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Race and Power in the Air

Rfharmon
New Arrival

Two week’s ago I was made to feel powerless for the first time in a very long time, so I hope you will bare with me for a moment while I attempt to take some of my power back.

 
I am, by most estimations, a man of power. I was blessed to go to elite schools and with that comes an alumni network that grants me certain access to power and privileges. I have had the opportunity to work at top-tier law firms and companies, each step of the way accumulating more power and influence. I’ve had and continue to advise some of the most influential people in the world. So, when I say it’s been a long time since I felt powerless, I don’t say so lightly.
 
On a Southwest Airlines flight from PHX to SEA on August 25th, I was made to feel small, threatened and left with no viable options that would not greatly disservice my family. 
 
It all began when my wife and I boarded the plane, with our carefully packaged and TSA inspected bags with some of our favorite New Orleans treats. It wasn’t a particularly full flight, so rather than stuff our food under a seat, we found room for it in an overhead bin, the same as we had done on the prior leg of our flight. So, we were shocked when the flight attendant grabbed our bag of food and asked whose it was. Confused, we said it was ours. She then proceeded to try to hand it to us, explaining that Southwest policy is not to allow food or liquids in the overhead bin. We were at a loss for words, so the first thing we said, was “can you please take your hands off our food.” So she jammed it back up in the bin and then proceeded to tell us we must take it down. Having dealt with the issue of her having her hands on our food, my wife simply said, “are you sure that’s a policy, because we’ve done this many times before, including on our flight earlier today.” Flustered, the woman said “absolutely” and told us we had to take it down now. So, we asked to see the policy. Now more enraged, the woman told us that finding the policy would delay the flight and stormed off. My wife and I thought the entire exchange silly, but decided amongst ourselves that if she came back and asked again -policy or no policy, we would just do it, as it was looking like we would have an entire row to ourselves. My wife then went to the restroom and I was not prepared for what happened next. 
 
I looked up to see a pilot waking back toward me sternly. I almost immediately knew he was coming to talk to us, but that still didn’t help me with what came next. “Are you with that girl with the food.” Now, my wife certainly looks young, but she is very much a woman - brilliant, beautiful and a force in her own right. So, him calling my wife a “girl,” was nothing more than his use of a tried and tested white male exertion of power and was a clear miscroaggression. While he was simply calling a grown woman a girl, what he was saying is, “you are beneath me so I don’t even have to acknowledge you as an adult,” or “if this were a different time and place I’d be calling you something even more derogatory.” He then proceeded to tell me the food had to come down. When I asked him why that was, he sternly told me because he said so and that there was no choice. With each word he hovered above, inching closer to ensure I felt his presence. This is normally where my brain honed with years of legal training and quick wit would have had me say something to redefine the conversation, but he must have seen the wheels in my head turning, because he immediately then said, “there is no other option if you want to be on this plane.” There it was, he was exerting his power to put this black boy in his place. If I wanted to fly on his plane, I had to do what he told me. In that moment, my wife arrived and seeing me speechless simply interjected and said, we will put it down, thank you. I don’t know what I would have said or done, but all I was left with is this immense feeling of hurt. None of my education, connections or the “privilege” that comes with the life I’ve fought so hard to create, could change me from being a powerless black man and him a powerful white man in that moment, and that message was so loud that it was deafening. 
 
Seeing the hurt in my eyes, my wife consoled me the best way she knew how, and she wrote a complaint that some customer service person read with no real remorse and sent us a $50 Luv Vouchers without even addressing the issue at hand. However, this is the best way I knew to let this go and try to move forward without allowing this sting to linger for another two weeks. 
 
I get that many of you are probably saying that this isn’t the end of the world - and I know that much worse has happened to people, but it is these types of encounters that eats at the soul and feeling of worth of marginalized people, even those like me, with plenty of power and privilege.
6 REPLIES 6

Re: Race and Power in the Air

dfwskier
Rising Star

Sorry to hear you ran into trouble.

 

I presume your food was in some type of paper or plastic bag and not normal carry on type luggage. Put yourself in the shoes of the airline. Your food is overhead. Another passenger comes along and throws a bag in the bin -- crushing your food and making a mess that will be part of the plane for it's remaining flights for the day (at a minimum). The end result: your food is gone and the airline is left with a mess to clean up. If it had been packed in some type of luggage, you food would likely be safe.

 

As far as the demeanor of the pilot goes -- the FAA and federal law basically state that he/she is

judge, jury and executioner all in one. On that plane she/he is god. Like it or not, what he says goes. Anyone that disagrees can be removed from the plane, and it does happen with some frequency.

 

The crew is responsible for keeping everyone safe, getting passengers where they want to be on time,  and for enforcing FAA and company policy. People that interfere with that responsibility run into trouble.

Re: Race and Power in the Air

Rfharmon
New Arrival

Rising Star... totally fare response. I totally understand the power given to the Pilots and for good reason. As a lawyer, I fully understand the importance of having an authority who can make real-time decisions about what is in the best interest of the flight, its passengers and the crew. 

 

 While I do not disagree with the power given to the pilots, I do have a problem when that power is wielded in a way that is improper or used to belittle, harass or intimidate customers.  And as with any power held by an individual, when it is used to further an individual's personal preferences or feelings toward an individual or group, it should be called out and there should be a proper inquiry as to whether that person is fit to hold that power. 

 

Not that it matters, but my food was actually packaged quite well and surrounded by an encasement such that it couldn't leak or be crushed. We were also already fully boarded and the bin was basically empty other than our bags that were structured around it to stop it from sliding or being crushed. 

Re: Race and Power in the Air

SWDigits
Rising Star

An option to escalate with Southwest is to send an old fashioned letter using the address found in the "contact us" link at the bottom of the forum pages.  I've seen a recent report from someone else here on the boards state that they received a well written response to their letter.


Southwest customer | Home airport DCA | Community Chamption

Re: Race and Power in the Air

Flying_Slug
Active Member

“Race and Power in the Air” …or “Confirmation Bias”?

 

It is sad that you chose to turn this into a racial thing, and for a self-described “man of power” you seem to have a rather thin skin.

 

If your food was really as carefully packaged as you say, it should have been quite easy to follow the crew member’s instructions and place that package in the space under the seat in front of you.

 

I am a member of a minority group. That reality rarely comes up in my social interactions. Sometimes things don’t go 100% smoothly, but that’s not a race thing; it’s a life thing.

 

I can’t believe Southwest gave you vouchers worth $50 just for complaining, and to top that off, you post here to show that you are ungrateful about their extraordinarily generous gesture.

Re: Race and Power in the Air

DancingDavidE
Top Contributor

I’m interested to know more about good food from New Orleans. And I’m sure you have been able to store similar items there before, or even earlier that day with a different crew.

 

The instructions of crew members are to be followed, that’s where the story could have ended without anyone feeling bad about themselves.

 

For whatever treason this FA was focused on food in the bins. (And/or your packaging wasn’t as discreet as other times, and you mentioned the flight was sparsely occupied so more time to focus on carry on items.)

 

I’m glad you didn’t have a retort to the captain, if you had then this story would have a different ending where you took a later flight.

 

 

 

 

Home airport MDW, frequent visitor to MCO to see the mouse.

Re: Race and Power in the Air

NicoleAshley Employee
Employee

Hi @Rfharmon. I am saddened to know that you felt this way onboard a Southwest flight, or ever for that matter. Demonstrating a biased, hurtful attitude is not condoned at Southwest Airlines.  Indeed, discrimination for any reason is wrong. Our Company could not survive if we believed otherwise. In fact, a cursory view of our workforce, as well as our expansive, multi-cultural Customer base, is a reliable indicator that we exalt and appreciate diversity. And, it is in this spirit that we apologize for having left you questioning our Employees' motives. 

As a peer-to-peer support forum, we are not equipped to assist with these matters; however, our Customer Relations Team that you reached out to documents complaints of this serious nature, and there is internal follow-up and coaching. Rest assured, we take these matters seriously. It would be our pleasure to welcome you and your wife onboard another Southwest flight soon—under more favorable circumstances.

 

Sincerely,

 

Nicole
Community Manager