To Southwest Airlines,
Early on Wednesday morning, June 29, my husband and I sat on Southwest flight 1971 from Minneapolis-Saint Paul to Kansas City, and continued to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. We were excited to be travelling to meet our one-year-old niece, to see my husband’s family for the first time in two years, and to celebrate with extended family as my husband officiated his cousin’s wedding.
I was grateful that I got a window seat next to my husband. We were given instructions to put smaller items under the seat and larger carry-ons in the overhead bins. We were not given any other instructions (for example that we needed to be seated) before the incident happened.
Two rows behind us and opposite the aisle an African American family of three boarded, a mother and two children, a younger boy and a pre-teen/young teenage girl. The daughter stood up with a paper cup. She met a flight attendant in the aisle who told her, “You need to return to your seat,” in a brusque tone.
When the girl explained, “I just wanted to pour this out.” The Southwest employee’s tone got more firm and she said, “I said, you need to return to your seat.” The girl was young, maybe 12 or 13 and she followed the directions.
The flight attendant went back to the row. The conversation between the flight attendant and the mother was quiet, then I heard the flight attendant say, “I don’t like your tone,” and the mother replied, “I don’t like your tone either.”
The flight attendant once again said, “I don’t like your tone! Do you want me to kick you off this flight?” The mother responded by saying, “No I don’t, I just am trying to say that I don’t think that you are speaking to me with a respectful tone.” At this point the flight attendant walked to the cockpit, a phone call was made.
A few minutes later a man and a woman entered the plane, I had seen the woman earlier at ticketing, I assume that she was the manager on duty that morning, the man was wearing a reflective vest and a black uniform, I assume that he was airport police.
The manager came back to our section of the plane, talked with the mother and asked her to leave the plane. The mother expressed some hurt and frustration and the entire family walked off the plane. Both the mother and the daughter had tears in their eyes.
I enjoyed reading about your corporate value of Hospitality, and the excellence of your Diversity & Inclusion Team in the July issue of the in-flight magazine. I am concerned about this incident that seemed to represent the opposite of both Hospitality and Diversity & Inclusion. As a former teacher and a ministry director, Hospitality, Diversity and Inclusion are important values in my classrooms.
Your customers and staff will likely become more diverse in the coming years. May I offer three suggestions from my experience and training as a teacher that may eliminate experiences like this for your customers and staff? These are ideas that need to be taught and reflected upon multiple times each year.
When I was studying Community Ministry Leadership in seminary, I was taught that the more diverse your group is, the more explicit you need to be in communicating your expectations. Every group comes into a space with varying social norms for behaviors. Children in particular, may not know the expectations for flying.
In teacher education we are taught that we cannot expect our students to behave according to our expectations unless those expectations are clear. The minute that it is no longer safe to walk around the plane it should be communicated to the passengers that we need to sit down. The child was taken aback by what she perceived to be a reprimand for a rule she did not know she had broken, because she did not know the rule.
When the girl was told to go back to her seat, it was clear to me that she felt threatened or scolded and was trying to explain herself. She was agitated, not trying to be disrespectful, but trying to protect herself. When the flight attendant repeated her directions in a louder voice, it seemed that the agitation grew, rather than diminished.
One technique I use with agitated students is to acknowledge the student’s wants and desires to help calm them down. In this case the girl wanted to throw away her cup, and to prove that she was not trying to cause trouble. If the flight attendant had said, “Oh, ok, I can take the cup for you and dump it out if you will please go back to your seat,” the situation would have likely de-escalated quickly.
Cultural competency and implicit bias training:
I am not accusing the flight attendant of intentional racism. However, cultural differences, and an implicit bias may have influenced her response.
The understood meaning of a verbal tone of voice varies from culture to culture. What may sound aggressive to one group may be merely assertive, or even neutral for another group. Additionally, throughout American history phrases like “I don’t like your tone,” were and are used to keep African Americans “in their place” as subservient and silent. Cultural competency training that helps people understand cultural differences as well as the historical context of a culture are essential.
Implicit bias awareness would also help. As an educator who serves many African American children I was sad, but not surprised to learn that while African Americans are only 18% of the preschool population they make up 50% of the preschool suspensions. This is at least partially because, as other studies have shown, white adults perceive black children to be older and more threatening than their lighter skinned peers. Without meaning to, your flight attendant may have perceived this child and more aggressive, older, and scarier than she actually was.
There were three things that I noticed when the family had exited.
The first was that even though every other seat on the plane was full, the row where the family had been sitting remained empty. A man across the aisle from us joked that it would be seriously bad Karma to take that family’s seat.
The second was that at least three passengers took action before we even left the ground. My husband got on Twitter,
Dear @southwestair your flight attendants need to learn deescalation instead of kicking a family off flight 1971
— Richard Matson-Daley (@RichieDaley) June 29, 2016
the other man in our row sent an email and someone else near us asked for advice on how to complain. For those of us sitting close to the incident it was clear that the family had been wronged and that racism was at play.
These two incidents gave me hope, other people around me noticed the injustice.
The third thing that I noticed after the incident was more disturbing. Several rows in front of us, a passenger congratulated the flight attendant for booting off that “disrespectful kid and her inattentive mom.”
Hearing this, the flight attendant smiled, put her hands on her hips and puffed her chest. “Somebody’s got to tell them,” she said.
Even more than the incident, the flight attendant’s pride in removing this family from a flight made me feel unwelcome and unsafe on that flight.
On this flight and the other three of our trip I was anxious and worried, afraid I might accidentally break a rule or that my husband’s dark skin tone would be perceived as a threat. Rather than experiencing Hospitality, Diversity & Inclusion I felt fear of being excluded and that the diversity in our family was a risk when flying Southwest.
Please let me know if I can offer more information about the incident. While I appreciate your efforts to foster Hospitality, Diversity & Inclusion at Southwest, I am disappointed in how that was executed on our flight.