Home > Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, Gender & Sexuality, Race & Racism > Southwest Airlines & “The Souls of White Folk”

Southwest Airlines & “The Souls of White Folk”

I wrote this in 2008, before I had my own blog; Kenyon Farrow graciously posted it on his blog.  To deal with the stress of the situation I detail, I wrote notes and ideas on the little white bag provided in the seat pockets to passengers during my flight.  I couldn’t write my way out of the situation I experienced but I knew when I got off the plane that I was going to go home and write this essay.

“Southwest Airlines & ‘The Souls of White Folk’”

Tamara K. Nopper

March 2, 2008

In his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois raised the question: “‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’” Answering his own query, Du Bois responded, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”

A recent incident I had while flying on Southwest Airlines demonstrates Du Bois’ point. I therefore detail the situation here both to document it and to theorize its relevance for understanding contemporary white supremacy.

As is practice with Southwest, I had boarded the plane when my category of seating was called. Having been lucky enough to download the boarding pass for category A, I was among the first to pick my seat. Shortly after sitting down, an older white man sat in the seat next to mine. He then proceeded to spread his legs wide open as if, to quote a wise person I know, “he thought he had balls the size of pumpkins.” In response to the uninvited pressing, I requested room for my legs. The man then proceeded to imperiously point his finger to the floor to emphasize that his feet were within the boundary of his seats. He never addressed the fact that his legs were spread beyond them so as to invade my space and press up against my body. Instead, he said to me, “You’re a big girl.” Talking on my cell phone, I interrupted my conversation to calmly tell the man “Don’t fucking talk to me that way.”

With his right hand, the man reached across himself to grab my left arm. With my arm in his grip, he looked me in the eyes through his glasses and replied, “I’m going to slap you in your mouth.” I freed myself from him and then stood up. I called out to the steward at the front of the plane that I needed assistance since I had just been grabbed by the person sitting next to me. Hurriedly, the man bolted out of his seat, muttering that he would move. As he exited the row he made it a point to emphasize that I had cussed at him, neglecting the fact that he had made the comment that initiated our negative exchange.

I turned around to be met by a young, white woman steward named Crystal G. Webb. When I told her that I had been assaulted by the man who was now making a mad dash for a seat a few rows back, she began to laugh. As she bit her lip, a smirk escaped. I informed her that I did not appreciate her laughing and that I did not pay to be assaulted on a plane. She then asked me if I wanted to speak to her supervisor, to which I said yes.

Ms. Webb returned with an older white woman named Ms. Terri Parker. Wearing a Southwest uniform that was more official than that worn by Ms. Webb, she led the two of them as they approached my seat. Before she reached me, another older white man had sat down in the seat that had been vacated by my assailant.

I repeated my story to Ms. Parker, adding that Ms. Webb had laughed at my concerns. Ms. Parker asked me if I would like to press charges. I said yes. However, I changed my mind when I learned that it would require me to get off the plane with the man who had assaulted me and be placed on a later flight.

That should have been the end of it since I should have been able to choose whether or not to press charges. But, as Du Bois pointed out, the nature of white supremacy requires that white people own everything, including the last and final word. True to form, Ms. Parker made it a point to remind me that I had cussed at the man, an issue I never concealed when describing the situation. I reminded Ms. Parker that the man had said to me that I was a big girl. Notwithstanding the fact that I am a grown woman in my thirties, I am also an Asian American. And I am an Asian American woman who does not meet the racialized and sexualized body expectations that is omnipresent in the white racial imagination. Overall, as I mentioned to Ms. Parker, I thought that the man had felt comfortable pressing his leg into mine and then defending his actions with insults because I was a non-white woman.

Nevertheless, white supremacy does not yield to rationality. Instead, appeals to rationality will often make white people angrier. It appears that my incident with Southwest was no exception. Throughout the conversation, Ms. Parker rebuffed practically all of my concerns. For example, when I pointed out that the man had made a comment about my body that I thought was racist and sexist, Ms. Parker responded that she did not know what he meant. I pointed out to her that she did not have to think very hard to imagine what he meant since his comment was fairly explicit. When Ms. Parker continued to emphasize that I had cussed at the man, I asked her if this gave me license to grab, and threaten with another assault anyone on the plane who might cuss at me. Appearing to grow angrier with my appeals to her rationality—which was simply an act of bad faith, or a lie to myself—Ms. Parker repeated that I had cussed at the man. I asked her if she thought that I “brought” being manhandled and threatened “on myself.” She said no. I then told her that I did not need her to lecture me regarding my language since no one was addressing the man who had assaulted me.

Perhaps unable to watch a fellow white person being held accountable by an Asian American, the white man who was now sitting next to me jumped in the fray. He interrupted us to tell me that he did not think that Ms. Parker was lecturing me. She thanked him. I calmly turned to him and replied, “This situation does not concern you.” Ms. Parker, perhaps encouraged by—but not requiring—the support of this white stranger then told me that she would have me removed from the plane for attacking him. I had never raised my voice, pointed a finger, or laid a hand on this man. But somehow, telling the man to mind his own business when he was defending a white woman constituted an attack.

At this point I was not only stressed out, I was very scared. I was aware that I was on a plane that had, as I had estimated, about five non-white people on it. And this included the racially ambiguous individuals that I included in my count just so I didn’t feel so isolated. But isolated I was as I watched Ms. Parker apparently grow more livid and confident. At one point, she told me that I was “cussing at her,” to which I tried to explain that I was merely repeating what was said during the initial exchange. At another point she began to yell at me that she wanted to see my “ID.” To keep myself calm, I thought of Du Bois’ sage reflection: “I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them embarrassed, now furious!” Humiliated, I nevertheless calmly asked why she needed to see identification. She told me she wanted it for my “Southwest file.” The thought of having my name added to a mysterious file was obviously unattractive, so I just looked at her blankly and kept repeating to all of her comments, “Yes, Ms. Parker.” She appeared to grow more incensed the more I called her Ms. Parker. She then reminded me that I was the one who had wanted to press charges and therefore should not have a problem now with showing my ID. Remembering that earlier in the conversation Ms. Parker had mentioned that she had police waiting outside, I tried to diffuse the situation as it became apparent that I was now the accused.

I was, in my mind, morally accused of going outside of the boundaries expected of me as an Asian American woman. While Asian American women have become, as scholar Susan Koshy describes, the desired partner of white heterosexual men due to racist and sexist perceptions of being both appropriately submissive and sexually deviant, my behavior was probably viewed as similar to that racistly associated with Black people. Consistent with white supremacist images of Blacks, I was taken as loud, unwilling to compromise, unapologetic, inappropriately masculine, and making stuff bigger than it is.

A Black person would have most certainly been arrested and forcibly removed. I was, most probably due to being Asian American, not. I was nevertheless racially guilty of transgressing three boundaries. First, I had demanded parity with a white person. Second, I had attempted to hold a white person accountable for his actions. And third, I had the nerve to describe my situation and critically assess it within an understanding of anti-white supremacist racial and gender politics. Indeed, it appears that transgressing the second and third boundaries was perhaps what invoked the most hostility. For example, while she chastised me loudly, Ms. Parker dealt with the white man who had assaulted me quite differently. Now hunched down in seat 12a, the man was approached by Ms. Parker who asked him if he had grabbed me. I did not hear his reply but I did hear Ms. Parker ask him if he apologized. Apparently he said yes because Ms. Parker returned to my row to inform me that the man had apologized, as if that was that. Perhaps angry that I was still not arguing with her, this conversation concluded with Ms. Parker threatening to take down my identification unless I promised to not talk about the situation with any other customer on the plane. Not knowing what else to do, I simply said yes.

As I resigned myself to a long ride next to the white man who had chastised me on behalf of Ms. Parker, I began to weep. My body shook with the stress of that experience and the knowledge that this was not an isolated incident. I have, as have many of my friends, indeed, the majority of the world, experienced this type of situation so many times: having white people tell you that what happened to you does not matter, that it is your fault, or that it did not even happen. I also wept because I was scared. I knew I had no way out because in the end I could not win against white moral authority because they owned what is taken as true. While I could write out the facts of my case, it made no difference. Indeed, consistent with various U.S. court cases that restricted non-white people’s ability to testify on their own behalf or on behalf of their kin, I was basically reminded over and over again throughout the incident that I had nothing to say that was legitimate. Indeed, I was threatened with further discipline if I spoke at all.

Yet the white man who had defended Ms. Parker continued to talk to me, even as I sobbed. He tried to get me to stop crying, perhaps because it made reading his Dean Koontz novel less enjoyable. Engaging in another act of bad faith, I pathetically tried to appeal to his sense of white ownership by asking him if he had any daughters. At that point I was just trying to make peace with the man I would be forced to sit next to for the next three hours. He told me he had several. I asked him if he would like his daughters to be talked to the way I was. He told me no, and that the man was clearly sexist in talking about my body. Yet this did not stop the Koontz reader from repeatedly pressing his leg against mine throughout the flight, a gesture I felt afraid to address for fear that I would be accused of causing more problems.

Additionally, the man felt it necessary to reiterate that Ms. Parker was not lecturing me. I explained to the man (another act of bad faith) that if he had disagreed with Ms. Parker, she may not have been so angry at me for asking him to not get involved. Perhaps my comment was what compelled him to paternalistically say that he knew that this could not go well for me. This assessment was coupled with the conclusion that Ms. Parker was simply doing her job and was just trying to make things as easy as possible. An excuse that I have heard given by many apologists of white supremacy, such an assessment did little to ease my anger or fear. Nor was I comforted by his revealing that he was a civil rights attorney and therefore “knew” these things. The thought of people relying on this man to defend their legal rights in court only made me feel worse. Well, perhaps that is an overstatement; I felt pretty shitty when, before the flight took off, Ms. Parker addressed my tears by asking, in a soothing voice, if I was okay. In the blink of an eye, Ms. Parker had gone from white cop to white mommy and I had to accept both positions.

Demonstrated by my experience, whiteness, as Du Bois pointed out, is defined by its ability to own everything. In this present stage of white supremacy marked by an explicit and ubiquitous fear of white loss, this ownership hinges on two political claims: white suffering matters most and whites have a monopoly on moral authority. As white people express more and more dissatisfaction with their lives—a dissatisfaction that is often guided by the physical and symbolic presence of non-whites in spaces from which they had previously been restricted—their claims of white suffering grow more pronounced. Related whites often feel that they have no reason to be held accountable. Thus, holding them accountable for anything is translated as oppressing them and in turn, causing their suffering.

This conclusion is generally coupled with the belief that what whites say is true simply is. Indeed, moral authority is something that whites never seem to lose control of, even when conceding their own limitations or fears. Described by scholar Yen Le Espiritu as the “We Win Even When We Lose Syndrome,” this variation of white supremacy acknowledges white vulnerability in the face of “defeats” caused by the resistance of non-whites to a white supremacist agenda. While this notion of white vulnerability is driven by racist, sexist, and homophobic fears of competing with or being held accountable by other races, it is nevertheless one that allows whites to “win” even when they “lose” by retaining moral authority. This form of white ownership means that Rocky Balboa can lose to a Black athlete but nevertheless walk out the victor in the end, Chinese manufactured goods may be vilified but recalls of U.S. products ignored, and I can be threatened with being forcibly removed from a plane for raising my concerns regarding being assaulted. What all of these examples have in common is that they centralize white suffering and use it to buttress white moral authority.

While white supremacy does not require any rational basis for its moral authority, the notion of white suffering is, and has always been, a stated reason for white violence and disciplinary actions against non-whites. In my experience with Southwest Airlines, I was punished for not simply taking what a white man gave me. A gesture that again is associated not with Asianness but with Blackness, I apparently caused this man to suffer by not keeping quiet when his leg pressed against mine. Instead, I was assaulted and threatened by him, laughed at by a young white woman, chastised and disciplined by an older white woman, and then forced to listen to another white man next to me basically try to say he was helping me out. My situation, along with those that mirror it, shows that in the end white moral authority or appeals to it are the only politically recognized truths. The way in which the notion of white suffering informs contemporary white moral discourse therefore requires a looking backward into the souls of white folk that Du Bois interrogated over 85 years ago.

  1. September 23, 2010 at 10:34 am | #1

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I am sorry that you were disrespected by Southwest Airlines. I need to fly Friday and will no longer consider them.

    P.S. Not all People of European ancestry are like this or behave like this even as they peel away white privilege.

  2. Chrysalis
    August 30, 2011 at 4:39 am | #2

    This was an intense piece. Thanks for writing it. A few thoughts:

    1)
    If you really felt that strongly about it, why didn’t you ever say that, yes, you wanted to press the assault charges and pull the offending white man off the plane with you? It would have also inconvenienced him terribly. Based on the facts, it sounds like he really did assault you and this would have given him some sort of a criminal record. Your story recounts that your stress level was increasing as you dealt with Ms. Parker — and whose wouldn’t, really — and that you agreed not to discuss the situation with other passengers because you didn’t know what else to do at that point.

    Again, though, you could (and probably should) have elected to press charges. Your piece doesn’t explain why you chose not to do this, even though it was absolutely your right to do so. Considering how long your essay really is, in terms of analyzing racism and being critical of American society, and although I have some natural sympathy for your situation, a rational, disinterested audience can’t help but wonder why on one hand you feel so strongly about being discriminated against, but on the other didn’t feel strongly enough to take your aggressor off the flight and into the civil/criminal justice system.

    2)
    When describing how his legs pressed into yours, you pointed out how his knees basically poked out beyond the armrests and pressed into your legs. Meanwhile, you asserted that you don’t fit conventional norms of sexual attractiveness, and quote your alleged assaulter in saying that you’re a “big” girl. You didn’t, however, describe how large your own legs might be and that it might be difficult for anyone sitting next to you to spread his/her legs without touching yours. In other words, your physical size might share responsibility with a smaller person sitting next to you who is able to occupy a similar volume of space by spreading his/her legs.

    3)
    Since you aren’t White, you can’t really claim to know the motivations of White people. By demonizing them you are doing the same thing you accuse them of doing.

    • jenga
      October 7, 2011 at 3:53 am | #3

      Seriously, shut the hell up. It’s quite obvious all ever wanted to do by this comment was defend the undefendable opinions of the employees. Stop accusing the victim, stop your shitty victim-blaming, and get off that shitty soapbox.

    • Becka
      October 7, 2011 at 11:47 am | #4

      Chrysalis, your comment? Is the exact demonstration of what the original peice was talking about. You read the whole thing and then decided OH NO A PERSON OF COLOR IS PROTESTING HER TREATMENT BY WHITE FOLK I MUST DEFEND THE WHITENESS. YOU weren’t there; YOU don’t know the motivations either. But the ingrained “WHITE IS RIGHT” in you – combined with an unhealthy dose of patriarchy and sizeism – has you defending someone who invaded the personal space of another, someone who threatened physical assault, and the people in positions of authority who decided, without seeing the situation, that Tamara was lying and making it up.

      Oh, and you throw in victim blaming, too. “If you really had a problem, you would have pressed charges; by not doing so you brought the treatment on yourself.” Good job defending the status quo!

      People like you ARE the problem. Get some empathy, okay?

    • notawhiteguy
      October 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm | #5

      Man, the defensive butthurt is strong with you.

      “take your aggressor off the flight and into the civil/criminal justice system.”

      Because non-white people have been represented SO well in the courts! She just described how many white people came to her offense HERE, what makes you think she would do better in COURT??

      “You didn’t, however, describe how large your own legs might be and that it might be difficult for anyone sitting next to you to spread his/her legs without touching yours.”

      Why should she? Why should anyone need to spread their legs at all??? Women are expected to take up less space than men, regardless of woman’s size, but women never feel the need to touch men this way in public spaces. I expect men to keep their knees together as well as women can. Next time you’re on a train or other public transit, look at people’s knees and you’ll see who is taking more space VS who is trying to take up the least amount of space.

      #3 is bullshit. You are a racist (and I’m guessing white man). White people saturate the moral landscape of America and it’s impossible for non-white people to rise above it. You hit every “ignorant white guy” trope there is. BINGO.

  3. notawhiteguy
    October 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm | #6

    I’m sorry you’re getting defensive, shitty comments on here. I completely agree and sympathize with your article.

  4. deloria
    October 18, 2011 at 3:29 pm | #7

    If I wanted to write a satire of maladjustment and racial self-hatred, this article would be a good model to follow. If somebody fails to hold a door for you, it’s an act of racial oppression. If somebody holds a door for you, it’s…an act of racial oppression (white mommy!). You have a completely non-falsifiable worldview, which leads you to make ridiculously (and demonstrably) untrue assertions. “…white moral authority or appeals to it are the only politically recognized truths”? What is this, kindergarten? You dehumanize everyone in your attempt to reduce the world to a 2 bit palette, but the one most dehumanized in the process is yourself. This guy may have been a jerk (as it sounds like you may have been), and even a racist (though you’ve hardly proven it), but your reasoning in response to this situation is seriously polluted, at least as explained here. People like you used to roam the halls of my junior high school, menacing fellow students with challenges of “what are YOU looking at?” if anyone happened to catch their eye.

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