Being sent to “the back of the plane”

On a Christmas flight, we paid extra for “economy plus” seats to have a little more legroom and board earlier to ensure we got space in the overhead (we hate to check bags). This put us just a few rows behind first class, so when it was time for a restroom break, I followed my husband up to the bathroom at the front of the plane, which was by far the closest one to us. As I stood there waiting my turn, a flight attendant asked if I was seated to the rear of the plane, and before I could even answer, she said, “There are two bathrooms in the back of the plane you can use” and motioned for me to move on. Somewhat embarrassed, I mosied down the long aisle to the rear.

When I returned to my seat, I noticed the flight attendant had closed the little mesh curtain that separated first class from economy class. I resented having been told I wasn’t welcome at the front of the airplane, and the curtain seemed to add further insult. It also seemed ridiculous. You could see right through it, and it did nothing to dampen sound between the passengers in the front and those in back. Yet, its message to those of us in the “cheap seats” was clear—stay back there where you belong.

That curtain made me stop and think. I had essentially been told that, at least in this circumstance, I was “second class.” The fact that I could see through the curtain to first class made it worse. I could see everything I was missing: the special service, the better drinks and snacks, the spacious and cushy seats… and the uncrowded bathroom.

Those feelings for me ended when that flight did. But I couldn’t help thinking that there are people for whom that’s a common experience—not just on an airplane, but in many of aspects of life. People who are told they aren’t welcome, who get the message they are somehow “less than,” who are treated differently because of what they look like, where they’re from, or how much money they have.

This reflection called to mind a conversation I had with a friend last year. Like me, he’s married with a few kids, has a professional job, lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, drives a nice car, and attends church regularly. Unlike me, however, he’s African American. I had asked him to talk with me because my assumption had been that because his life was similar to mine in many ways, his life experiences and his interactions with employers, neighbors, store owners, police, etc. must also be similar to mine—even though his race is different than mine. Surely, race alone can’t really be enough anymore, not in this day and age, to influence how one is treated. After many stories in the news, though, I thought perhaps I should actually talk to someone “different” from me to test my assumption.

I learned that my assumption was very wrong. His experiences—many things being equal to mine—were, in fact, quite different. As a child, in his own middle class, mostly white neighborhood, police had stopped him while walking home to ask what he was doing there. As a teen/young adult, he had been pulled over repeatedly by police for no good reason because of his skin color. While shopping, he had been followed or watched by salespeople with extra scrutiny. And he had watched as servers gave the check to his wife, who is white, instead of to him. In subtle, and not so subtle, ways he received the message he was somewhere he didn’t belong, he wasn’t trustworthy, and he wasn’t worthy of respect.

My little incident of being told to go to the back of the plane to use the economy bathroom was really no big deal, and because I don’t often experience the “we don’t like your kind” or “you don’t belong here” message, I was able to shake off the anger and embarrassment I felt within moments. But I haven’t been able to shake off the lingering questions that resulted. What would it feel like to be someone who encounters that message frequently? How jaded would I become? How angry or dejected? What might I start to think about myself? And about the world around me? Would I try to rise above that message, to prove people wrong? Would I become defensive and act out against the people and systems sending that message? Or would I simply start to believe that I’m not equal, welcome, worthy, valued, or capable—would I stop trying or hoping?

As importantly, in what ways do I communicate to others around me that they are not welcome, not enough, not valued? And why do I do that? Do I honestly believe those things about some other people? Do I think on some level that if others are “less than,” then I can be “more than”? Do I even realize I’m sending that message?—how can I be more self-aware in that regard? And how can I work to instead extend hospitality, foster inclusiveness, and promote dignity of all people—including, and especially, those who are different from me.

These are weighty questions. But given the division in our country and in our own neighborhoods, they are questions worth pondering.