A black passenger shares of being moved several rows back on Delta Air Lines flight so that her two white seatmates could enjoy more legroom. The optics were bad in the hyperracialized world in which we live, but can we acknowledge the black passenger’s pain without condemning Delta Air Lines…at least until we have more info?
Black Woman Cries Foul Against Delta Air Lines, Arguing Complaining White Women Were Privileged Over Her
Here’s a rundown of what occurred on a recent Delta flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, according to Camille Henderson:
- Henderson, 25, was seated in 15A and two white women, in their 50s, were seated in 15B and 15C
- There were two open seats in first class and the white women claimed they had upgraded over the phone and should be re-seated in the premium cabin seats
- But flight attendants did not see the upgrade in their system and the passengers were unable to produce refreshed boarding passes, so the women were forced to remain economy class
- The white women bitterly complained to multiple flight attendants about their seating
- This complaining continued, with the woman continuing to gripe about the lack of legroom even after the flight departed
- Later in the flight, a flight attendant asked Henderson if she would mind moving back to row 34
- She agreed to move, gathered her belongings, and made her way back to an aisle seat in row 34
- Flight attendants offered her a complimentary cocktail for her inconvenience
- Henderson complained to Delta Customer Service after her flight, but her complaint was dismissed because she was moved “from a main cabin seat to another main cabin seat”
Henderson claims she agreed to move because “I don’t want to be the angry black woman that doesn’t listen to the rules, even though the rules were that I paid for a seat and I went to my seat and I didn’t ask to move.”
That’s not quite right – as I’ve found in my own travels, seat assignments are never guaranteed. There is no such thing as “my” seat, though in this case the seat change was only requested, not required. That said, Henderson was wise to move rather than risk the ire of the flight attendants (and that’s a sad reflection on flight attendants in general).
Henderson told The Daily Beast that Delta’s conduct toward her constituted a microaggresion:
“We cannot have conversations about white people’s conveniences at the expense of black people being inconvenienced. [People focus on] the big events: the George Floyds, all of the people that are unjustly killed by police, redlinings, food deserts, all these things that happen on a larger scale. But we’re not necessarily talking about the microaggressions—actions that happen every single day to black people.”
A microaggresion is “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”
I find myself of two minds here…which, of course, will lead to charges of my wokeism from some and racism from others. I invite you to help me think this through.
One extreme will dismiss Henderson’s claim wholly or even brand her a racist for “seeing everything” through a racial lens, thus fomenting needless division. The other extreme will argue this incident is a clear demonstration of microaggresion, white privilege, and even racism.
But can’t we acknowledge Henderson’s pain without immediately condemning Delta or branding the flight attendants who moved Henderson as racists?
Henderson claims the act of moving her back several rolls constituted a microagression but couldn’t it also be that the flight attendants just wanted to shut up the two women from their complaining and it had nothing to do with Henderson? Henderson herself said the women would not let the issue go and kept complaining. While capitulation may not have been the best response, I can hardly blame the flight attendants for trying to silence the complainers.
It appears there were not two seats together in the back, which answers the question why the women were not moved. Some have suggested Henderson should have been upgraded to first class so the women could spread out in their economy class row, but can you imagine the uproar that would have caused? (though admittedly, I would have loved to watch that unfold…).
Flight attendants saw the quickest path to restoring peace onboard was to move Henderson to a different seat, which happened to be behind her. Indeed, it created bad optics (moving a black woman to the back of the bus while essentially rewarding the white women for being jerks), but unintentional racism? While I understand the idea of casual racism, I don’t think we can go that far without more details…
At the same time, I empathize with Henderson’s plight:
“When I moved to the back, the whole plane is looking at me. It’s not like we were boarding. It’s not like they moved me before the plane took off…I have to carry all of my stuff with me to the back. As I’m moving to the back of the plane, everybody is kind of looking. It’s just kind of embarrassing. I just felt like I was put under the spotlight, and I really should not have. There was no need for me to move.”
I would have felt the same way…and I’m a white man, not a black woman. Embarrassment is not limited to one race or gender. She should not have been asked to move.
I don’t stake a middle road position on this issue for the sake of being moderate. I’m open for greater understanding of why this was an egregious incident (or why it was not). But even without hearing Delta’s side of the story, Henderson has failed to convince me that she was targeted on the basis of her race. That does not take away the embarrassment of being forced to move to the back of the plane during the flight or the bad optics of the rewarding the louts at the expense of someone who was just quietly minding her own business.