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.