pretty much made that decision after the one time I visited back in the late ’90s, but I’m not seeing anything to make me reconsider. In fact, the USA has now joined Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel (along with a few others that I was very unlikely to want to go to anyway) on the list of “countries I will never visit or even transit through under any circumstances unless things change in a fairly major way”. It’s a shame, because I do have some friends in the US, and there are some really cool places that I’d like to visit, but I have a pretty strict rule about not visiting countries with shitty human rights records. Also, I really don’t like being interrogated by people with guns…

    Marcus, @2

    The real reason, presumably is that cellphones can be used to record ICE agents acting like authoritarians.

    The real reasons are “we want you to feel completely isolated and helpless”, “because we can”, and “fuck you”.

  9. Holms says

    I’m just kind of appalled that the word of an 80 year old Iranian woman in a wheelchair is less noteworthy.

    I don’t see this as an indication that her word is not considered noteworthy, rather she simply doesn’t have a platform.

  10. numerobis says

    I’m seeing plenty of stories that are about non-white people. The JPL scientist who had to unlock his phone. Muhammad Ali Jr and his mom getting questioned about whether they’re Muslim. The Canadian athlete who was barred entry while the rest of his team was allowed, presumably because his parents are from Morocco. The hundreds of asylum seekers braving snow and extreme cold to walk across from the US and get arrested in Canada so they can apply for refugee status here.

  11. kimberlyherbert says

    It is scary to thing what his happening when people like Mem Fox, Muhammad Ali jr., Khalilah Camacho-Ali, or Henry Rousso aren’t the ones being held. At least these people can get the media’s attention and get their story out. What type of abuse are the voiceless suffering?

  12. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    hesitation about the use of “newsworthy” minor inconsequential semantic difference to my personal use. Agree it is said that it only becomes published as news since a white woman reported it. personally I find that a subtle difference from newsworthy.
    nevermind that quibble, seriously.
    point is: it is sad only when a white woman reports it does it get published. reports from the rest get disregarded.
    rats, my restatement is exactly the definition of newsworthy. *nevermind*

    It is such a cliche for Tourists to speak loudly when traveling, thinking volume will make English understood by non-English-speaking natives. I suspect it isn’t the volume itself, but enunciation, which only occurs by increasing the volume. most Americans are understood by other Americans filling in the mumbled phonemes, so are easily misunderstood by nonEnglish speakers You’d think a customs officer would get past that naivete and enunciate without volume and realize English is not universal.

    Cell phone prohibition is understandable to isolate people from calling in cohorts or speaking in code to send hidden messages.

  13. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    It occurs to me that Mem Fox’s story is an example of using privilege to highlight the plight of minorities. I suspect we’ll get a lot of experience doing this over the next 4 years.

  14. peptron says

    @17 Tabby Lavalamp
    What I don’t understand in light of those stories is Justin Trudeau’s refusal to remove the US from the list of countries deemed safe for refugees. This is why people cross the border away from official locations, and then freeze to death or close to.

  15. numerobis says

    Presumably Trudeau is worried about opening the floodgates. The expectation is that this trickle that has grown tenfold since November will explode this summer when it’s easier.

    I wish he’d open those damn floodgates though, so the CBC reporter in Manitoba can stop interviewing the racist scaredy-cats in town while not giving voice to the refugees or the people helping the refugees.

  16. peptron says

    That’s true that right now the flow seems limited to the “If I don’t leave I die.” crowd. I wonder what the numbers will be when it becomes warmer. Here in Québec (the other main entry point of refugees), it’s already quite warm, with temperatures 10-20c higher than normals.

    In Québec I’ve not really heard any anti-refugees given time in public discourse, as doing so here is political suicide. Just think about how we received Marine Le Pen.

  17. Peter the Mediocre says

    There seems to be a lot of obvious and pointless brutality involved. Why yell when a normal tone will work at least as well? Why keep people uncomfortable for hours? Why treat people like crap when there is no reason to think any of them have done anything illegal or harmful? Even if they were all criminals, why treat people that way, especially when cooperation is presumably part of the goal?
    The answers that come to my mind are as disturbing as the story itself, because they all boil down to “Because we can and you can’t stop us.”
    Why would a man whose assets are primarily in the “hospitality” sector do so much to discourage travel on the part of people who can, at a minimum, afford a very expensive plane ticket?
    None of this makes sense from a safety or security point of view. It only makes sense when the real goal is to treat people badly for its own sake. To me, this is all un-American.

  18. janiceintoronto says

    You couldn’t drag me across the U.S. border with a tractor.

    It’s that bad.

  19. toska says

    I have a slightly different interpretation of why Mem Fox’s story is news while the Iranian woman’s wasn’t. Although I think that Americans would definitely be less inclined to pay attention if the 80 year old Iranian woman wrote about her experiences, it seems like she did not write or try to publicize her own story. I wonder if she would even be willing to give an interview if a media publication approached her. The fact is that this shows an even deeper, more nefarious privilege than “Americans will only read about white people who suffer.” I think that it is not even safe for people of color to tell their stories. The risk is completely different when an Australian white woman claims to be mistreated by authorities and when an Iranian (or many other nationalities) woman does the same. I’ve seen many undocumented Americans tell their stories and protest, but I know that this is the wildly courageous few, and for every story that goes public, there are a million more just like it. White people need to listen to those brave few, and be respectful to those who wish to stay as far away from controversy and the public eye as possible.

  20. nomadiq says

    Ugh, this analysis bugs me. Real bad shit is going down and you’re ‘confused’ about how _you_ feel. The privilege on display here is yours.

    We don’t hear the Persian women’s story perhaps because she isn’t a writer. Also, are you sure this Persian ladies story wasn’t told by others in the Farsi media? Do you read it? There is selection bias here, I agree, but its more subtle than you think.

    If it makes you feel any better, I’m white, I’m Australian! And to add more, I’m male! I have been stopped at the border coming into the US many times and put into that same room – all those rooms look the same. I’ve been treated like a criminal when my papers/visas/passport have all been in perfect order because the CBP people are just incompetent buffoons. But so what. I know my rights and I know I was in the right. But I’ve seen atrocious things happen to people, especially from Latin America, at LAX and the San Ysidro border crossing. You’ll never hear my story of watching a young father protest while he watches his very pregnant wife forcibly deported back to Mexico; that is, dragged screaming. Mem Fox’s stories are pedestrian to me. Yet I tell my experiences at the border to everyone when it comes up. But you’ve never heard mine – despite being white, Australian and male. Because I don’t write for the Guardian.

    So you can feel confused all you want about Fox’s story. I’m sure old Persian Lady, Taiwan lady and the women with a baby (or my cell mate, the pregnant lady) don’t give a fuck about how you’re troubled because they can’t speak out – feeling troubled is a luxury when you’re faced with deportation. They know why they have no voice compared to someone who writes for the Guardian. It’s simple logic. It’s not just! But it’s also not a conspiracy.

    So on behalf of all the people I’ve seen treated like animals by the CBP, fuck you and your ‘concerns’ about Fox’s privilege. Because I’m guessing from the fear I saw in their eyes all they see is people punching down or punching each other, but rarely see anyone willing to tell their stories.

  21. numerobis says


    In Québec I’ve not really heard any anti-refugees given time in public discourse, as doing so here is political suicide. Just think about how we received Marine Le Pen.

    Nothing against refugees, but plenty against muslims and immigrants. Remember the campaign video that has a pipeline dripping oil, which morphs into a face in a niqab? The Chartre des Valeurs? The Bouchard-Taylor commission? “Les anglais et le vote ethnique” who defeated the referendum?

    Two of the three major parties, who between them get a majority of the vote, push the anti-immigration buttons for electoral success. The Liberals thus get basically all the immigrant vote, no matter their other political leanings.

  22. jrkrideau says

    this story becomes newsworthy only when it happens to a white woman

    I think you are misinterpreting this. What happened is someone with the social presence and media access managed to complain. A famous author from Australia can command attention.

    I tend to agree with SC @ 3 and Holms @ 10. An 80 year old Iranian woman who probably does not speak English is not likely to manage to get the attention of the English language press. OTOH the Farsi press in Iran may well be screaming bloody murder.

    I don’t know if you remember the Indian Vice-Council in New York who was arrested, detained and strip-searched by the New York Police. There were riots and anti-US demos in New Delhi. I don’t know what the US press coverage was. Somehow, I suspect minimal.

    @ 9 Dunc
    I have not been in Saudi Arabia in many years but the Immigration/Custom people were always very friendly.

    The Saudi govt’s human rights record is not all that good but the people are very nice. Uh, sounds a bit like the country to the south of me.

  23. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Tabby Lava Lamp: ““Shining city upon a hill” my ass.”

    Ah, I see the confusion. The city isn’t shining. It’s burning.

  24. jrkrideau says

    “Les anglais et le vote ethnique” who defeated the referendum?

    Eh? I thought it was the White Rhodesians of Westmount.

    On the other hand I was one of les anglais (pas vraiment, mais je suis anglophone) who did vote no. And I didn’t live in Westmount

    Now that referendum had real voter turnout.

  25. numerobis says

    Oops, it was “argent” not “anglais” that Parizeau blamed — but same-same.

    The bomb threat claims to be from the Canadian Conservative Citizens Council (Dylan Roof was inspired by the Conservative Citizens Council; this claims to be the Canadian branch). They say “Now that president trump is in office south of the border, things have changed.”

    Their main demand is that the university stop men from walking around in flip-flops with clean feet. And that they stop allowing people to wash their feet in the bathroom sink.

    That last one I can sort of support. If a lot of people are washing their feet, it’s time to set up a proper foot-washing station, because it’s really uncomfortable to lift your foot into the sink — particularly for people with limited mobility.

  26. Lofty says

    Noted Australian writer Mem Fox is traumatised by US thugs and writes about it (and what she saw done to others around her) and is noticed by Australian and international news. What is surprising about that? Have Faux Noise and their Fwends published an article about the abuse of Mem Fox?
    Putting terrified silence into words is a skill that not everyone possesses.
    And thanks nomadiq for your words.

  27. wzrd1 says

    I’ve noticed a few things over the years of traveling into and out of the US.
    For one, an increasing lack of quality in CBIS employees, both from a training perspective and quality of employee. They’re getting to be as bad as the TSA, although they have greater authority, which seems to be going to the heads of these suboptimal employees.

    Some of that can be accounted for by poor employee screening, however some can be also attributed to as overwork induced burnout and exceptionally poor training.
    A case in point, I have moderate hearing loss, which means that indistinct statements or directives of someone directing a crowd flow wouldn’t be understood. The idiot and the poorly trained employee will then substitute an indistinct yell, rather than a loud, but clear directive, resulting in my still not having the vaguest clue as to what they’re going on about.
    The lousy employee would then yell more, become less distinct, then attempt to treat me like I’m some offensive idiot.
    Said employee gets brought up short when I ask him to kindly stop yelling and speak in clear, concise English, spoken with a South Philly accent, with inflection indicating my estimation of that individual’s lack of intelligence.

    I have an advantage though, they can’t keep me from entering my own country.
    I only got to witness that behavior because CBIS employees make assumptions when they see my olive complexion.
    Needless to say, my mood typically already wasn’t the best, as I typically had been traveling for at least 24 hours at that point and seeing that type of behavior isn’t exactly how I like to see my tax dollars spent.

    After all, this is how they’re welcoming people to our country, by yelling at them and disrespecting them.
    I can’t wait to see how our trading partners react to the inevitable international incident that this type of behavior will inevitably cause.
    I’ve already made it clear to my representative and senator my views on this, their reaction was less than supportive. Hopefully, their replacements will be more supportive.

  28. says

    Wzrd1 #34:

    I’ve already made it clear to my representative and senator my views on this,

    Are you sure that won’t just get you on their list of people to harass a bit more on the next occasion?

  29. wzrd1 says

    Are you sure that won’t just get you on their list of people to harass a bit more on the next occasion?

    Frankly, I don’t care. That’s the best that they can do with me, it’s kind of hard to do more to a man with a classified document courier card, a higher security clearance than they have and who has served as long as I have.
    Like I said, they can’t exile me, as I’m a born US citizen, borne of born US citizens, one a Daughter of the American Revolution.

  30. peptron says

    I was talking about the more recent past. Québec was flamingly racist not too long ago, but I don’t think it ever was like what we see in Europe and the US right now. I do indirectly like the comment Jacques Parizeau made about money and the ethnic vote, as it pushed the Parti Québecois to new bottoms. Many people were horrified as his comment more or less murdered the cause for an independent country. My general view is this: If a political party has the name of the location it’s in in its name, it’s a bad sign. If there are terms like “Front” and “National”, it’s even worse, especially if the words are one after another. And if it talks about democracy and/or freedom, it’s potentially even worse. Especially when freedom is written as vrijheid.

  31. unclefrogy says

    it makes me sad beyond words to describe because it appears that most of the people will allow this stupid and tyrannical behavior to continue by those acting on their behalf rather then take responsibility for a democratic society.
    seems that the majority prefer the gilded cage over true autonomy and self governance
    these stories also show how this kind of power ends up affecting those who are given it’s use and becomes abusive for its own sake.
    uncle frogy

  32. Gerald Squelart says

    Did you miss her comment near the end?
    “I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?”

    At least she’s using her newsworthiness to attract the attention needed to help less fortunate people.

  33. numerobis says

    peptron: You want more recent than the most recent provincial and federal elections? OK: how about that the youth wing of the PQ was debating the charte des valeurs two weeks ago.

    PZ: another example I just got reminded of — a Nigerian software developer had the CPB try to determine if he was really a software developer by asking him intro CS questions. The “right” answer was what Wikipedia said, so he flunked.

    Most programmers aren’t computer scientists anyway, so a lot of good practitioners would flunk this exam. Even I doubt I’d pass, and I’ve *taught* this stuff.

  34. Snoof says

    Peter the Mediocre @ 24

    Why would a man whose assets are primarily in the “hospitality” sector do so much to discourage travel on the part of people who can, at a minimum, afford a very expensive plane ticket?

    Because Trump’s entire business strategy is to sell to the “right” sort of people. He’s not interested in the general public, or even the middle classes; excluding them is the entire point. He’s trying to sell an experience, and a big part of that experience is feeling superior to all those Other People who aren’t allowed in. He’s not marketing to people who can afford plane tickets, he’s marketing to people who can fly private jets.

    Also because he’s profoundly racist and doesn’t believe anything bad could ever actually happen to him.

  35. peptron says

    @numerobis 40:
    That’s what I mean. There is racism everywhere. But if you look at the US or Europe, it’s “nothing”. In the US, well, there is Trump, and we see what’s going on. In Europe, there is Marine Le Pen; but in some ways, even her is not as bad as some others. Geert Wilders wants to close all the mosques of the Netherlands and ban the Koran. To me that’s like taunting islamist extremists. However, I heard he was losing some feathers lately, as he appears too much like a Trump fan. In Germany, the AfD seems to have got their own party destroyer (with Björn Höcke), who might have murdered their party with his comments about the holocaust memorial in Berlin.

    So, I’ll try to say that hope is not lost, and I only expect to see the US and France fall (for a while at least, they’ll most likely wake up). I think the Netherland will come to its senses, and Germany will join Canada as the new leaders of the free world.

  36. numerobis says

    peptron: it being arguably worse elsewhere doesn’t give me any succour.

    I don’t live elsewhere, I live here. That’s why when Bissonnette murdered six people I marched here against islamaphobia here. It’s why I’m appalled at the openly islamaphobic policies of the PQ, CAQ, and Bloc — and why I vote for the more open parties. It’s why I make islamaphobes in my family uncomfortable whenever I can.

    We’re not presently in an election campaign, but last federal election campaign that ran, a year and a half ago — not exactly the distant past — had two major parties running on islamaphobic themes. One had little chance to pick up seats in Quebec, the other wasn’t running outside Quebec, so they nicely complemented each other. Both parties subsequently are having leadership contests where one of the big questions is how heavily to ladle on the islamaphobia.

  37. captainblack says

    I see a lot of posts commenting on the Iranian woman not having a platform to tell her story. Well I assure you she is telling her story, but not to us, to her family and friends. Now we will have to deal with the good-will engendered in her grand and great-grand children and their friends.

    Treating one weak and defenseless person as an enemy creates multiple real enemies.

  38. alkisvonidas says

    You know what mostly shocks me in such accounts? It’s not so much the racism, as the stark, crass ignorance: “Arabs”, “Muslims”, “Middle-Easterners”, it’s all a jumble in those bozos’ heads, who no doubt believe themselves to be quite refined, too.

    An 80-year-old Iranian woman, Jesus. A woman coming from an ancient and rich culture, one that defined many aspects of modern civilization. Yelled at by some red-faced moron as if she were a recruit at boot camp.

    I can assure you, to the people subjected to such a “welcome”, the US comes across as completely uncivilized. And an uncivilized, technologically advanced and military powerful US is scary as Hell.