“…that best portion of a good man’s life,His little, nameless, unremembered, actsOf kindness and of love.”William Wordsworth, from “Tintern Abbey”
I was asleep in the aisle seat on an airplane Monday and was awoken when the man sitting next to me spoke. I’m always anxious about who is going to sit next to me, but he’d been a good seat mate. He was in his seventies, I think, and had darker skin than mine and a foreign accent I couldn’t place. He didn’t seem to mind sitting in the middle seat. He didn’t try to hog space or manspread. When he answered the flight attendant (white, male, early forties) pushing the drink cart, saying, “Yes, Diet Pepsi, please,” I kept my eyes closed, though I was awake.
The flight attendant said, “What?”
Still pretending not to understand this man who spoke very good, clear English despite his accent, the flight attendant said, “What do you want?”
“Diet Pepsi,” this time loudly enough that I opened my eyes.
The flight attendant handed him a Pepsi and turned away. The man said, “No, Diet Pepsi,” and the flight attendant turned around and said “What?” again, though there could be no mistaking what this man was saying.
“I would like a Diet Pepsi, please.”
The flight attendant took away the Pepsi, handed the man a Diet Sierra Mist, and moved on. Such passive aggression. I promise you there is no chance that the attendant didn’t understand the man.
The man held the yellow and green can out in front of his face, turned to see that the attendant had moved on, and then stared at the can again, bewildered.
I just learned from 23andme that my DNA makes me less likely to be afraid to speak in public. That’s spot-on. I turned my head toward the flight attendant and said, “Excuse me.” He ignored me. I said, “Excuse me, I would like a Diet Pepsi.” Still nothing. “Pardon me.”
Then he turned toward me and barked, “Give me a minute here!” That’s when I was absolutely sure he had done it on purpose.
A few seconds later, he handed me a Diet Pepsi, which I handed to the man next to me. The flight attendant said, “It’s not for you?”
“No,” I said, “And I heard him clearly the first time he said it. Do you want the Sierra Mist back?”
“Oh,” he said, “That looks exactly like a Diet Pepsi!” (It doesn’t.) “I am so sorry.” (He wasn’t.)
After he was gone, the man next to me thanked me. He said, “I thought you were asking for a Diet Pepsi for yourself. You were very kind to get one for me.”
This is the social climate we live in. A man thanked me for treating him like a human being when someone else hadn’t. The flight attendant didn’t want to give me a Diet Pepsi, because he knew what I was going to do with it. He couldn’t pretend to misunderstand a white woman, however. He was angry, but he apologized to mask his passive aggression and racial discrimination.
I was angered by the situation, but I was also embarrassed. That this man should be treated that way was unconscionable—at least to me. I tried to smooth it by saying to him, “He must not be happy today. He could act a little friendlier.”
The man said, “It’s okay. He has a very difficult job.” I agreed with him because this white lie protected the man from the further humiliation of the two of us admitting he was discriminated against because of the color of his skin and he spoke with a foreign accent.
Despite my DNA, I weighed whether I should say something more to the flight attendant or to the head flight attendant or let it go, and I decided to let it go. I did it for the man’s sake.
I recognize fully that I’m forfeiting any good karma this small act may have otherwise attached to me, because, according to Wordsworth, these little acts should be nameless and unremembered– but I’m naming it and remembering it by writing this. I’m okay with that. I feel it’s more important to shine a light on this, and encourage others to step forward no matter how insignificant the discrimination seems to be; every instance of a person being humiliated is significant.
When the flight attendant came to pick up trash, I was reading. He took the chip bags from the people in my row and dumped the crumbs all over my book. “Oh, I’m soooooo sorry,” he said. “I am sorry.” I said it was okay, not even looking up at him. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing I knew he was retaliating against me.
When we were getting off the plane, the man thanked me again. He must not be used to someone using their privilege to stand up for him. And it was such a small thing. I was only being a decent person. That’s all that is required of someone with privilege—just doing the small things any decent person would do. It’s not heroic. It requires nothing other than speaking out. That’s all. I know that not everyone is as ready to speak up as I am, but I wish that more people would speak up anyway.
The signs posted all over our airports and train stations these days, “If You See Something, Say Something” are there to remind us that combating terrorism is something we all need to participate in. Combating racism and discrimination is something we all need to participate in, too. If we don’t, the bad guys win.