On One Hand

January 2, 2009

What NOT to do when you are guilty of accidental racism

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 11:51 am

A group of 9 Muslim passengers was removed from a grounded airplane in Washington D.C. yesterday on suspicion of terrorism. The stir originated when passengers overheard them chatting about which part of a plane is safest to sit in. (See the full story.)

Of those in the party removed, all but one were American-born and 3 were small children.

After the family was confronted by airline employees and anxiety spread through the plane, federal officials decided to re-screen all 104 passengers and required them to exit and re-board. But those from the Muslim group were kept off and had to purchase tickets on the next flight when they were finally cleared of suspicion.

The airline, which called the whole ordeal a “misunderstanding,” made the following comment:

“At the end of the day, people got on and made comments they shouldn’t have made on the airplane, and other people heard them. Other people heard them, misconstrued them. It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions.”

There are two parts of this response I take issue with:

1) The airline representative said members of the group made “…comments they shouldn’t have made.” Since when is it inappropriate to chat about airline safety on an airplane? Air safety experts reccommend that passengers think about the location of the engines and fire escapes when boarding a plane. It is not the airlines role to chastise the private conversations of passengers who were just faced with this kind of ordeal.

2) The airline representative adds, “It just so happened that these peoople were of the Muslim faith and appearence.” Yeah right. When is the last time a family of 9 (including small children) was asked to exit a plane for wondering aloud where the safest seats were?

It’s painfully obvious that the family’s religion, race and appearence played into the anxiety of surrounding passengers, flight attendants and the ultimate ensuing controversy.

There were a series of ambiguous judgment calls at play that are not, specifically, racism. For example, after it was clear that there was some form of panic on the plane, for the pilot to postpone the flight is not an inappropriate call. For the federal marshalls to re-screen everyone on the plane is probably a reasonable precaution especially considering that they did not single out the Muslim family.

But it’s clear, obvious even, that in the incident’s initial stages, racial and ethnic issues caused the controversy.

And it’s ridiculous, even if insisting that the whole thing is a “misunderstanding,” to call the family’s original comments inappropriate.

What it all comes down to is that making misjudgments about a person involving his or her race does not make you a horrible person, especially considering the anxiety people already have about flying in airplanes. It does mean, however, that you owe someone an apology – in this case a damn serious apology. As soon as it became clear that the family was innocent and that race clearly played a role, the best thing for the airline to do was to apologize and affirm that those targeted by racial profiling did nothing wrong. They are the victims and deserve to be treated like victims.

There can be political fallout when an airline admits to having a racial-profiling incident occur under its watch. But this story getting into the news ensures that fallout will occur regardless of such an admission. The appropriate response from the airline would be this:

1) There seems to have been a misunderstanding involving safety on an airplane and it is likely that the family’s ethnicity played a role in the misunderstanding.

2) We do not beleive this was fair to the family and we apologize for the misunderstanding.

3) We do not beleive in racial profiling and are going to take steps to resolve issues more smoothly and prevent people for being targeted in this way in the future.

Such a conversation would help America realize that racism (even if accidental) does still exist, and that the victims of racism should be treated as victims – not as someone you search hard to assign blame to in order to exonerate yourself. It also helps America realize that it’s OK to admit it when you make a mistake.

Incidentally, it would help Muslim Americans feel safer on the airline, assuring them that not only does the airline understand how accidental racism is possible under its watch, but that they are making special effort, above and beyond what other companies are doing, to prevent it in the future.

In America, the single kind of victim who is repeatedly assigned blame under its own victimhood is the victim of racism. Racism’s accidental perpetrators are so shocked and ashamed to admit problems in their own thinking that they almost always assign the blame to the victim.

The format is always this: “he or she is the one who is at fault, and no my attitude is not about race.”

Consider if one of the airline’s flight attendants had said something rude about a passenger because he or she was fat. The airline would have apologized and said we are taking steps to prevent this.

Consider if one of the airline’s flight attendants made a sexist remark, even an ambiguously sexist remark. If the party in question got angry and it caused a stir, the airline would have apologized and said we are taking steps to prevent this.

Consider if someone on the airline were victimized by a passenger or employee based on age or veterans status, or even in a way mildly involving these factors. The airline would have apologized and said we are taking steps to prevent this in the future.

Instead, 9 Muslim passengers were accidentaly victimized based on their race, and the airline’s response is to say, well they were the ones who made an inappropriate comment and the incident didn’t have anything to do with race.

What a microcosm for America.

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5 Comments »

  1. I think a lot of companies (as well as politicians) have exactly the wrong intuitions about how to handle situations like this — not just regarding accidental racism but regarding any kind of embarassing “oops”.

    A lot of companies assume that people’s minds will work this way:

    APOLOGY == ADMISSION OF GUILT == COMPANY IS BAD

    When in fact, I think (as you implied, too) most people probably work this way:

    APOLOGY == AWARENESS OF PROBLEM == GOOD INTENTIONS AND IMPROVEMENT-ORIENTED

    Of course, there ARE those people whose minds function in the first way, and the companies are scared to death of losing their patronage.

    I think the equation the companies are using is this:

    If we apologize, people who think like example 2 above will be happy but people who think like example 1 above will stop using our services.

    If we do not admit guilt, then people who think like example 2 will be annoyed with us but probably will not stop using our services, and we will keep people who think like example 1 happy.

    This logic is, unfortunately, probably true.

    Comment by gregstevenstx — January 2, 2009 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  2. Dude, the thing is, there are about two billion muslims in the world. Less than one tenth of one tenth of one percent of them have ever blown up a building. To assume, then, that any particular Muslim person or Muslim family is dangerous is ridiculous.

    It’s also absurd because it was a family of 9 and they had three children. If someone is a suicide bomber willing to die for a religious or cultural cause, he or she is not gonna bring along the whole family plus the kids.

    Racial profiling is never warranted. There is no race and has never been a race in human history that is more dangerous than another.

    The problem is that it probably wasn’t a hick redneck person with a hick redneck accent. There are a lot of people in American society who have these views. These views are racist. How they got to be racist (which is what you said – they see that Muslims are the ones blowing up buildings and they start to assume that all muslims are dangerous) might be something that you can analyze, but the attitude is never OK.

    This family was innocent. There is no way for them to control whether or not somebody else is involved in a religious conflict. They do not have control over what other Muslims do and cannot be treated as if they are responsible. They were victimized, and victims are owed an apology.

    Comment by ononehand — January 3, 2009 @ 9:18 am | Reply

  3. It wasn’t their civil liberties that were violated in this case; the family said the FBI was courteous and cleared them quickly. It was the airline that made the fuckup.

    I understand that shit happens. But when you accidentaly do a racist thing, or are part of a blowup that has racial connotations, you apologize for it. Instead, the company said you have to be careful what you say on an airplane. OK they talked about the safest way to get out of a plane. You are SUPPOSED TO DO THAT. They hand out pamphlets detailing the safest way to get out of a plane. The spokesperson came back and said “you have to be aware of what people think when they hear your comments.” That’s fine, but what he was basically saying is, white people can say more than Muslims can say and get away with it.

    That’s racism. Whether it’s “true” or “realistic” or not is not the point. Anti-racists and allies of people of color have been saying from the beginning that racism is ubiquetous and finds its way into all situations and circumstances. We already know it’s not an “ideal world.” Eighty percent of our effort fighting racism is done through convincing people and showing people how it’s not an ideal world, that people are still treated unfairly.

    When racism happens, we ask the airline to apologize. That’s the bottom line. We know it’s going to happen, and we know that when people are told they are guilty of racism, they freak out. Instead we want to show them that they don’t have to freak out, they can just apologize and acknowledge that there was a problem and say they’re taking steps to correct the problem in the future.

    Comment by ononehand — January 3, 2009 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  4. Yo, the airline did apologize the day after. They didn’t want the fallout.

    Comment by ononehand — January 4, 2009 @ 8:40 am | Reply

  5. This is more than just a problem with Mulsims though. I seriously had such at hard time at the County Clerks Office when I went to request a mail-in ballot. As soon as the woman heard my last name (Haddad) she got all shifty eyed and asked shocked and loudly what my last name was and asked me to spell it three times, even though she had my ID sitting in front of her. She also insisted that she had seen me before and had been in earlier in the week. Maybe she was just crazy, but her whole tone changed. It made no difference that I am an American citizen, I don’t really look near eastern, or even that my first name is Jewish….I’ve actually been having more government officials freak out more lately when they see/hear my name and anybody who knows anything about arab cultures would know that my name isn’t muslim at all. It totally sucks.

    Comment by psycho_active — January 6, 2009 @ 3:52 am | Reply


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