‘Is There a Problem?’ That Scary Brown Man And White Privilege
Last year, I had a big business meeting in New York and a reading for my new book, "How to Say I Love You in Indian," at the American Indian Community House in Midtown Manhattan.
For some inexplicable reason, some television folks were interested in me doing television work. Look, I’m from the rez – we’re hunter-gatherers. If someone is willing to give me free food and an opportunity to provide for my family and me, I’m definitely going to be there. The lunch meeting was at noon. I usually fly red-eyes so I can tuck my son into bed and spend as much time with him before I leave. This time, however, I wanted to be well-prepared and rested, so I flew the night before.
First half of the flight was cool. I wore my comfortable flying clothes – camouflage sweats, camouflage sweatshirt, braids and a skullcap.
It was on Southwest, which I’ve flown a million times, simply because they sometimes have cheaper flights and, most importantly, I didn’t have to pay separately for bags. I know that I still pay for them, but it’s just not a separate charge. I appreciate that.
First leg of the flight was from Seattle to Chicago. No problem – I got off the plane for my four-hour layover (seriously) and got an all-beef dog at Chicago O’Hare.
Then the second leg of my flight. Ugh.
I had a backpack and a small duffel bag. I was in the “C” boarding group, so I knew that I was getting a middle seat. Guaranteed.
When I got on, there was a seat in the very first row – it was a middle seat. I knew I was going to get screwed on the seating, so I figured why not sit in the front of the plane? At least I’d be first to get off the plane.
In the front row was a middle-aged white couple (Sarah Jessica Parker-type middle aged, where they tried to dress like they weren’t quickly approaching AARP-status). The woman sat in the window seat and the man was in the aisle seat, holding a baby. They were being slick (like I do as well) and had a pile of stuff in the middle seat pretending it was occupied and hoping nobody would sit there.
I know the game – I’m not mad.
I asked, “Excuse me, is somebody sitting there?”
The lady responded, “Yes, I’m waiting for a friend. She’s supposed to be boarding.”
I was pretty sure she was lying. Under normal circumstances, I would have just taken the seat – this is Southwest Airlines, for God’s sake – there’s no saving seats. Southwest Airlines is PURE social Darwinism. Every person for themselves! But since I wasn’t getting a good seat anyway, and I was at the very end of the boarding group, I decided to wait.
“OK, cool,” I said. “I’ll wait here to see if your friend gets on.”
The last person boarding – another middle-aged white woman – got on. The window seat lady literally grabbed her and asked her to sit there. I’ll call that lady “The Recruit.”
I smirked and told her, “You don’t know that lady at all – ha! You lied. You realize how rude that is right?”
She responded, “That’s not rude.”
I said, “OK, well I suppose that’s just you then.” And smiled at her.
The Recruit got up QUICKLY and strolled toward the back – evidently she had zero interest in this discussion and saw more fertile ground in the back of the plane.
I put my bags up above and went to sit down. The man scooted over to the middle seat, chivalrously. No problem – until there was a problem.
The wife pointed at me and said to her husband, loudly, “I don’t want him sitting there.”
I looked at her to make sure I heard her correctly. “Don’t look at me,” she said.
Damn, I couldn’t believe that. Adrenaline rushed through me. I said, “Look, you have no input into where I sit or where I look.”
I sat down and got my MP3 player ready to play some Marty Robbins. I knew the drill – I’ve been trained since I was a kid: “You’re a big brown guy – don’t be too scary. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown.”
We’re taught these things for our own safety and to get along.
And I was cool – but before I pressed play on my Sony MP3 player, the husband – all 5-foot-5 and probably 125 pounds told me, “You need to shut your mouth!”
For a woman to tell me something rude, that’s one thing. I’m not going to clobber a woman for a rude remark. But this guy – let’s be clear, he would never talk to me like that under any other circumstances. Ever. But he was feeling bold or threatened or insecure or something and turned what were simply words into possibly a really bad situation.
I got really close to him and said, “Look, you know this plane ride is going to end at some point, right? You have to get off this plane.”
He shut up. But his wife didn’t. “You can’t sit there,” she said.
By this time, I was really mad. Not at the lady, necessarily, but that this grown man would talk to another grown man like this and expect no response. “I’m not moving anyplace so if you don’t want to sit by me, I suggest you move.”
Just then the captain came out. I was elated. Yes! I don’t like feeling like I have to run and tell anybody anything, but I also don’t want to get thrown in jail for stomping this dude into the luggage area below the plane. So I was happy to see an objective person. But unfortunately, that’s not how it went down.
The captain looked at only me. “Is there a problem?”
I said, “Well, this lady right here told me that she doesn’t want me sitting here for whatever reason and her husband tells me to shut my mo– ”
The captain interrupted me. “Well, I only hear you.”
I said, “I understand – I have a loud voice, that’s why I’m telling you what happened. Ask any of the folks sitting here –” I pointed to the people staring at us. He didn’t ask anybody anything. Instead, his focus was squarely on me.
Captain: "You need to lower your voice. Do you want to take the next flight?"
(Admittedly, I DO have a loud voice, and I WAS agitated by this time. I think that was understandable.)
Me: "No, I don’t want to – I’m telling you what happened."
Captain: "Well I only hear you out here hollering."
Me: "Well, I suggest that you have selective hearing."
Captain (staring me down): "Oh, now you want to get in MY face?"
I was a bit confused because that implied that I had gotten in someone else’s face. Maybe he meant he thought I had gotten in the husband’s face?
He didn't wait for my response. “I suggest you quiet down before you take the next flight,” he said.
I was stewing. But I knew I couldn’t take the next flight – that would not have been until the next morning, and I would have missed my important meeting. I don’t have a lot of very important meetings – I’m not a very important guy – so I didn’t want to miss one of the only ones that I’ve had.
When I got to baggage claim, a couple of younger white guys sitting behind me came up to me (one of them was from Hicksville on Long Island in New York. I laughed when he told me that – I thought he was joking): “That was bullshit. I told the captain afterward that everything happened exactly like you said.”
Made the meeting. Thankfully. Made a complaint on the Southwest Airlines website. They responded with an incredibly condescending email that said that they were sorry for my “less than pleasant” experience on the plane (it wasn’t “less than pleasant” – it was humiliating).
The email also stated, as a matter of fact, “As you know, our Pilot did not hear any other Passengers, which is why he only addressed his question to you.” (No, I have absolutely no reason to know that – I do know that he only addressed me). Also, the captain flat-out lied and said that he asked me to lower my voice twice before asking if I wanted to take another flight – not true. Finally, the email said, in ABC after-school special speak:
“We realize that sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and we apologize that you feel as if our Pilot could have used a more patient and professional tone when intervening in the exchange between you and the Customers in question.”
This is just insulting: As if my problem was with the captain’s TONE. No, it was that he didn’t ask anybody else a single question before singling me out and asking me if I wanted to take another flight, and then stood staring at me as if I were supposed to stand down from his authority (which I did, by the way, because I had to make the flight. I would have loved to have three minutes alone with that captain in a small room).
The window seat lady clearly did not like something about the way I looked – she made up her mind before we exchanged any words. I smelled good (or as good as I could) – I showered that morning and wasn’t in any way offensive with my clothing (I wasn’t wearing a T-shirt with swear words or anything like that). Perhaps it was the camouflage – looked terrorist-ish? Maybe it was the braids or long “Native” earrings? Maybe it was the huge Native guy in braids and camouflage?
Either way, after being overwhelmingly gracious and waiting for her to find her “friend,” the lady’s first words about me (to her husband) were, “I don’t want him sitting there.” For the life of me, I cannot think what would have caused her to say something like that about me other than an inherent dislike.
Moreover, the man felt completely comfortable telling me, “You need to shut your mouth.”
I don’t think it’s possible to see a stranger as a human being and talk to them like that. They didn’t see me as a human. I was something less. I’m not overly sensitive – sometimes people are just rude. No racism, no sexism, no anything other than everyday mundane rude behavior.
This was different.
White privilege is different than racism. I don’t THINK the Captain was racist. But he had a very bad case of white privilege. Southwest Airlines emboldened that privilege by white-washing (see what I did there?) his behavior.
White privilege is the inherent suspicion that people of color – and predominately men of color – are doing something wrong. Big black men and big brown men are presumed guilty. All the time.
At my first jury trial, the young white prosecutor came into the courtroom where I was in my suit and practicing my cross-examination. She asked, very politely, “Excuse me sir, are you waiting for your attorney?”
It’s similar to when the pundits and armchair analysts during the George Zimmerman trial assumed that Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager he killed, HAD to be doing something wrong when he walked to the store. There are countless other examples.
The captain may have heard just me – that may be true. Nonetheless, it seems that in the pursuit of finding a resolution, he should have asked a question or two instead of simply cutting me off and threatening to throw me off the plane.
He had me by the balls: I couldn’t do anything or I would have been thrown off the plane or provoked into physical conflict – in the same way cops provoke men of color by staring us down and asking if we have a problem and other rhetorical questions intended only to provoke.
A huge Native guy in camouflage was arguing with a clean-cut white couple (and a white captain). Three guesses who started that one.
The white couple didn’t have to think about any of that. They didn’t have to think about appearing TOO big or TOO brown or TOO Native or anything other than simply enjoying their flight.
Look, I’m not special. This shit happens every day. Most of us are bullied into not saying anything, like I was by the captain.
“Is there a problem?” he wanted to know. But answer the question honestly, and you won’t make your flight or you might be detained. That’s privilege.
Unfortunately, my example is an EXTREMELY mild version of that privilege; I’m quite lucky that all I had to do was swallow my pride. It doesn’t even compare to other times where brown men and women are “presumed guilty,” which leads to brothers and sisters and mothers and aunts beat down, pepper sprayed and thrown in jail for choosing to answer that question honestly instead of swallowing their tongue.
I know of stories where cops literally got into men’s face – cheek to cheek, daring them to fight – trying to con them into responding.
We know EXACTLY what would happen if that big man of color gave the response that he wanted.
I couldn’t tell the captain the truth when he asked me what tens of thousands of police officers, Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, slave overseers and teachers have asked helpless and muted people of color, “Is there a problem?”
Hell, yes, there’s a problem.
This story was originally published at Indian Country Media Network on Jan. 27, 2014.
Gyasi Ross (@bigindiangyasi) is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and the Suquamish Nation. He lives on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, home of the Suquamish Nation near Seattle. Both are his Homelands and he loves being in his Homelands. He is a father to an amazing and rotten little boy, an author who writes for online and print publications and also who writes books and sometimes bad comedy. He is also a lawyer and a filmmaker. Most of all, he is a storyteller and comes from a long line of storytellers. His website: www.gyasi-ross.com.
The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story - or note one you've seen that deserves more notice - contact Isolde Raftery at email@example.com or 206-616-2035.