Coming face to face with the airlines’ race problem

Nov 19, 2021

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America has been very vocal in the past few years about race, racism and many of the challenges we continue to face as a society. While it’s great that the topic continues to resonate and be discussed, there’s still so much more to fix.

Related: The Points Guy releases diversity, equity and inclusion efforts

When traveling, we are often reminded of the good and bad of society in addition to the ways — intentional or not — that racism can show its ugly head.

A tale of discrimination on a Southwest flight hit home and painfully reminded me of situations I’ve faced as a Black woman in America — one with family members who present as white.

For those who missed it: A recent story was published about how Southwest Airlines allegedly profiled a white mother with her 10-year-old biracial child as a possible human trafficker.

While I understand that airlines are hyperaware of human trafficking — and rightly so — clearly a mistake was made here by Southwest personnel. There needs to be more common sense used before making incorrect assumptions and calling law enforcement, which tends to make a situation worse, especially when people of color are involved.

My family on Father’s Day 2020. Top row: Me and my sister. Bottom row: My niece, my child and my dad. (Photo by Benét J. Wilson)

While not as extreme as the case above, I have personally experienced extra scrutiny when traveling with my 8-year-old niece, who presents as white. My family is a virtual rainbow coalition: My sister, father and niece present as white, while my mother, my child and I present as Black.

Related: TSA body scanners disproportionately target women of color, report says

On two past Southwest flights, I was flagged and asked about my niece. The first time was on a flight to Baltimore. I had just scolded my niece for running in the gate area and she cried, so a gate agent came over and asked if she was my child. I replied no, that she was my niece, which caused a look of surprise. He asked her if she knew me, and she replied, “Yes. That’s my auntie Nanie.” He looked at us both and walked away, with no apology.

The second time was on a trip to Sacramento when I was questioned by a flight attendant after my niece had a small meltdown during what was a long flight. Again, my niece told her who I was after being questioned, and I showed a family photo for further proof. However, I still felt as if I was being scrutinized for the rest of the flight.

I understand that it’s an easy mistake to make since Black people come in so many different shades and non-Black people can’t always tell. Children 2 and older know who their parents and loved ones are, so if you ask, “Is this your [insert relationship here]?” and they reply yes, then everyone can move on — without involving law enforcement.

A better way for airline employees to clarify those relationships would be to take a page from a guide published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway and ask questions — before law enforcement is called. Tips to keep in mind include:

  • Be nonjudgmental and kind when questioning a child.
  • Be upfront about who you are and why you’re asking questions.
  • Use age-appropriate language.

The Blue Lightning Initiative (BLI), led by the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, along with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, trains aviation personnel to identify potential traffickers and human trafficking victims. Personnel can then report their suspicions to federal law enforcement. This is a good thing.

However, we need to recognize that our country continues to become more diverse. The U.S. Census Bureau numbers released in August 2021 show that the multiracial population in almost every county in the United States grew between 2010 and 2020, showing that the U.S. population is more multiracial and more racially and ethnically diverse than ever.

That means we all need to be more aware of how people identify themselves and — more importantly — not make face-value assumptions about a person’s race. We also need to end the practice of profiling passengers based solely on race and train airline employees to explain why they are asking questions and not to resort to calling law enforcement as a solution without a problem.

My advice for those who may find themselves in a similar situation? Be calm, but ask why you’re being questioned. Talk to your child and explain what’s going on. There is no law against taking photos or video on an airplane, so that can be an option to document what happens in case things escalate.

The truth is that we can’t wave a magic wand to get a perfect solution. Racial profiling in airports and on planes isn’t going away anytime soon. But a little common sense and compassion can go a long way.

Related: It happened again: Why the TSA still can’t deal with my natural hair

Featured photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy.

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