May 16, 2022

COMMENTARY: The seat of privilege – Black lives and the friendly skies

7 min read

by Pat Morris Eye Care Business Advisor Adjunct Faculty ECPE Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health

Passenger discrimination complaints nearly doubled in 2021 compared to the same time the year before, with many citing facing racism in the friendly skies.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reported more than 100 complaints with Southwest Airlines and American Airlines the primary culprits.
Pat Morris, an eye care business advisor, and adjunct faculty at ECPE Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, travels 51 weeks each year. Black, successful, and among the most frequent of fliers, Morris shared her story of flying while Black with NNPA Newswire.

On Delta flight 4771 out of New York City’s LaGuardia airport, I was upgraded to travel first class because of my airline status.

When I arrived at my row, a woman was seated in my designated seat. I inquired if she was in the correct seat. She looked at me and asked what number was on the row. I replied.

Then she asked if she was in my seat. I shared that my ticket displayed that particular row and that seat in which she was seated.

“Sorry, I must be in the wrong seat,” she said but still didn’t move. I asked what was on her ticket, she didn’t respond.

At that point, the flight attendant (Debra) asked what the problem was. She then asked to see my ticket to verify I was in the right row.

The woman in my seat jumped up and moved to row 5 in comfort class.

As she moved out of my row and I moved into the row, the flight attendant brought me a bottle of water. She then continued to comfort class and told the woman in Row 5, who was previously in my first-class seat, she was sorry.

Delta Air Lines hosts their Uniform Launch celebration in Atlanta, Ga, Minneapolis, MN, and Los Angeles, CA. on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (Chris Rank/Rank Studios)

She also explained that since there are plenty of open seats on the flight, the other woman can sit anywhere she wants.

A passenger seated in front of me moved up a row to sit with a colleague at that moment.

The flight attendant observed this and returned to the woman in Row 5. She invited her to move to that seat.

This is what privilege looks like.

Some readers may guess that I am an African American woman. I was traveling for work, so I was wearing a business suit underneath my mink coat.

My hair and nails were conservatively styled.

Despite my outward appearance, to that flight attendant – Debra – I did not look like I belonged in first class. Although Debra never asked for her ticket nor verified her seat number, the other woman “looked” like she belonged in the first-class cabin.

That woman was white.

Furthermore, I’m confident that if I had mistakenly sat in a first-class seat – and was removed – it’s likely there would have been heavy sighs and the shaking of heads by Debra and other passengers on the plane who don’t look like me.

Plus, it is reasonable to assume that after getting caught “self-upgrading”, there is no way I would have been invited back to first class.

Were Debra’s actions malicious? I don’t think so. I don’t even think it was intentional or even conscious.

This commentary is about one seat on one flight. It is not about Delta Airlines (the organization), the oppressor (self-upgraded passenger), or the colluder (Debra, the flight attendant).

However, this narrative replays every day in every boardroom, law firm, health system, corporation, classroom, courtroom, police station.

Perhaps, I should have called it out. Then, I could have had a quiet, one-on-one conversation with Debra about how her actions made me feel.

Maybe that would have made a difference the next time.

I didn’t do so. Not because I didn’t have the vocabulary to unpack the incident. Not because I feared my emotions or anger would have exposed my vulnerability.

No, it’s because I dreaded that the marshals would be waiting for me on the jet bridge when we landed.

In addition, I doubt that everything that preceded the one-on-one polite coaching conversation would be of no consequence – the headline/tweet/chyron/post would read “flight attendant felt threatened” and “angry Black woman detained by authorities.” The feeling was debilitating.

This commentary is about one seat on one flight, not my lack of response. My lack of response is the result of a lifetime of experiencing inequality. Racial trauma has conditioned me not to react.

The cab didn’t stop when I hailed it. I didn’t get the promotion because of my earrings.

I didn’t get the home in that neighborhood because the agent didn’t show it to me. I was pulled over in my high-end SUV because I was in this “other” neighborhood.

I have been told countless times that I’m not like “most Black people.” I have been told I’m pretty “for a Black woman.” Yet, the reaction of people I have been communicating with for years by phone when I walk into their office would be priceless if it didn’t happen so often.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been at a C-suite event within hearing distance of the off-color joke or inappropriate reference to a person from a marginalized group.

Memories of being in the candidate review meeting with my peers or leadership where hair or wardrobe or use of “slang” was why the more qualified minority candidate was not extended an offer still irritate me.

I have had these direct experiences for decades.

There are also the years of racial trauma by indirect acts. Victims are criminalized in the court of public opinion or worse in the media, and oppressors are not chastised nor fired. Instead, colluders are promoted, given raises, and commended for their contributions to oppression.

Murderers may now get arrested but not convicted; if convicted, not sentenced; if sentenced, not sentenced equitably in comparison to underrepresented minorities.

Inaction is acceptance.

Inaction does not advance the cause. Yet, how can I act and simultaneously insulate myself, my reputation, family name, loved ones, and livelihood?

When I was 7, my father warned me what I would be up against. He said, “first you’re Black, second you’re a girl – the odds are against you.”

He didn’t tell me I couldn’t do or be whatever I wanted. He wanted me to know it wouldn’t be easy. We are not our parents or our grandparents who fought and died for decent jobs, education, the right to vote, the right to own property, so we could have it better than they did.

In retrospect, I realize that my inaction indirectly perpetuates the culture of inequality and is doing a disservice to our children and our children’s children.

We are desensitized. We are fearful. We navigate it. We are traumatized. We have gotten comfortable. We cope. We justify. We overlook. We take the high road.

That is a form of acceptance of the continuous mistreatment, injustice, inequity. Despite good intentions and nondiscriminatory policies or standards, organizations and individuals still act on racial prejudices.

How do we – how should I? – address implicit bias without calling it out? How do we deal with aversive bias without having hard conversations? How can we call discrimination out without putting our lives in peril? Is there a safe space for these discussions?

I do know that we all must actively embrace the anti-racism movement, and I know it won’t be easy.

Is a change going to come? Not without my singular contribution, not without each of our single contributions. Those distinct contributions will compound over time to drive real change.

Post Script:
On the return flight. My oppressor was on the same flight as I was. I recognized her as she walked past me (in first) on her way to her coach seat (that was my Rosa Parks moment).

Once we landed at LGA, I was the first person who exited the flight. I go to the restroom. As I’m washing my hands at a basin, I see my oppressor, 20 feet away, at another bay. I justified in my head – not worth it. She didn’t ask for the privilege; it came with her bloodline. Maybe the colluder, Debra, should have gone through another round of diversity and inclusion training.

There were no paper towels over there, so she walked over to the basin next to mine.

Shaking my head and knowing the creator makes no mistakes, I had to say something., “Good evening; we were on the same flight Tuesday morning, weren’t we?”

She glanced at me and replied, “I’m not sure – I think so.”

I said, “Yes, WE were both in first-class.”

She never made eye contact – she walked out. Perhaps she didn’t remember the incident, maybe she was embarrassed, maybe she felt threatened, maybe I am invisible.

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