Prejudice, racism, bigotry – these words are often used interchangeably to describe statements, actions, situations, and people. But, I believe that not all thoughts of prejudice necessarily mean a person is racist. A prejudicial thought may at times be brought on by racism, yes, but just because a person says or does something that is prejudicial, that does not automatically mean they are a racist person as a whole.
All this to say that I myself am not sure what to label the following situation I’m about to share with you. Let me describe what happened to me a few weeks ago and you make your own conclusions. I’m simply going to state the facts and write out the scenario, detailing the scene, people, and events as they occurred. I’m purposely going to detail the skin color, race, etc. of people, as they are relevant to this discussion. You feel free to chime in with how you would have felt if you were me. Ready?
As I boarded the plane and found my row, I set my purse down on the seat next to an elderly white woman so I could lift my carry-on luggage up into the overhead compartment. She was sitting in the aisle seat and at the same time I set my purse down, I also smiled at her, pointed and let her know that my seat was the window seat. She immediately informed me that I would need to place my purse in the overhead bin too and those were the only words she said to me. This, of course, put me on the defense because I don’t respond well to attitude from people. I responded, “No, not that one. Just the suitcase,” and proceeded to get my luggage overhead and scoot over into my seat. She continued that she was told because we were in an exit row, all bags needed to be overhead to make for more room. Now, this was my first time sitting in an exit row, so (at the time) I didn’t know that the rules are different than for other rows. So, I just told her, “Well, I’ll just wait and see what they tell me,” and put my purse under the seat in front of me by my feet, as I smiled at her. And those were the last words we exchanged.
A few minutes later, a young, blonde, white girl came to sit in the middle seat between us. She was carrying a purse, just like me, plus a coat. She didn’t have other carry-on luggage, so she went straight to her seat and placed her purse underneath the seat in front of her just as I had. The older woman that told me to put my purse overhead did not tell this young girl the same thing. However, she did make some small talk with her and even offered the girl the use of her armrest should she need it.
Interestingly, the flight attendants never asked either the girl or I to put our bags overhead. I sat there the entire flight wondering whether or not my bag truly was supposed to be overhead as the lady had informed me or if she had just decided to be petty with me for some unknown reason.
It’s hard to know what motivated the older woman to NOT ask the young girl to put her purse in the overhead bin as she asked me. Or what prompted her to make small talk and act courteously with her. Lots of variables and factors could have contributed – I realize this. I also could have absolutely read the entire situation wrong. I fully admit this. But, I sat there wondering and observing the difference in mannerisms and the way the elderly lady acted with the young girl and myself.
Maybe none of it was racially motivated. Maybe the lady just randomly decided to be rude to me and nice to the other girl. That’s the thing about being a person of color – you go around questioning situations all the time and wondering if people treated you a certain way simply because of how you looked. And you’ll never know. Because even if you dare to ask, you won’t ever get a straight answer.
Somehow I’m also tasked with the ever-daunting challenge of helping two multicultural children navigate this world. What do I tell them when they find themselves on an airplane seat one day also wondering if they were on the receiving end of a prejudicial act?
Chime in! How would you have felt had you been me, sitting on that airplane seat?
(By the way, I now do know that the actual information she told me was correct, regardless of how she acted towards me.)
Photo: Vox Efx/Flickr