Conference season has begun with a bang. I’ve attended two in the past 10 days: the Forum on Workplace Inclusion for diversity and inclusion professionals and the Spring 2016 CLO Symposium for learning and development leaders — both of which I’ve attended many times before.
Conferences, these two in particular, are a safe space for attendees. You gather with likeminded peers, often with a common goal, to learn, network, or both. It’s a kind of slice out of time. You’re isolated in a hotel, everyone’s smiling and behaving well because they’re representing their respective companies, but they’re easier and often happier in their skin because they’re out of the office, eating sugary snacks every few hours, and knocking back a drink or two at “mandatory” cocktail receptions in the evening. It’s an all-around good time.
In the real world, participants — in life and in work — often aren’t as comfortable engaging with strangers, especially those who appear different. Let’s face it; sometimes we hear or read things in the course of the day that send our eyebrows into our hairlines and leave us shaking our heads in disbelief. A black cotton t-shirt filled with white lettered names, however – even if they’re names of black people killed by police – probably shouldn’t be one of those things.
Apparently it was for Imani Cezanne, who was wearing such a shirt when she was kicked off of an American Airlines flight late last month. Cezanne chronicled her rather wretched experience of “flying while black” on Twitter. It began on March 26 in the exit row. She was sitting near a family for whom English was not their first language. They had to be reseated, and Cezanne asked why.
Now, I know why. It just so happens that on both of my recent conference trips I sat in the exit row. You have to respond with a verbal “yes” that you understand your responsibilities to the other passengers in the event of an emergency. A family that doesn’t speak English might not have understood the details of the job, and they might not have been able to say yes to formally accept the gig. But had I not had that prior experience, I wouldn’t have known that.
Cezanne turned to chat about the situation with her seatmate, and the flight attendant interrupted her to ask, “Are you going to be a problem?”
Now you already know that was the wrong move. First, it was rude. Is that how an employee should speak to a customer? Second, it was inflammatory, damn near designed to provoke and not in a good way. Third, it was uncalled for. Cezanne said she was speaking quietly, and she wasn’t talking to the flight attendant anyway.
Cezanne responded: “Are you going to be a problem? Why would you ask me that?” The flight attendant stormed off, and a manager appeared shortly thereafter to escort Cezanne off the plane. She asked why and was told the flight attendant felt threatened. Hmmm.
At the CLO Symposium there was a keynote from Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before.” Rubin created a four-type personality framework of rebels, upholders, obligers and questioners. She talked about how questioners are often erroneously seen as obstructers or troublemakers when in reality, they’re simply trying to get the facts straight in their heads and potentially find solutions, not cause problems.
OK, on with the story.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Cezanne recounted this incident exactly as it happened. That means she was, as she said, seated with hands in lap, using her inside voice to speak with a fellow passenger when the flight attendant interrupted her conversation with a rude and inflammatory question.
The flight attendant wasn’t threatened. She had an attitude because she didn’t like being questioned, dare I add, by this black woman wearing a Black Lives Matter-themed T-shirt. So, she used her position to punish her.
That was wrong.
I’d be the first one to say to Cezanne, “Girl, please have several seats,” if she’d gotten loud on the plane. We all know what travel is like these days. It’s inconvenient, often intrusive, and it’s potentially dangerous. Airlines are not playing around, and on a foundational level, we should all understand why. But that wasn’t the case here. And frankly, this kind of thing — being booted off a plane for some imagined infraction — is happening way too often to certain types of people: Muslims, black people, people with families or children with disabilities — essentially anyone who may pose the least bit of inconvenience let alone a threat.
A week ago, a family traveling for spring break was asked to leave a United Airlines flight over a child’s booster seat strap. They were Muslim. I can’t say with certainty that them being Muslim or Cezanne being black wearing that tee was the definitive reason they were unable to fly as planned. But it does give one pause. Would that flight attendant have gotten as huffy if a white man had asked her to explain why the non-English speaking family had been reseated? My gut tells me no.
I’m going to issue a challenge, and I’ll do it too.
Going forward, before you unload on someone who you feel has wronged you, take a breath. Think, is it worth it? Consider how your actions will look to others, and how they will affect that other person. Cezanne in particular was up a creek after this happened because she had no money to book another flight to complete her journey and no luggage, because it was allowed to ride on the plane after she was escorted off.
Don’t get me wrong. Some people whole-heartedly deserve to get the nonbusiness end of your tongue when they act up. But very rarely is it appropriate to give it to them in a work context. Before you react, think about what might be behind your response. We’re certainly not all racists, but most of us can claim a moment or two — or many — of unconscious bias.
Every situation isn’t do or die like it is on a plane, but do you really want your unintended bias to be the reason someone’s journey is ruined?