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.