New Tools to Fight Persistent Enemies

Lynne Murray says:

A young woman’s humiliation at the hands of Southwest airlines recently set me to thinking  about the new tools we have to fight oppression. Some of the words used to “helpfully”  batter Athia into giving up her seat remind me of a situation from the 1960s when my father, who used to confront unjust situations whenever possible, was forced to walk away.

The incident began when Athia was singled out by a Southwest Airline gate attendant on the return flight of her round trip ticket. The first part of her flight went smoothly with no problems, but the return flight was overbooked and the gate attendant approached Athia demanding that she buy a second seat, “for your safety and comfort.”

Marilyn Wann describes Athia’s subsequent public humiliation and dissects some of the issues in an SF Weekly blog.

I was impressed with Athia’s analysis of the situation immediately afterward and her self-possession in going home and sharing her experience on YouTube.

The flight attendant’s mantra – “for your safety and comfort” – rang a bell with me.

My father, who was a psychologist, explained to me what to do when someone was acting in an offensive manner or targeting another for abuse. The situation I asked him about was in the restaurant where one of the people at our table who had multiple sclerosis was in a wheelchair, which made her a target for concern trolling. Despite all of our polite attempts to change the subject, another woman at the table insisted on describing people she had known who had terrible outcomes from MS.

My father told me that you need to call someone out immediately and clearly on this type of behavior, tell them it’s unacceptable and they need to stop.  After that he suggested firmly moving to another topic and verbally shutting down the bully as often as necessary if she tried to continue — enlisting other horrified bystanders if necessary by stressing that the bully’s words were unacceptable will not be tolerated.

I have seen and heard of many instances where my father intervened with words and action.  He was particularly good at involving several total strangers in forming impromptu problem solving groups — I once saw him start a spur-of-the-moment therapy group on a Muni bus.

One time when he did not act on his own advice took place in Texas in the 1960s, and I know it always bothered him not to have been able to help.  A white female parking attendant stopped a Latino man from parking in the lot where my father, on an aerospace business trip, had just parked his rental car. “You’ll be more comfortable in that other lot,” the attendant told the man, pointing to a more remote lot where all the drivers parking were black or Latino. My father assessed the situation and decided that a businessman from out-of-state could not realistically challenge a local woman who was simply enforcing her employer’s prejudice.

But the words, “you’ll be more comfortable,” echoed into the next millennium and are still being used by Southwest airlines employees to give their prejudice an air of hostile “politeness” or even concern for “safety.”

In Athia’s situation, the prejudice directed at her body size and whipped up by Southwest employees opened the door to allow covert racism to be freely expressed, witness a fellow passenger’s comment: “That girl took that gentleman’s seat.”

The YouTube piece is long, but worth listening to in its entirety. Lara Frater, at Fat Chicks Rule blog, quotes from Athia’s lovely conclusion:

“I call for a revolution of hearts.  By sharing this story, I hope that we can understand how people and policies inform each other.  If we direct care and compassion towards one another, we can then begin creating a more beautiful world to live in.”

I admire Athia’s courage, intelligence and stand-up-for-herself attitude, and I am very proud of her and the many other fat activists who are using state-of-the-art networking to respond to oppressive treatment.  I have no evidence-based way to prove that people continue in another realm after death with personalities intact, but that part of my father that lives on in me to fight injustice is cheering for Athia.