It’s what we do when no one is watching that actually defines our character. For Doug Parker, that involved reading a book, trying to seek understanding, and unwittingly touching the life of another human being, in this case a Southwest Airlines flight attendant.
Parker was flying on Southwest from Dallas (DAL) to Panama City, Florida (ECP) last week and was reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. He had his own row and was minding his own business when flight attendant JacqueRae Hill came up to him. She didn’t know who he was…she just noticed the book.
She shared about the encounter on Facebook:
“So my heart has been heavy as I’m sure most of you feel the same. I was on social media before preparing to go to work (terrible idea). As I was driving to work I had to really go to God with my thoughts because it would make it hard to smile with everything going on. As we are boarding my first flight of the day I smile and I greet people when they come on and a man was holding a book that has been on my to read list. The book is entitled White Fragility. I was so happy to see that book in his grasp that I knew after I finished my duties I was going to make a point to ask him about it. I go sit next to him as he was sitting in a row all by himself (That was God). I said Hey How are you? I see your are reading that book .. So how is it? He replies oh I’m half way through it’s really good. It really points out how important these conversations on race are. As I began to respond the tears just start falling . I have been so sad every day and I just want to understand and be understood so we can began to fix it.”
Two things immediately stand out. First, Hill’s courage to approach a passenger and start talking, which (if I can generalize) is one thing I love about U.S. flight attendants. Perhaps to some degree in Australia and New Zealand, but nowhere else in the world do you encounter that sort of friendliness. Second, Parker engaged. He did not just ignore or politely try to curtail the conversation as quickly as possible. Instead, he engaged in the conversation. As a somewhat introverted person who enjoys being left alone on an airplane, I appreciated that. Sometimes, conversation is incredibly enriching.
“I’m pretty sure I startled him by seemingly dumping all my emotions on him but his reply was I’m so sorry. And it’s our fault that this is like this. We continued to talk and when I tell you it was everything I needed. I was happy (even tho [sic] I was crying). I went on to tell him about my prayer on my way to work today and that he answered that prayer for me with this conversation.
“As our conversation came to an end he asks me my name I told him JacqueRae and then he said well I’m Doug Parker the CEO of American Airlines. I told him my mother works for him in DC and then I reached over and gave him a BIG HUG ! I HAD TO!! (yes we were both masked) I thanked him for being open and allowing this conversation to happen because I just needed to hear it and I walked off. I thanked God for his LOVE AND FAITHFULNESS the rest of the Flight. On his way off the plane he hands me a handwritten note and I thank him again and ask for this pic. This encounter is Only A Holy Spirit thing!!!!”
Hill attributes divinity to the encounter. Her lasting impression: a humble and caring and man. Then she found out he was the CEO of American Airlines, an airline her mother worked for.
She concludes her thoughts:
“There are so many different ways to affect change in the world. I stand with anyone who wants to make a difference no matter if it is how I would do it or not. I believe that God answered my prayer so perfectly that I want to be apart of an answered prayer for someone else…Doug Parker said that the premise of the book is that we need to have these conversations so here I am. My heart is open and my ears are open as well. BLESSED TO BE A BLESSING.”
Parker wrote her a note and handed it to her as he deplaned the aircraft. It was then they snapped the picture above.
The Note From Parker
Parkers’ note to Hill was brief, but poignant:
Thank you so much for coming back to speak with me. It was a gift from God and an inspiration for me.
I am saddened that we as a society have progressed so slowly on an issue that has such a clear right vs. wrong.
Much of the problem is that we don’t talk about it enough. Thank you for talking to me and sharing your emotion. That took courage.
The book, White Fragility, is great. But it is more for people like me than you (a black friend recommended it to me). I really appreciate you. If you’d like to continue the conversation my email is [redacted].
The book, which I also plan to read, is indeed more for people like me and Parker than for black Americans, but the question of how we can honestly, openly, and constructively discuss race is an issue for everyone to discuss.
Doug Parker’s Version of the Events
Doug Parker later told his version of the events, as noted by View from the Wing.
As I prepared to board, I pulled the book I wanted to read inflight from my backpack. The book is White Fragility — the book [American Airlines Director] Marty Nesbitt recommended to [American Senior Vice President] Elise [Eberwein] and that both she and [Chief Information Officer] Maya [Leibman] had recommended to all of us. It is fantastic — challenging, and educational — but I’m embarrassed to say I had only gotten halfway through it before the crisis hit, and hadn’t picked it up since. The horrific and senseless death of George Floyd reminded me there were bigger issues in our world than coronavirus, so I packed the book for the trip.
I boarded the aircraft and found an empty row in the back. I put the book in the seat pocket, logged into WiFi and began reading and sending emails without opening the book.
About an hour into our 90-minute flight, the flight attendant from the front of the aircraft leaves her position and walks back to me in row 25 and sits down in the aisle seat. My ego again assumes she has recognized me, mask and all, and wants to know why I’m flying Southwest.
But, no, she has no idea who I am. She is a young, black woman and she points at the book lodged in my seat pocket and asks, “How do you like that book?” I say it’s fantastic and defensively show her how I’m a bit past midway. She says, “It’s on my list to read and I saw you bring it onboard and I just wanted to talk to you….” And then she started to cry.
I felt wholly inadequate but I knew it was a special moment. The best I could do was tell her that the book talks about how white people are horrible at talking about racism, and that what we need are real conversations. She agreed. I told her I was trying to learn and through tears and a mask, she said, “So am I.”
We talked for a good ten minutes and it was an absolute gift to me. Toward the end, I felt compelled to tell her what I did for a living. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like I should tell this WN flight attendant (JacqueRae) that had sought me out, that I worked in the business, too. I’m glad I did, because she gasped and told me her mother works for us in DCA. Then she started to cry again and leaned across the middle seat and hugged me. She thanked me for listening and then went back up front as we prepared for descent.
Before we deplaned, I had a wonderful email from her mother, Patti, thanking me for comforting her daughter. I had done nothing, of course. JacqueRae was the brave one. I was sitting comfortably in the back sending you guys emails without thinking twice about what this young woman — and others like her — were going through. She was a gift to me.
I did my best to explain that to JacqueRae in a note I scribbled out on descent. Then I replied to Patti’s email. I’m just going to copy my note to her here, because it relays my emotions about this as best I can…
I appreciate the account for the humility it shows. Parker, like so many (including myself), genuinely wish for justice and racial equality. Yet we often get so busy in our lives we just stop thinking about it. And yet the problems persist, magnified in a new era of social media and mobile phone cameras. Here, Parker probably would not have even picked up the book during the flight had the flight attendant not stopped by his seat.
By the way, here’s the email from Patti, Hill’s mother, to Parker:
It brings me to tears to read in a text message from my daughter, JacqueRae, how kind and understand[ing] you were to her today on y[o]ur flight from Dallas. I have only been a part of American for nine and a half years but I always felt your heart is good but you have a difficult job. Thank you so much for confirming my belief in who you are and for the hugs you gave my child. What [..] a way to care for people o[n] their life’s journey! American Airlines will come back strong!
And his response back:
Your daughter’s visit was a gift to me. She is a special young woman. She had the courage to approach me only because I was reading a book on racism in Ameriac. She, like most all of us, is questioning how we got to this spot and why we can’t be better. Her kind heart and open-mindedness were evident – you raised her well.
I had no answers other than to tell her we all need to talk about it more. She cetainly left an impression on me. Reading a book is one thing – spending time with a kind, strong, young black woman who is hurting and trying to learn from others is another thing altogether.
After we’d talked for awhile I felt like I should tell her what I did for a living. The conversation was even more impactful when we realized we had you as a connection. (How did we let her to go Southwest?)
Thank you for thanking me, but trust me, I was the one who was blessed by thtat conversation. I am better for it and more resolved to do what I can to make the world better for people like her (and people like me). Thank you!
I appreciate how heartfelt both notes are and that Parker grasps what so many well-intentioned people do: how can we make things better? It certainly starts by listening.
What We Can Learn From This Encounter + Newfound Respect For Parker
View from the Wing does such a nice job reflecting upon this incident that I am tempted just to defer to him, but I’ll take a crack at this too.
With cities burning in the United States and problems of economic, political, and social inequality continuing to ravage communities of color, it is easy to ask, what now? How should we grapple with a system that has made meaningful progress but remains so far from the goal? What is the path toward empowering everyone to shed the bonds of poverty and promoting a society in which equal justice under law is not just a goal, but a reality?
The pessimistic side of me says nothing, but that is simply not an acceptable answer. Whatever the answer–and it does allude me–the solution to every problem starts with love; loving your neighbor as yourself and seeking, as a result, to treat them the way you wish to be treated. The Golden Rule is criticized on the basis that others may not want to be treated the way you are treated, but that represents a superficial understanding of the rule. Treating someone with dignity, respect, and equality is a universal and transcendent value. The specific application may vary, but treating someone with kindness and love is the first step toward greater understanding. That greater understanding is the first step toward making conscious decisions to heal wounds, not sow divisions.
As my own city of Los Angeles burns, I was moved by the encounter between Hill and Parker. Let it serve as an example for all of us.
And while I question many of the policy decisions Parker has made while running American Airlines, I salute him today with newfound respect as a man of humility and courage to admit that we all can do more to serve one another and work toward a better future.