#FlyingWhileBrown, #FlyingWhileMuslim and #FlyingWhileBlack aren’t just hashtags. They refer to real-life experiences of profiling, discrimination, intrusive body searches, and secondary screenings that many nonwhite passengers encounter when they fly. But how much harder is it to fly if you are a woman of color?
Two recent incidents provide some disturbing answers to that question. In September, Anila Daulatzai, a frequent Southwest Airlines flier, had a traumatic experience on a flight bound for Los Angeles from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Daulatzai, a Pakistani American and Muslim woman, asked to be seated far away from dogs on the flight because of an allergy. Southwest Airlines personnel demanded that Daulatzai leave the flight, despite Daulatzai’s assurances that her allergies were not life-threatening. Instead of believing Daulatzai and granting her the agency to make knowledgeable decisions about her own body and her flying preferences, airline personnel and a pilot escalated the situation. They called in airport law enforcement from the Maryland Transportation Authority Police (MTAP) who proceeded to forcibly remove Daulatzai off the flight, despite her pleas that she is pregnant. Daulatzai claims that she was pulled from her seat via her belt and then dragged through the aisle with torn pants. But Daulatzai’s ordeal didn’t end there. She alleges that MTAP law-enforcement agents made racist remarks about immigrants. The MTAP also charged her with five criminal charges, including disorderly conduct, failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order, disturbing the peace, obstructing and hindering a police officer, and resisting arrest.
Daulatzai isn’t the only woman of color to be taken off an airplane recently. Tamika Mallory, one of the organizers of the Women’s March, claims that a white pilot removed her from an American Airlines flight a few days ago. Mallory says that the pilot asked whether “she would behave” on the flight after overhearing a conversation between her and a ticket agent about a change in her seat. Airline personnel then contacted airport police who removed Mallory, as well as a black male passenger traveling with her—artist and activist Mysonne—off the flight.
While neither Daulatzai nor Mallory have been given any satisfactory explanations for their expulsions (Southwest has apologized), they are both clear about the racial and misogynistic overtones in the ways they were treated. In a segment on Good Morning America, Daulatzai states that airline staff didn’t like her presence—a “brown woman wearing a hoodie.” In a series of tweets and at a press conference with her lawyers, Mallory made it plain that racism, anti-blackness and “white male aggression” permeated the encounter she had with the American Airlines pilot. In order to try and stay on the plane, “I basically had to tell Massa that I was not going to be a runaway slave,” Mallory said at the press conference.
In a time of #MeToo testimonials and in the midst of national conversations about misogyny and sexual violence, it is not surprising that many women of color resonate with Daultazai and Mallory. Their experiences sting because they remind us that women and girls of color face judgment, devaluation, invisibility, and physical violence in every sector, from schools to workplaces to encounters with the police. We can’t view what happened to Daulatzai and Mallory in a vacuum either. Both incidents are tinged with the same Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment, and anti-blackness that we see in our country through government policies and in hateful rhetoric.
This broader climate influences the airline industry as well. In the case of Southwest Airlines, between 2015 and 2016, over a period of just six months, several Muslim, Arab, and South Asian passengers reported incidents of being rebooked for their appearance, removed from a flight for speaking in Arabic in a private phone conversation or simply for asking to switch seats. In 2016, a Delta Airlines flight attendant disrespected Dr. Tamika Cross, a black female doctor who volunteered to assist in a medical emergency, while Symone Sanders was shocked that American Airlines personnel called in law-enforcement because of an issue she had at luggage check. She tweeted: “American Airlines officials literally called the police to come to the gate check area because the customer service officials were threatened” and “[f]or the record: I wasn’t late. I don’t understand why @AmericanAir wld call 4 police officers thinking that would calm me down? It did not.”
Airline personnel are apparently escalating their responses to the point of calling in law enforcement when women of color passengers are involved. This practice belies the pernicious racist and misogynistic assumptions and codes of behavior that are thrust upon women of color in broader society that black women scholars and activists have long identified. When we state our truths, demands, preferences and needs, we are dismissed as angry, loud, disrespectful, hysterical, threatening or uppity. And because Daulatzai and Mallory did not conform by complying, obeying and behaving, because they asked for clarifications and stated their own preferences, they were punished with public humiliation, body policing, removal, use of force, and even criminal charges.
The airline sector has a jumbo-jet-sized blind spot when it comes to its treatment of passengers of color, especially women of color. It is time for airlines to drastically change their trainings to extend well beyond stale customer service protocols and rote workshops on cultural sensitivity in order to directly confront anti-blackness, systemic racism, Islamophobia, and misogyny among staff and within companies themselves. It is time for airport law enforcement to put in place the safeguards demanded of police departments to address and prevent police brutality. It is time for the airline industry as a whole including Airlines for America (which American and Southwest Airlines belong to) to set clearer standards for customer service such as the use of de-escalation strategies and a prohibition on law-enforcement collaboration.
Airlines can no longer hide behind vouchers, self-serving apologies, and private settlements. Viral videos, social media, and the testimonials of women of color themselves are divulging what happens on jet bridges and inside airlines for the world to see. Women-of-color passengers will demand to be treated with dignity and respect.