I’d been traveling all night and was eager to board the last leg of my flight from London Heathrow airport to Geneva, Switzerland. A long weekend lay ahead, and I was already thinking of what I would do once I got home. As I settled into my business class seat, I slowly exhaled a sigh a relief. The mission had been successful, the project was on track. I’d be home in max 2 hours I thought to myself. I secretly hoped the seat next to mine would remain empty. That would add even more comfort to the short flight ahead. As passengers continued to board, I eagerly awaited the “boarding complete” announcement that would confirm the seat beside me would remain vacant.
An Asian lady marched towards the seat with intent, and I immediately knew it was hers, and with that, my hope for an even more comfortable trip with no one besides me was lost. She hastily stuffed her mobile phone into the front seat pocket and proceeded to place her carry-on in the overhead locker. I tried to make eye contact with her but she ignored me. I was used to being treated that way. There was always a one in two chance that a fellow passenger would acknowledge or even greet me. I didn’t take it personally, some people just didn’t want to interact when traveling.
I busied myself reading the Daily Mail. After a hectic week, all I wanted to do was relax, and that gossip rag was just what I needed. After settling into her seat, my fellow passenger hadn’t even so much as looked my way. I was curious. She looked as though she were Singaporean. I had lived in Singapore for two years and was curious to learn more about her, but she clearly did not want to speak to me.
A few minutes later, she started shifting uncomfortably in her seat as though she had lost something. She hastily tugged on the front seat pocket and frantically searched through it. She stood up in a panic and rummaged through her belongings in the overhead locker. I could tell she was getting even more agitated as she didn’t seem to find what she was looking for. I again tried to make eye contact to help her out, but she ignored me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her continue her frantic search, she appeared to be getting angrier and angrier. Then all of a sudden, she had an outburst.
“You stole my phone, give it back to me now, she commanded.
I continued reading my newspaper, under the impression she was speaking to someone else when she pointed at me and yelled even louder.
“You, you, yes I am talking to you. Give me back my phone you thief”.
I looked at her stunned. It took me a few seconds before I could even respond.
“I did not steal your phone,” I said calmly.
“Oh yes you did you, thief, it was right here and now it’s not. I’m going to report you. We need to get the police on this plane now”, she screamed.
All of a sudden the entire plane went silent. Everyone was looking at me. Amongst the many discerning eyes looking in my direction, I could not detect an ounce of sympathy, only the judgmental stares of an audience that had already condemned me. Despite my calm exterior, I felt a mix of utter humiliation and rage building inside me. I was being blamed for stealing her phone because I was black.
“Open your bags, I want to check them, open them now”, she screeched.
“No, I’m not going to let you search through my things”, I replied even more calmly than before.
“You’re a thief, a thief she yelled,” and marched to the entrance of the plane to where the flight attendants were congregating.
I could see her pointing in my direction as she conversed with one flight attendant in particular. They both came back to where I was seated.
“This lady says you took her phone?”
“I didn’t take her phone”, I responded politely.
“Where did you put the phone?”, he said turning back to the lady.
“I had it when I got on the plane, I must have put it on my seat”.
The flight attendant diligently searched the seat, pulling up the padding and the armrest.
“It clearly isn’t here, could you have put it somewhere else?”
“No, I didn’t. She stole it, check her things, stop wasting time, search her instead”.
The flight attendant looked at me. He clearly seemed uncomfortable.
“Could you have put the phone somewhere else”, he asked her.
“No, no, no,”, she insisted. “It’s her”, she said again pointing at me.
I kept my calm. Since I hadn’t stolen her phone, I was convinced there would be a logical explanation as to why it had gone missing.
We had missed our takeoff window and the Singaporean lady was furious.
“I don’t understand why you cannot check the black woman”, she yelled. “It will only take a few minutes”.
Her typical middle-class Singaporean accent had become more apparent now. It made me think back to my time in Singapore. I had come to love the country, the culture, the people, the beautiful singing Singaporean accent. I had dreamt of returning or maybe even working there for a few years.
As I sat there and studied her, I could see the anger and resentment in her face. For her, I was none other than a thief — I mean how could I not be, I was black, hence I was guilty.
I felt deeply hurt by the accusation, I wondered what would happen next. Would I be forced off the flight and arrested for a crime I did not commit? Would I not be able to pick up my children at school that afternoon like I had promised them, because the flight would have to leave without me? All these thoughts and more crossed my mind. Would my whole day — or my whole weekend be wrecked by virtue of me being black?
While the police were on their way, the flight attendant continued to search in and around the seat. The other passengers were getting agitated, unimpressed by the probable flight delay and the impact it would have on their lives. The Singaporean sat back into her seat, her eyes darting back and forth in my direction. She again tugged violently at the front seat pocket and shoved her neatly manicured hands deep into it.
“Oh,” she squealed with delight. “Oh, it’s in here”, she pulled out the phone triumphantly. “It was deep down in the hole of this stupid pocket”, she cried, teasingly hitting back at the pocket.
The flight attendant looked at her in relief. “Yes, that happens a lot — some of these pockets are torn and phones and other gadgets can fall deeply into them. Why didn’t you tell me you had put your phone there?”
“I didn’t remember, oh maybe I didn’t. Maybe she put it there”, she said pointing at me.
The flight attendant shook his head disbelievingly.
“Well, she probably put it there because she knew she wasn’t going to get away with it. She knew the police would search her so she hid it there”.
I looked at her in shock.
“I didn’t steal your phone. Can’t you admit that you made a mistake and have unjustly accused me?”
“People like you steal”, she interjected.
The flight attendant gave me a sympathetic look and walked away.
I sat next to the lady for the rest of the flight. Somehow I hoped that once she calmed down and thought things over, she would realize that she had made a mistake. She didn’t. She never acknowledged she had wrongly accused me.
An hour and a half later, the plane landed at Geneva Cointrin airport. She walked off and didn’t apologize. I did not get a word of sympathy from anyone — not even the other fellow passengers in business class who had seen what had really happened, or the crew.
I was upset and called my white boss to explain what had happened. He thought it was amusing and even made a joke about me being a phone thief. I was so hurt and pained by what happened and to this day carry the scars of this trauma.
I think that what surprised me most was that somewhere in my mind, I thought that someone would stand up for me, that someone would rescue me, but no one did. As a black woman, I realized that I was all alone and that no one would ever protect me.
For a long time after this event, I had nightmares of being carted off that plane by police, being searched, and wrongfully accused. Would I have ended up in custody even if for a short period of time? How would that have affected me then? How would that have affected my entire life?
You may have heard that a white woman accused a 14-year-old black boy of stealing her phone at a hotel in New York City just yesterday. The boy’s dad, a famous musician, filmed the incident. Watching it reminded me of my own trauma of being wrongly accused of a crime I didn’t commit.
It seems that when you are black, you are always considered guilty until proven innocent — and even then, people can still question your innocence.
Being black is being on constant alert and survival mode every single day of your life. Now imagine how it would feel like to live a whole life that way. With all that stress, my life expectancy is much shorter than that of a white person. We are all human beings, and we are all equal. Why should this be the case? Why does my life matter less? Why does my life have lesser value?
Thank you for reading my perspective.