Monday, April 12, 2010

what privilege looks like

I arrived at the Philadelphia airport at approximately 5:30 AM for a flight at 7:10 AM and checked in at the terminal. A young African-American woman was attempting to check in next to me. After a few tries, she tapped me lightly to get my attention.
"Excuse me, do you know how to use this?"
"I'm doing the same thing you're doing," I replied dubiously, but then I looked over at her screen. She was attempting to check a bag. TOO CLOSE TO FLIGHT TO CHECK BAGS, read her screen. "When's your flight?" I asked her, alarmed.
"You should definitely ask an attendant to check your bag manually."

We've all been there, in some capacity. At least, any of us who fly from one place to another on occasion. Certainly you want to be there two hours before your flight, but life happens. Sleep happens. Traffic, and rental-car trainees happen. Getting lost happens. And really, it wasn't too long ago that the only people who were consistently at the airport an hour ahead of their flights were the anal-retentive types. Now, you could spend an hour in security alone.

I finished checking in, watching her try unsuccessfully to get the attention of the airline employee, a middle-aged white woman, for a good five minutes. This employee, who was having a leisurely conversation with an older white woman, did not even make eye contact with the young lady beside me. There was not even an impatient, eye-rolling, "I'll be right WITH you."

Nothing. My fellow traveler might as well have been invisible.

I gathered my bags, printed my receipt, and strode over to the airline employee, who was roughly two feet away from me (in other words, there is no way she could have simply not seen or heard the young lady trying quite politely to get her attention through words and hand gestures. "Excuse me," said I in my best imperious voice. This tone, which I learned from my mother, is polite and firm. It says, 'I am an important white lady and you will acknowledge me NOW.'

Naturally, she looked up and met my gaze head-on. "Yes?"

"This young lady is having difficulty checking her bags. Can you please help her?"

And then I stood there until she walked over there and started talking to the lady in question.

Then, I went through the security line.

As a fat (but not TOO fat), young, able-bodied, cisgendered, US-citizenship-having, white person travelling alone,
I was not subjected to a random luggage search.
No one detained me and asked me why I was travelling and what I was planning to do.
No one reported me as a potential terrorist, or asked me to get off the plane. Everyone smiled at me, called me 'dear', and wished me well.
My seatmates sighed and groaned about having to sit next to my fatness, but I was not asked to buy a second seat as the armrest went down and the seatbelt fit me.
I did not have to worry about being asked to remove braces or go through security in pain and agony, as I could walk all by myself.
I did not have to worry about being unable to take essential medication for several hours, as I am not currently taking any medications.
I did not have to suffer the humiliations of being grilled about having been born with a different name than the name I carry now.
I did not have to present several forms of ID. My driver's license was just fine.

There are things I did not have to worry about that I do not even KNOW about, as I am a person of privilege.

The face of privilege is MY face.

We with privileges have three choices.
One: we can simply lament our privilege, and yet still benefit from it.
Two: we can fail to acknowledge our privilege, and yet still reap its bounty.
Three, and this is my choice: we can acknowledge that our privilege is like an extra twenty dollars in our pockets every day, and we can use those extra monies to benefit those who don't get paid.

What does this mean?

Speak up for others.
Don't choose comfort over what is right.
Allow people who do not have your privilege to tell you when you have spoken with the voice of privilege. Take your medicine, and let it make you better.

EDIT, 2:38 PM:
Here is another very different account of air travel by a person with a disability. Part of privilege is the assumption that everyone gets treated with respect, and that if they do not, it is their fault. Let us not make such assumptions.


  1. Very well said. Very well. Good post!

  2. Oh, my goodness. THE CaitieCat? Of Shakesville? Wow. This is amazing. Thank you for reading my post!