Disarming Racism: Discrimination at Every Altitude
It’s 7:45am. The boarding rush has started to die down and the flight isn’t going to be completely full. I’m preparing pre-flight beverages for First Class passengers and I still have quite a few seats open. A tall black man walks onto the flight with a backpack and a rollaboard. “Good morning!” I say, while the white flight attendant standing beside me says nothing. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself, but she hasn’t been overly friendly during this trip anyway, so I don’t think much of it. He smiles at me and turns down the aisle to take his seat. He stops in First Class right around Row 2 and puts his rollaboard in the overhead bin. That same flight attendant that was silent just a second ago is now marching down the aisle and raising her voice. “This space is for First Class passengers only! Please take your bag back to YOUR seat.” The man looks at her, turns back to shut the overhead bin, and sits down right there in front of her in 2D. He responds politely but firmly, “This is my seat.” She turns bright red and looks back at me in the galley. I’m most likely giving her the dirtiest look I can muster up at this point. She furthers the altercation by asking him, “May I see your boarding pass?” I can’t take this anymore. This display of animosity has to stop. I rush into the aisle and direct her to the back of the plane. “I’ll take it from here. We need to get ready for departure, if you wouldn’t mind closing those bins.” She looks me dead in the eye, face beet red, and says “Fine.” She storms off. I lean down to apologize to the man and have an honest conversation about what just happened. His response felt like a punch in the gut. “It happens all the time. Most people don’t say anything. I appreciate you caring enough to notice, but don’t worry about it.”
Are you infuriated yet? I know I was in the moment and I still am today just thinking about it. Airplanes are packed with diversity but not immune to the racism that exists in our society today. These injustices and microaggressions are occurring at every altitude. It’s 2020 now. Things should be better than they are, but they’re not. While I consider myself to be pretty aware of my white privilege, I also know enough to know that I don’t know everything. I’m not better than anybody. As a gay man, I know what prejudice feels like, but not on the same level. This is different. Racism and homophobia share many commonalities, but at the end of the day, I’m still a white person with privilege. I don’t know what it’s like to be judged instantly because of my skin tone. But what I do know is that as a white person, it’s even more important to speak up about injustices that are NOT happening to me, otherwise our world will never see change. It’s important to hear people’s stories, respect each other’s opinions, and find a way to have a discussion.
I recently sat down with a few friends that can speak firsthand about their own experiences:
“I’ll never forget this experience. It was a simple interaction that was very impactful. While working on the beverage cart on a flight to Boise, Idaho I asked the gentleman in the window if he would like a beverage. He said, “No.” With a smile I said, “Are you sure you don’t want anything to drink?” He responded, “I don’t want YOU to pour me anything.” I was stunned and caught off guard because I quickly realized what he meant. He didn’t want someone like me to pour him a drink. My co-worker looked mortified. I told him, “Well then, no one will be pouring you a drink on this flight. “My co- worker smiled at me and we continued the service. That interaction lasted minutes but it stung for days. I remember that night in my hotel room thinking of all the things I should’ve said, but I was just hurt.” - Kira, Flight Attendant, 6 Years
"I was working in the back on the beverage cart and there was an older white woman who didn’t want anything during the service. A few minutes later, I went back through to collect trash and that same woman looked up at me, clutching her purse to her chest. I politely asked, “Can I get you anything?” and she said “No” and looked back down. She would barely look at me or speak to me and every time I walked by, she would clutch her purse a little tighter to her body. It wasn’t until a white flight attendant went through the cabin that she suddenly was very chatty and wanted something to drink." - Jamie, Flight Attendant, 7 Years
"I was flying one day and a coworker asked me where I'm from. I said 'Chicago,' and she said 'Oh my, so much violence. You must be afraid every day.' I said 'No, I don't live there anymore and haven't for some time now. However, when I do visit, I'm never in fear for my life.' Then she said to me, 'How did you manage to move out the hood?' I was shocked. 'Excuse me?! What made you believe I ever lived there?' She said, 'Most blacks are from the hood in big cities.' I responded, 'Actually, I am and what you just said is out of pocket. We're at work so let's keep it cute. Where I'm from it's called a pass.' Woosah! let the negative energy GO!" - Tasha, Flight Attendant, 6 Years
The reality is that these situations are happening every day, in every industry, around the world. While it can be so much easier to stay in a bubble and deny that racism exists, not everyone is afforded that same freedom, so challenge yourself. Start a conversation with someone who might be different than you are. Step out of your comfort zone and start trying to understand other perspectives. Be aware of your thoughts, your words, and your actions.
At the beginning and end of every flight, flight attendants arm and disarm the aircraft doors. If the door is armed, the evacuation slide will inflate once the door is opened. If the door is disarmed, the door may be opened without inflating the evacuation slide. In order to do this effectively, most flight attendants follow a procedure to cross-check each other and verify that the process has been complete. The purpose of this is to make sure the task is performed safely and that no errors occur. If a mistake is made, the slide could inflate inadvertently and seriously injure or kill someone on the ground. The potential consequences could be quite grave. Take this same process out of aviation and apply it to your life. Discrimination exists everywhere. The next time you see someone and you judge them instantly based on skin tone, take a moment to disarm your racism. Cross-check your beliefs.
Now this isn’t about white guilt or shaming anybody. It doesn’t matter what your race is; we can all do better as humans if we stop judging people, fight against any preexisting biases we may have, and start listening to each other. People’s lives depend on it. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”