Is There a Problem? Racism, White Privilege and That 'Scary' Brown Man
(Disclaimer: ok, 100% of this shit really happened just as I tell it, but it didn’t really happen at 30,000 feet. I almost didn’t make it to 30,000 feet. But I thought that just sounded like some cool 1970s “movie title” type shit.)
There’s a reason why I’m sitting on a US Airways flight right now. I usually only fly Southwest or Alaska. Here’s why:
Last month, I had a big business meeting in NYC and also a reading for my new book “How to Say I Love You in Indian” (available at www.cutbankcreekpress.com and at amazon.com!! Get it today!!) at the American Indian Community House in Midtown Manhattan. For some inexplicable reason, there are/was some television exec-type folks interested in me doing more television work. Look, I’m from the rez—we’re hunter-gatherers. If someone is willing to give me free food AND an opportunity to provide for my family and me, I’m definitely going to be there.
The lunch meeting was Thursday the 12th at noon. I usually fly red-eyes when I go across country so that I can tuck my son in to bed and spend as much time with him before I leave. This time, however, I wanted to be well-prepared and rested, so I flew in the night before, on December 11th. Give myself some time to get ready instead of rushing around—I’m ready for the cameras, NYC!!!
First half of the flight was cool, or as “cool” as a flight making your reservations a couple of days before your flight can be. I’m in my comfortable, flying clothes—camouflage sweats, camouflage sweatshirt, braids, and a skullcap. It was on Southwest—whom I’ve flown a million times, simply because they SOMETIMES have cheaper flights AND, most importantly, I don’t have to pay separately for bags. I know that I still pay for them, but it’s just not a separate charge.
And I appreciate that.
First leg of the flight was from Seattle to Chicago. No problem—I get off the plane for my 4-hour layover (no, seriously) and go get an all-beef dog at Chicago O’Hare.
The second leg of my flight. Ugh.
I have a backpack and a small duffle bag. I’m in the “C” Boarding Group (again), and so I know that I’m getting a middle seat. Guaranteed. Therefore, I wait to be one of the very last people boarding. When I get on, there’s a seat in the very first row—it’s a middle seat. I know I’m going to get screwed on the seating, so I figure “Why not sit get screwed in the front seat of the plane?” At least I can get off the plane first. There was a middle-aged white couple (“Sarah Jessica Parker”-type middle aged, where they tried to dress like they weren’t quickly approaching AARP-status. Not “Wilford Brimley” middle aged) there, the man in the aisle seat holding a baby and the woman in the window seat. They were being slick (like I do as well) and had a pile of stuff in the middle seat pretending that it was occupied and hoping nobody would sit there.
I know the game—I’m not mad.
I asked, “Excuse me, is somebody sitting there?”
The lady responded, “Yes, I’m waiting for a friend. She’s supposed to be boarding.
I was pretty sure she was lying. Now under normal circumstances, I would’ve just taken the seat—this is Southwest Airlines, for God’s sake—there’s no “saving seats.” Southwest Airlines is PURE social Darwinism. Every person for themselves!! But since I wasn’t getting a good seat anyway, and I’m at the very end of the boarding group, I’ll wait. No biggie—I’m getting screwed on the seat anyway.
So I decided that I’d just wait it out, “Ok cool. I’ll wait here to see if your friend gets on.”
Nobody. Literally, the LAST person boarding—another middle-aged white woman—gets on. The lady literally grabs her and asks her to sit there. I’ll call that lady “The Recruit.”
I smirk and tell her, “You don’t know that lady at all—ha! You lied. You realize how rude that is right?”
She responded, “That’s not rude.”
I said, “Ok, well I suppose that’s just you then.” And smiled at her.
The Recruit got up QUICKLY and strolled toward the back—evidently she had zero interest in this discussion and saw more fertile ground in the back of the plane. I put my bags up above and went to sit down. The husband (I’m assuming they were married—so sue me) scooted over to the middle seat, chivalrously. No problem. Well, no problem until there was a problem.
The wife pointed at me and told her husband loudly, “I don’t want him sitting there.”
I looked at her to make sure that I heard her correctly. She said, “Don’t look at me.”
Yeah, I was pretty sure I heard her correctly. Damn, I couldn’t believe that—adrenaline rushed through me. I told her, “Look, you have no input into where I sit or where I look.” I sat back and got my MP3 player ready to play some Marty Robbins. I know the drill—I’ve been trained since I was a kid. “You’re a big brown guy—don’t be too scary. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown.”
We’re taught these things for our own safety and to get along.
And I was cool—but before I pressed play on my Sony MP3 player the husband—all 5’5 and probably 125 pounds told me, “You need to shut your mouth!”
WHOA!!! For a woman to tell me something rude, that’s one thing. I’m not going to clobber a woman for a rude remark. But this guy—let’s be clear, he would never talk to me like that under any other circumstances. Ever. But he was feeling bold or threatened or insecure or something and turned what were simply words into possibly a really bad situation.
I got really close to him and told him, “Look, you know this plane ride is going end at some point, right? You have to get off this plane.”
At that point he shut up. He realized that those words had a different significance to me and that he put himself in jeopardy. But the wife continued, “You can’t sit there.”
By this time, I’m really mad. Admittedly. Not at the lady, necessarily, but that this grown man would talk to another grown man like this and expect no response. “I’m not moving anyplace so if you don’t want to sit by me, I suggest you move.”
Just then, the Captain comes out. I’m elated. Yes! I don’t like feeling like I have to run tell anybody anything, but I also don’t want to get thrown into jail for stomping this dude into the luggage area below the plane. So I’m happy to see an objective person. But unfortunately, that’s not how it went down.
He comes out and looks at only me. “Is there a problem?”
I wanted to tell the whole story, but I really just wanted to get to New York. So I responded, “Well, this lady right here told me that she doesn’t want me sitting here for whatever reason and her husband tells me to shut my mo-…”
The Captain interrupts me. “Well, I only hear you.”
I tell him, “I understand—I have a loud voice, that’s why I’m telling you what happened. Ask any of the folks sitting here…” I pointed around to the people staring at us. He didn’t ask anybody anything. Instead, his focus was squarely on me.
CAPTAIN: “You need to lower your voice. Do you want to take the next flight?” Admittedly, I DO have a loud voice and I WAS agitated by this time. I think that was understandable.
ME: “No, I don’t want to—I’m telling you what happened.”
CAPTAIN: “Well I only hear you out here hollering.”
ME: “Well, I suggest that you have selective hearing.”
CAPTAIN: Staring me down. “Oh now you want to get in MY face?” I was a bit confused because that implied that I had gotten in someone else’s “face” already. Maybe he meant that I got in the husband’s face that told me that I need to shut my mouth? I wasn’t sure how that worked, but I started to answer his question. He cut me off and answered for me, “I suggest you quiet down before you take the next flight.”
I was stewing. But I knew I couldn’t take the next flight—that would not have been until the next morning and I would’ve missed my very important meeting. I don’t have a lot of very important meetings—I’m not a very important guy—so I didn’t want to be late to/miss one of the only ones that I’ve had. I would’ve been sitting in a federal holding cell and the middle-aged, white couple would be laughing to wherever they were going. When I went to go get my bag at baggage claim, a couple of the younger white guys sitting immediately behind me came up to tell me (one of them was from Hicksville, Long Island. I laughed when he first told me that—I thought he was joking): “That was bullshit. I told the captain afterwards that everything happened exactly like you said. She obviously didn’t like you. I thought the captain was going to ask us some questions.”
Made the meeting. Thankfully. Made a complaint on the Southwest Airlines website. They responded with an incredibly patronizing and condescending email that said that they were sorry for my “less than pleasant” experience on the plane (it wasn’t “less than pleasant”—it was humiliating). The email also stated, as a matter of fact, “As you know, our Pilot did not hear any other Passengers, which is why he only addressed his question to you.” (No, I have absolutely no reason to know that—I do know that he only addressed me). Also, the Captain flat-out lied and said that he asked me to lower my voice twice before asking if I wanted to take another flight—that’s just not true. Finally, the email said, in ABC After-School Special speak:
We realize that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and we apologize that you feel as if our Pilot could have used a more patient and professional tone when intervening in the exchange between you and the Customers in question.
This is just insulting: as if my problem was with the Captain’s TONE. No, it was that he didn’t ask anybody else a single question before singling me out and asking me if I wanted to take another flight and then stood staring at me as if I were supposed to stand down from his authority (which I did, by the way, because I had to make the flight. I would’ve loved to have three minutes alone with that Captain in a small room).
The lady clearly did not like something about the way I looked—even before we exchanged any words at all. I smelled good (or as good as I could)—I showered that morning, and wasn’t in any way offensive with my clothing (e.g., I wasn’t wearing any t-shirts with swear words or anything like that). Perhaps it was the camouflage—looked “terrorist-ish?” Maybe it was the braids or long “Native” earrings. Maybe it was the huge Native guy in braids and camouflage? In either event, after being overwhelmingly gracious and waiting for her to find her “friend,” the lady’s first words about me (to her husband) were “I don’t want him sitting there.” For the life of me, I cannot think of what would have caused her to say something like that to/about me other than an inherent dislike.
Moreover, the man felt completely comfortable telling me—a grown man, “You need to shut your mouth.”
I don’t think it’s possible to see a stranger as a human being and talk to them like that. They didn’t see me as a human. I was something less. I’m not overly sensitive—I know that there are a million times people are rude (or that I’m rude) where it’s obviously just that they’re a rude person. No racism, no sexism, no anything other than everyday mundane rude behavior.
This was different. That was, in my estimation, the “racism” part.
White privilege is different than racism. I don’t THINK that the Captain was racist. That said, he at least had a very bad case of white privilege. Southwest Airlines emboldened that privilege by white-washing (see what I did there?) his behavior.
White privilege is the inherent knowledge/suspicion that people of color—and predominately men of color—are doing something wrong. Big black men and big brown men are presumed guilty. All the time. It’s similar to my first jury trial when the young white prosecutor came into the courtroom where I was in my suit and practicing my cross-examination—and she asked, very politely, “Excuse me sir, are you waiting for your attorney?” It’s similar to when the pundits/armchair analysts and jurists during the George Zimmerman trial assumed that Trayvon Martin HAD to be doing something wrong when he walking to the store. There are countless other examples.
The Captain may have just heard me—that may be true. Nonetheless, it seems that in the pursuit of finding a resolution he should’ve asked a question or two instead of simply 1) cutting me off while I was trying to explain MY take on the situation (after he asked), and 2) threatening to throw me off the plane. He knew he had me by the balls—I can’t do anything otherwise I’ll be a) thrown off the plane or b) provoked into physical conflict (in the same way that cops provoke men of color by staring us down and asking if we have a problem and other rhetorical questions intended only to provoke), and/or c) physically detained. A huge Native guy in camouflage was arguing with a clean-cut white couple (or worse yet, a clean-cut white airlines Captain??)??? Three guesses who started that one.
The white couple didn’t have to think of any of that. They didn’t have to think about appearing TOO big or TOO brown or TOO Native or anything other than simply enjoying their flight. They did NOT have to consider any ultimatums—“Respond honestly to this guy’s questions OR and you will NOT make your important meeting.”
Look, I’m not special. This shit happens everyday. Most of us are bullied into not saying anything, like I was by the Captain. That’s the privilege. “Answer the question honestly—“is there a problem”—but if you answer honestly, you won’t make your flight or you might be detained.” That’s privilege. Unfortunately, my example is an EXTREMELY mild version of that privilege; I’m quite lucky that all I had to do was swallow my pride. It doesn’t even compare to other times where brown men and women are “presumed guilty” which leads to brothers and sisters and mothers and aunts beat down, pepper sprayed, thrown in jail, for choosing to answer that question honestly instead of swallowing their tongue. I know of stories where cops literally got into men’s face—cheek to cheek, daring them to fight—trying to con them into responding. We know EXACTLY what would happen if that big man of color gave that response that he wanted.
Similarly, I already knew what would happen. So I couldn’t tell him the truth when he asked the million dollar question that tens of thousands of police officers, BIA agents, slave overseers, and teachers have asked likewise helpless and muted people of color, “Is there a problem?”
Hell yes, there’s a problem. But you have absolutely no incentive or reason to find out what that problem is, my man. What a privilege.
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