To be clear, I did not want to end 2022 shaking mad and speechless.
I am sure it was not the way you wanted to spend your flight to Newark either.
I doubt you will ever read these words and I know I was briefly able to share my disapproval as we were deplaning— but there were paragraphs upon paragraphs that needed to be said, not just a quick and sharp exchange with your aggressor and several exasperated:
“I am SO sorry’s” to you.
Because there is more to be said, this is the only place I could think to share it. I don’t want to start 2023 without having said it. You, my dear, deserved better.
Initially, the gentleman wearing the starched button-down who was seated directly behind me appeared to be my favorite kind of Hoosier, friendly and talkative. I know he was a Hoosier because he was speaking loudly about his home in Indiana. He began immediately chatting with his seat mate and as I pulled out my book, I smiled knowingly because many of my mid-western friends have the gift of gab and friendship. I love them for it. The pair began chatting freely back and forth and all appeared well in their conversation. I opened my book and began to read.
Much later in the flight, after the drinks and snacks had been served, I began to notice the tone of the conversation and content switching to race. The man sitting behind me began making sweeping and broad stroke statements about black men, they were not positive. My ears pricked. The gentleman was speaking loud enough for me to make out the majority of the words even over the strong streams of extra oxygen and the roar of the engines.
I wondered who in the world would be having such a caviler and racist conversation on a large multiracial flight? I ignorantly believed these types of conversations were reserved for quiet whispers or at least behind closed doors where strangers would not be privy to your opinions and harmful belief systems. I glanced behind me and could see that the gentleman across the aisle appeared to be of Asian descent. Is he hearing this? Oh good: headphones in. I tried to mind my own business burying my head back in my book.
Soon I noticed a crescendo in the conversation and that the other person he had engaged was a woman. Were they related? Was this a siloed conversation with no nuance where one person is agreeing with the well spoken gentleman? No, it appeared the woman was thoughtfully and kindly refuting his claims. The more I listened (I had no other option because he was speaking so loudly) I realized the man was not only mansplaining he was white-splaining things to the woman he was sitting with. My heart raced.
I started to realize the conversation was heating and this woman, in an attempt to protect herself, was being forced into a slightly more defensive posture. The gentleman kept saying, “In my 60+ years of life, it has been my experience…” Very clever, because she cannot speak to his experience. But when she would begin to speak of her experience he would dismiss her and not hear the thoughtful and insightful words she shared. He would accuse her of using psychology or a straw man’s argument.
I couldn’t begin to get in to the weeds as to the details of the argument and I debated intervening more than once but I wondered for so long if they knew one another—was this possibly a father and daughter having a heated conversation? The young woman was holding her own and did not appear in distress. Because the tone would go from respectful and polite to heated and argumentative back to respectful and polite, I continued to read my book and sigh deeply.
For the final 10 minutes of the flight I fully realized what this conversation truly was: a young woman (maybe even a college student or graduate) who had respectfully entertained a racist conversation and held her own with an argumentative and skilled wordsmith, who would twist and turn the things she would say, or cut her off before completing her thought. I kept thinking it was truly the most racist conversation I had ever heard and his brash bravado and hate speech was followed by words like, “I love all people,” at which point if the fasten seatbelts sign had not been on I would have cut him off and explained that this was the least loving conversation I had heard in my lifetime. I kept wondering if he hoped to convert her to his belief system? What were his hopes for change?
At one point the young woman politely asked, “Would you do me a favor?” The man said he would and she asked him to read, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. The man said this would be a significant request of a dyslexic. She quickly suggested the audio. I was silently cheering her. She was not missing a beat.
Was she experiencing the same fight or flight feelings that I was? She appeared (generally) thoughtful and calm, but there were times where I could hear a little laugh or human connection that had likely made her approachable to the conversation in the first place. It was turbulent and I couldn’t quite hear what was said, but she exclaimed something implying that her being a black woman spoken to by a white man in this way was problematic, she was more eloquent, but that was the gist. She confirmed my greatest fear. This whole time the “friendly” Hoosier had been debating with and talking at a young black woman, asking her to explain and defend her people group. It was at that point, we were descending, I felt like I was going to climb out of my skin. For those last few minutes of the flight I recognized the young woman tucked against the window was being held hostage. She was being told racism doesn’t exist while being forced to endure racist themes and arguments for what was quickly approaching an hour.
My pulse was racing. She didn’t need my help. But to say nothing would make me complicit to a verbal assault. He may not have even known it, but he was a racist bully masquerading as a friendly, loving, thoughtful (possibly even curious) well spoken 60+ year old white man.
Where was the eject button? Could she have rung the bell for assistance from the flight attendant? Could she have gotten up and moved seats on this over-crowded flight? In hindsight…I wish I would have thought to offer for her to switch seats. To the end, she never gave up nor did she was shut down, she remained poised and respectful. She was remarkable.
When we were given permission to remove our seatbelts I turned to my seat mate and was physically shaking. She asked if I was okay. I said I was not, due to the awful conversation that was going on behind us. While saying this I turned to look behind me to find a lovely YOUNG woman who should never have been asked to do the work for a man who feigned thoughtfulness on the subject of race. I first mouthed, “I am SO sorry.” I then spoke directly to the man and said, “You were speaking so loudly I could not help but overhear your conversation.” I asked him to please add Waking Up White to his audio book list. He shook his head slightly shrugged and sort of mumbled something under his breath like, “Okay” but not in a complicit way–more with an eye roll and mind your own business way. I had SO many more things to say but people began feverishly rushing off the plane. It was New Year’s Eve and flights were a MESS.
The young woman took the most immediate exit that she could and all I could do was grab her arm and apologize again. She didn’t need me…she was strong. But she didn’t deserve to spend a single second of her life defending her race to a 60+ year old white man on New Year’s Eve on her way to New York. All I could think was I want her to know I see her. I still do. To the precious strong young woman sitting behind me on Flight UA3608 I see you. And I saw what happened and it was awful and wrong. And my eyes were opened to blatant racism that I thought only existed behind closed doors.
My seat mate and I had had our connecting flights delayed and my bag was farther back on the plane so in compliance with the pilot’s request, I let several folks with immediate connecting flights off the plane first. My seat mate turned to me and said,
“That woman was a saint.”
I loudly replied,
“Yes, that was VERY VERY wrong!” hopeful the “friendly” Hoosier still seated behind me would hear.
Shaking and not able to stay seated any longer I went to grab my bag. Flustered, I realized it was deeply stuck in the overhead compartment. I began to tug still shaking and feeling tears approaching angry and hot. Suddenly I heard a gravel-y voice behind me ask, “Can I help you with that?” I turned and looked into the eyes of a 6ft 250 pound hooded, non-smiling black man. The irony of this moment was not lost on me. I felt nauseous. And grateful. And grieved. With a sincere thank you and intense eye contact that he could not possibly have interpreted; we dislodged my bag, I moved forward and gave him one last grateful look. The first person I encountered after that bizarre insufferable conversation was (by his physical appearance) the “threatening and intimidating” presence that the gentleman behind me had just been raging about. Pulling my bag swiftly, I rushed past the “loving” Hoosier…feeling not so loving feelings.
I write to physically work things out of my system. Things that are lodged or that I don’t understand. I write for therapy, but I also write to bring solidarity, maybe something that I am working out of my system might be worked out within you as you read? I want those who read my words to feel seen, or maybe inspired. I write to explain a bit more of who I am, and who I want to be. I write so that my kids might know their mom better and understand what is going on inside her crazy head. My kids need to know about this flight and this conversation, they need to know that silence is not an option. I don’t want to pretend that I am fully aware and don’t have unconscious biases of my own, and I know I have plenty of my own work to do. But I was reminded that the days of holiday conversations where we pander racist 60+ Uncle Harry are long over. I don’t care how old people are, this is not innocent, this is ignorance and in the case of the flight conversation on New Year’s Eve 2022, it was evil. No one should have to endure what that young woman endured. I understand that our racist roots run deep. But it starts with us. We need to do our own work, then can move toward those we love. Maybe just maybe this year we could resolve to read a book (audible if needed) or listen to a podcast to begin to wrestle the ghosts of our past that follow us and continue to do harm to those around us. (I have listed a few suggestions below.)
Signing off on New Year’s Eve 2022…a very weary traveler who has been rerouted and delayed on 3 different flights…I don’t know much, but I know we need to do better.
It’s 2023 y’all. Let’s do better. We must do better.
I wish I had also suggested THIS book when I turned around because clearly the “friendly” Hoosier with the gift of gab believed he was just having a friendly conversation… I cannot recommend this author and book enough:
This was the book the young woman behind me suggested…
And this was the book I suggested…
This is also a book I would recommend:
If you are a podcast person…
With deep love, appreciation and respect for all who read this,