Ways for White People to Be Less Racist
I am writing about an experience my friend had two days ago. I’m writing it because I asked if I could. I’m writing it because she doesn’t have the energy to address every racist thing that happens to her. And I’m writing it because I don’t deal with racism directed at me every day.
On September 20, 2016, JetBlue flight 1076 flew from Orlando to Providence. The flight was the first flight of the day, requiring passengers to arrive at the airport around 5 a.m. My friend, who is a tall Black woman, is married to a tall white man. They have a two-year-old boy. They and my friend’s mother took a trip to Disney World and were on their way back home.
In front of my friends and their child was a white woman with two children.
I have no children. If I were on a flight from Orlando that had a preschooler seated right behind me, I would dread the obvious thing that would happen — the child will kick my seat. This is particularly troublesome if the child is tall for his age. I would let the mother and father know that I have a bad back and that kicking will cause real pain rather than just annoyance. I might even ask if I could address their child to see if my face and my telling him that it would make me hurt a lot to have him kick might help him process why his parents don’t want him to kick.
But I also know that I am flying from Orlando, a place where more kids will go than, say, Tampa. That the flight is long. That two-year-olds are unable to swallow the feelings of frustration and boredom. That developing ears sometimes hurt on planes even if adults don’t notice it. That I have no reason to expect a two-year-old to be a perfect angel in a grocery cart let alone on a three-hour flight.
I would be very happy if a parent gave her child an iPad to occupy him on a long flight. The woman in front of my friends did not appreciate this. My friend’s child later started becoming noisy. They calmed him down, and 30 minutes later, he got frustrated again. That is an entire Mr. Rogers’ episode of silence before he acted up. You would think any mother would understand.
White woman: “I’m trying to rest here, you need to stop him from kicking my seat.”
My friend: “I’m sure it’s evident we’re doing all we can. He’s tired and he’s two, we’re keeping him as calm as-”
White woman: “Mine are two and four, you don’t see them doing that! Yours needs discipline! You’re pathetic and a bad parent.” This continues while my friend simply tries to nod and smile her way through this. While nothing more happens to the white woman, she turns around repeatedly to stare at my friend’s child.
As the announcement that the plane is about to make its final descent, my friend’s child gets excited. The white woman’s response is to glare at the child:
“If my seat moves one more time watch and see what happens.”
I mentioned before that my friend is tall. She is a mother. This woman threatened her two-year-old. My friend sat up straight and replied “We absolutely will see what will happen, you go right ahead and try it.”
The white woman turned around until landing. My friend got out of her seat right away to ensure that the white woman had no access to her son. The white woman clamped her hand down on my friend’s arm, trying to push my friend out of her way. My friend informed the white woman that this is assault in a loud tone so that other passengers would be able to identify what happened should authorities get involved.
You might be wondering why this article is about racism. This is why.
The white woman responded, “Fat Black bitch” multiple times loudly.
None of the passengers said anything.
None of the flight crew said anything.
No one helped my friend and her family.
I’m not writing about body shaming because neither my friend or apparently the white woman are petite. Further, “fat” is sadly a pejorative in this country.
I’m not writing about the word “bitch”. They’re both women, and it’s obviously a pejorative in this country.
The white woman used the word “Black” as if it is a pejorative.
My friend’s two-year-old son heard, though hopefully does not remember, that his skin color is bad.
If he did, he never heard any other white people on the plane telling this white woman that she was wrong. He never heard a person tell this white woman that she was racist. He did not see anyone try to defend his mother while a white woman insulted her by simply naming the color of their skin.
Likewise, this white woman’s two children heard their mother do these things. And they heard no response from other white people. They learned that “Black” is unfavorable, wrong, bad. Probably not for the first or last time, but in one of the few times someone who looked like them could have spoken the truth.
I often hear white people say they do not know what to do to help minorities, to stop racism. This is the time.
To the white woman in a loud, clear voice
You can say, “Ma’am, there is no reason for you to treat this woman poorly. And certainly not based on the color of her skin.”
You can say, “Ma’am, you are using language that is inappropriate in front of children, and you are also swearing. I do not want children hearing vulgar words or racist comments.”
You can say, “Ma’am, stop right there. You have no right to treat a human being like that. I feel ill that you are being not only rude, but flat out racist.”
To my friend in a loud, clear voice
You can say, “Ma’am, I saw and heard her. Do you want me to help you report this?”
You can say, “Ma’am, are you ok? Did she bruise you?”
You can say, “Ma’am, I’m happy to help you get off this plane safely so no one else touches you or your family.”
To the employees in a loud, clear voice
You can say, “There was a woman who said these words to a fellow passenger and assaulted the same passenger.”
You can say, “I saw these things happen. What is this airline going to do so that you will keep my business as a customer?”
You can press the call attendant button.
After the fact
Some folks have difficulty speaking. Some don’t have the opportunity due to disability or various other issues. If this is the case, there is one thing anyone reading this can do — contact the airline. Whether in person, at a gate, in an e-mail, letter, or tweet, say something. Be specific about where you were and what you saw. Let other people know you find this unacceptable. Ask for action.
If you think that this doesn’t happen often enough for you to see it
An airline employee treated my same friend and her son with the same disdain fourteen months ago. My friend was flying to Boston in the last days of her family’s move after her husband had started work there. My friend requested help days in advance getting on board. Once she arrived at the gate with her items in tow, she went up to the gate to let them know who she was and try to get everything in place to make the process quick.
She was told that the attendants did not have to assist her. They didn’t. Instead, the gate person followed her once she brought all her items on the plane and was buckling her child into his seat. The gate person brought the captain out as a witness and demanded, “Are we going to have a problem?”
I am certain that as we all are different under stress, as we all have different feelings, not every Black person wants what is sometimes perceived as a “white savior” even if that is not your intention. If a Black person is facing discrimination and requests that you stop speaking on her behalf, do so. This event is not about you, and you are not the one under extreme and constant stress from racism.
Instead, the next time another Black person is facing discrimination, offer your help. As a white mother of biracial children said in addressing this issue, “You are not absolved of your responsibility to be part of the solution.”