Traveling while black, and the discrimination that often comes with it, is a phenomenon that has been written about ad nauseam. While experiences are different in varying regions around the world, the most oppressive experiences that I have faced are right here in the United States of America.
The recent event of Adam Saleh allegedly getting kicked off a Delta flight for speaking Arabic and making 20+ customers uncomfortable has heightened the trepidations of traveling while not white.
But those trepidations are far more frustrating when you’re both not white and a woman.
Being a woman in America is challenging, though surely not as challenging as the lives of women in other countries; compared to our genetic opposites who run our patriarchal country (see: the election of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton), we’ve got a few obstacles to overcome.
Given the sheer lack of equality on a variety of fronts, including wage gaps, career advancement opportunities, and a basic lack of respect for our bodies, our right to our bodies and sometimes, seemingly, our existence, being a woman in America is anything but equal. We are still seen as sexual objects, particularly black women, and it is completely accepted not only by men but also by women (see: Trump “grabbing pussies” and being elected by 53 percent of white women).
Over the past few weeks, we have seen a number of disturbing occurrences that reflect the lack of respect for not just women but particularly black women while traveling. In October, there was the incident on a Delta Airlines flight, which originated in Detroit, during which flight attendants did not believe that a black woman was a doctor during an mid-air medical emergency.
Last week, a black woman was literally dragged off of a Delta Airlines flight in Detroit for “refusing to comply with boarding and baggage check procedures.” She was stripped of her dignity as a police officer dragged her from the back of the plane and her body was left exposed not only for passengers to see but also for the millions of people who would view the video on the internet.
Then there’s CNN’s Angela Rye, who a couple of weeks ago posted a video on Twitter of a TSA screening which involved the physical inspection of her body, though she was wearing a tight dress, and the touching of her vagina, twice, while in a public space.
These incidents, though varying in severity and stripping of one’s dignity, are reflective of American culture. To travel while black and female, but more specifically not white, is to be subjected to the discriminatory behavior of this country that we are subjected to in any other space.
I am a frequent traveler and hold Platinum Medallion status on Delta and Gold status on American Airlines. These achievements hardly protect me from the discrimination that I face when interacting with airline employees. When traveling with Delta, I am constantly questioned as to whether I am a priority passenger when standing in a priority branded section.
I am treated rudely by agents, though I can clearly hear how white men and women standing next to me are treated. When asking for service on flights, sometimes my orders are forgotten. I have been on an international Delta flight recently where I was skipped altogether for drink service.
I could go on. While discriminatory behavior is something that I experience at least 50 percent of the time when I travel, I will admit that I do not report it to Delta every time, because that would be exhausting. But I share experiences with other frequent travelers, and via text, we collectively shake our heads at our shared experiences.
Whether on the ground or at a cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, we as black and brown people are still subjected to discriminatory practices that others are not. And while some of the discrimination and public embarrassment (read: TSA screenings) are not only reserved for black or brown people, it is clear that we are on the receiving end at a much higher rate.
The highly publicized event of Adam Saleh being kicked off of a Delta flight from London to NYC solidified, for me, the importance of making white people comfortable while traveling, even if it is to the detriment of a black or brown person. I had a bit of dialogue with Delta, via Twitter. And while the chain of events is being questioned, largely because he is a known “prankster,” it does not negate the discriminatory treatment that I have received or that others have reported in the past.
— TheCatchMeIfYouCan (@jnambowa) December 21, 2016
Feeling that it was not enough, I called corporate and was told the same exact thing that I was told via Twitter. I requested a call back from someone more senior and received it. I will not recount the entire phone call, but it did not leave me feeling hopeful, but rather affirmed that the entire staff could use a diversity/discrimination training course. Let’s just say towards the end of the conversation, after describing occurrences of racial discrimination, she told me I had not been discriminated against because I had not been denied anything. I was sure to read her the exact definition of discrimination in order to clear up any future confusion.
In 2013, I blogged about a bad experience I had with Delta, in which I asked them to clarify their diversity training practices. They assured me this was abnormal, yet here we are almost four years later talking about the same thing. I reread my article and realized I am still having the same exact experiences. So much for progress.
The fact is, most white people still believe discrimination happens in two ways: (1) You are denied something verbally and plainly or (2) You are called the N-word.
I am sure those of us who are black and brown, and who experience the hangups that come with it in America, are clear that racial discrimination is more than a denial and a racial slur but most often what can be expressed as microaggressions.
So what is the solution?
Speak up! Every. Single. Time. When an incident occurs, tweet about it, post on Facebook, tell your friends, and most importantly, tell the airline or the airport authority or TSA. It is only by using our collective voice that we can truly shine a light on issues that we deal with every day in hopes of making a change.
I know that the idea of this is exhausting (at least for me it is), but the only way that we will get white people to understand the magnitude of racial bias and discrimination is if we report every single incident.
Angela Rye has used her notoriety as a CNN commentator to fast track her grievances directly to TSA headquarters. Adam Saleh used his platform as a YouTube star to bring attention to what happened to him.
Though we all may not be able have such reach and impact, our collective voices being used at all levels will bring attention to the discrimination that we face on a regular basis. If no one is going to stand up for us, we must do it for ourselves.