White unsafeness is the beast that threatens Black people

OPINION: Talib Kweli got kicked off an American Airlines flight because of white unsafeness, and it could happen to you.

Talib Kweli theGrio.com
Talib Kweli performs onstage during OZY FEST 2017 Presented By OZY.com at Rumsey Playfield on July 22, 2017, in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Ozy Fusion Fest 2017)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

There’s a monster that we as Black people must watch out for all the time, an ever present force that has the potential to ruin our lives. I call it “white unsafeness.” It’s a child of white supremacy and white victimhood because it combines the fear of a white individual with the power of white people in total. And it can get you anytime, anywhere. In a restaurant, a school, a public park, a workplace, a store — wherever any white person suddenly can say they feel unsafe — which instantly puts a Black person in danger. Studies have shown that some white people think Black people have superhuman strength, and they use that ignorant bias to justify their fear of Black people and attack them.

We, as Black folks, can try to modulate our personalities and smile a lot and speak in low volumes to try to keep from making some white person feel unsafe. But no matter how much work we do to try to defend ourselves against white unsafeness, sometimes these white people actually do feel unsafe because white victimhood is real.

Sometimes it’s a performative unsafeness. They say they feel unsafe or they produce tears of weakness. Either way, white unsafeness gains power from the age-old stereotype that Black people are dangerous, animalistic and violent. If a white person says they feel unsafe and Black people are perceived as unsafe, then why shouldn’t the world come running to protect the frightened white person from the scary Black person? This happens frighteningly often. It recently happened to rapper Talib Kweli.

On Jan. 18, Kweli was boarding an American Airlines flight in Austin, Texas, when he got into a slight disagreement with a white male flight attendant about the size of his carry-on bag. Normal airplane stuff. Kweli says he kept his calm throughout the interaction even though the man was disrespectful. An airline supervisor got involved, and at some point, Kweli says the white male flight attendant played the race card — he said he “felt unsafe.” That’s when things got weird. 

The supervisor had a long talk with Kweli and resolved the issue in his favor. She said he could stay on the flight. But then someone else apparently weighed in because the supervisor returned to order Kweli off the plane. She informed him that he had to deplane because the crew said it felt unsafe. However, Kweli had only interacted with the one white male flight attendant and the female supervisor, who initially allowed him to remain seated. Kweli calmly resisted. Someone summoned the police — because white people sometimes use the police like a private security force to protect them from Black people. 

The rest of the passengers deplaned before Kweli. So when he walked off, bookended by cops, he says that he walked into the airport gate area and was confronted by a lot of disgruntled white people. “When they walked me out,” Kweli said, “it was to an angry mob of racist white people who are literally yelling, ‘Arrest him!’ That was the most traumatizing part.” It’s giving lynch mob vibes. 

Kweli started the flight with a seat in first class, and he’s a platinum-level traveler, he says. He’d amassed all the things he needed to have in that space to have earned the utmost respect, but nothing mattered because presumably one white man said he felt unsafe. Kweli doesn’t even know what he did wrong. “From the time the supervisor showed up to the time they kicked me off the plane was about 20 minutes,” he said. And after the first interaction with the male flight attendant, “I didn’t make eye contact with him. There was no conversation.” And after the first interaction, “ I didn’t even see him. So at what point did he start to feel unsafe? What interaction did we have to make him feel unsafe?”

Black people simply cannot modulate their personalities enough to make every white person they encounter feel safe. And no matter what we do, unsafeness is a card that white people can play for any reason. It’s one of their race cards, and it’s a joker because they can play it at any time. White feelings can get Black people killed.

Kweli said that maybe there’s something deeper going on. He was on American Airlines in first class. He pointed out that in the last few months NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. was kicked off American Airlines; track star Sha’Carri Richardson was recently kicked off American Airlines, and veteran comedian Guy Torry was on American when he says he was kicked off.

The airline’s chief diversity officer, Cedric Rockamore, told the Dallas Morning News in a story about the spate of racial complaints against the airline that every American Airlines employee is required to undergo implicit bias and discrimination training. “A lot of these things are born out of that balance where we’re trying ensure that we’re in compliance with all of the FAA rules and regulations, but at the same time create this experience where it doesn’t give the impression that there’s some perception that there’s unfairness or discriminatory practices on board the aircraft,” he said.

I personally find it hard to buy the notion that an airline is systematically disrespecting and removing Black customers. But that’s a lot of Black people being disrespected on American. I don’t want this to become about American Airlines because that takes our eyes off of the real issue — white unsafeness can happen to any of us anywhere, and there’s no way we can make ourselves non-threatening enough to be safe from white unsafeness. What happened to Kweli and them could happen to you. And it could happen when you least expect it.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter. Look out for his upcoming podcast Being Black In the 80s.

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