Bigotry in the air

When white people hear racist comments from fellow travelers, how should they respond?

5 minute read
An inside view from the back of a commercial airplane, with the white cabin ceiling overhead and people in rows of seats.
Image via

I’d just boarded my plane from Philadelphia to California. When you travel alone, sitting on a plane always is a lottery. Would the person sitting next to me be pleasant and friendly? An obnoxious drinker? A motormouth? A jerk who’d assault the first flight attendant who enforced the law about masking?

This was going to be a six-hour flight, and I was hoping for somebody pleasant and low-key. No demands and no drama.

I was in luck. When I got to row 20, I saw that the fellow in the middle seat was a smiling man, apparently in his fifties. A woman whom I assumed was his wife — they’d lowered the armrest between them — sat beside him in the window seat.

As I settled into my aisle seat, the man gave me a welcoming smile. “I’m so glad you’re sitting here,” he told me.

That seemed a little much. Was he being flirty? No, I decided. Not only was he at least a decade younger than I was, but his wife was sitting right there. Maybe he was just a really friendly guy?

“Thank you,” I replied.

“I was scared it would be the guy with the turban,” he explained. “When I saw him in the boarding lounge, I was really hoping he wouldn’t sit near us.”

Exactly what he meant

My friendly seatmate was white. Like I am. And I knew exactly what he had meant by that remark. But I pretended that I didn’t. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I hadn’t misunderstood.

“What’s so scary about wearing a turban?” I asked.

“He could be a terrorist!” my seatmate exclaimed.

Okay, so I was sitting next to a bigot. Great.

And not only that. He assumed that I shared his views. Why? Probably because I was white. I wasn’t wearing my Black Lives Matter mask, but I was wearing my rainbow bracelet, which I hope signals to anyone in the know that I’m progressive.

But all this dude noticed was a fellow white person. So he felt safe expressing a little racism.

How was I supposed to handle this?

Keeping calm

I fantasized briefly about summoning a flight attendant. “There’s been a mistake!” I’d say loudly. “I’ve been seated in the Racist Section! Please move me to another seat!”

I also thought about explaining to my seatmate that despite many false and harmful narratives, turbans have nothing to do with terrorism.

But I didn’t want to spend the next six hours trying to convince this friendly bigot not to be a bigot. I don’t think lectures like that work, and I’m not very good at giving them.

I wasn’t up to this. I realized that this is because I live in my own bubble made up of progressive people. In my world, everyone believes the way I do. I don’t have to encounter open racism, so I have no idea how to respond when I do.

I decided to try a calm, low-key approach.

“You can’t actually tell whether somebody is a terrorist by looking at them,” I told my seatmate. “Anyone on this plane could be a terrorist. I could be a terrorist.”

“I guess that’s true,” he admitted.

I don’t know whether he backpedaled because he had seen the light or because he didn’t want to spend the next six hours of his life arguing about racism and white privilege any more than I did.

Seeing me

Of course, no one thinks I’m a terrorist. I’m a 66-year-old white woman. And a retired librarian. In my mind, nobody is going to quake in fear when I sit down next to them.

Was I insulted that the man assumed I shared his racism? Sure. But I wasn’t surprised. I could fly cross-country wearing a “Death to America” T-shirt, juggling hand grenades, and everyone would think “How adorable! That totally harmless librarian is making an ironic political statement.”

Why? Because I’m white. If I were Black or brown, wearing a turban or a hijab, I know that I might be viewed with hostility and suspicion by many people (even the “friendly” ones) just for boarding the plane.

How do we change that?

A gentler approach?

As the man and I moved on to safe topics of conversation — our travel plans and our wonderful grandchildren — I was well aware of the fact that I could have done more. Plenty of people would have called out my seatmate on his bigotry. Made it clear that it was totally unacceptable. Attempted to shame him. Tried to make him as uncomfortable as possible.

Would that have stopped his prejudice? Probably not. But it might stop him in future from so casually displaying his bigotry to strangers because he assumes they feel the same.

Instead, I hoped that my gentler approach  gave him something to think about. A librarian at heart, my impulse was to push back against his ignorance with good information.

I wanted that to be enough. But it sure didn’t feel like it. To be honest, it felt as if I'd failed.

In true librarian fashion, I vowed to find some good books about how to confront racism in myself and others. I’m currently reading Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. And How to Argue with a Racist.

And making more of an effort to move outside of my own bubble wouldn’t hurt either. Mixing more in the world might make me more adept at pushing back against bigots’ bullshit. And spending more time with people who aren’t white—who have to deal with this kind of racist crap all the time—would undoubtedly teach me something too.

Stuck together

As we continued to chat, I was afraid the man would make another bigoted statement — but he didn’t. I flew to California with all the peace I had hoped for—a peace I was able to choose.

But I can’t shake the feeling that I should have handled this differently. Maybe I should have created a little drama myself in response to his casually racist remark. Or attempted to engage him in a discussion about racism and white privilege.

Because as long as white people can move safely and pleasantly through life, and people of color can’t, we’re all stuck in the Racist Section.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation