An interesting thing happened recently to someone I know. You may have heard about it on the news. It has made me think about how Privileged I am so this is my discussion for this week’s blog.
A friend of mine, Kima Hamilton, was asked to leave the plane on which he was awaiting takeoff because Delta felt that his going to the bathroom while they were sitting on the tarmac constituted a requirement to remove him from the airplane. The plane had been waiting for take-off for an hour. There was no apparent consideration given to the natural need of a human to relieve himself as being normal and necessary. Kima was forced to purchase another ticket with another airline at three times the cost to make his way home in time to be with his students the following morning.
Kima is over six-foot tall, a black man sporting dreadlocks. At first glance, and with all our cultural programming, he can seem scary to a white person. He’s big, black and strong. I get that. I know prejudice against blacks is built into me as a white person raised in America. It’s all over our news, it’s built into the way our whole society runs from politics to economics to housing to jobs to justice. But once Kima opens his mouth, you realize he is a gentle giant. Once you see his smile, you feel the rays of sunshine pouring from him into you. It’s instant love. He is likely the most gentlemanly person I’ve ever had the chance to meet. And, even when you ask a thoughtless question, trying to find some comprehension but in the most white-privileged of ways, he answers you with calm and thoughtful consideration. He leaves you realizing the vastness of his patience and the enormity of his contemplation. OK, here’s how it went down two years ago…
I was walking with Dasha Kelly (Kima’s wife) and Kima and, after confirming they would be open to a serious question on my mind, asked, “Is being black kind of like being fat? I mean, I forget that I’m fat sometimes and think I’m a normal sized person like most of the people around me. Is it ever like that for you?” Dasha and I ripped into an analysis of this and bantered back and forth as we walked along to the Dining Hall at Rec Lab. Then she looked at him and asked, “What do you think, Kima.” In a quiet and calm manner, he said, “I never forget I’m black.” Boom. The realization of my ignorance came at me full force. How unaware I am! I never have to deal with the color of my skin being an instant piece of information for people to decide who I am. I have no comprehension of how it feels to be judged so instantaneously and, more often than not, in a negative way. How great must be his strength, emotionally and spiritually, to not lash back in anger at this ongoing and persistent dilemma? I was astounded.
Kima also did an amazing performance of a piece of his spoken word poetry that week at Rec Lab that brought home the feelings of being a black man stopped by the police. It was a powerful thing. I was left with tears in my eyes. But I don’t have to live with that every day. He does. I guess the possibility of losing your life for a mis-spoken word may give power to your ability to stay calm. I am sure I do not have this skill. I would have been dead a long time ago if I’d been born black. Being angry and outspoken is another benefit of my Privilege.
Here are some posts from some on FB of Kima’s Delta event:
- This is my friend and colleague of over ten years, Kima Hamilton. He is a talented spoken word artist/poet, a devoted father and husband, a respected teacher, a damn good DJ, and one of the kindest, meekest and humblest men I have ever had the privilege of befriending. If anyone was ever able to diffuse a potentially volatile situation with common sense, humor, compassion and genuine goodwill it would be THIS MAN. Shame on Delta for targeting him for his looks, and creating a problematic situation where there truly was none. … The part at the end where they describe him apologizing to his fellow passengers for the inconvenience was the icing on the cake. That is PURE KIMA!!!
- Anyone who has ever met Kima Hamilton knows that he a kind and gentle soul; it just gets under my skin that things like this are happening everywhere. Have we really become more concerned with “rules” than treating human beings with dignity and respect? I understand the need for flight safety, but there has to be a better way than this. #FightThePower#HumanDecency
- This is crazy! Kima Hamilton is so calm n nice alllllll the time!!! http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/delta-employees-asked-man-leave-flight-after-using-restroom-videos-n751811
- Kima Hamilton is one one of the nicest you’ll ever meet. I’m sure he meant no disrespect.
- My poor friend Kima Hamilton, how dare they do this to you! You handled yourself so well tho. But I wouldn’t have expected anything less from you. :)Love ya Kima!!
- [And maybe my favorite] Kima Hamilton, I’m impressed by how you handled this and glad that your fellow passengers spoke up and made video and wrote about it. I can imagine I might have been granted more leeway had this been me, and so I appreciate you using the occasion to bring up the way you have to walk through the world evaluating situations based on the body you’re in as a Black man.
Less than a minute of going to the bathroom resulted in hours of delay for everyone. Ridiculous.
“My take-away from this experience is that I will not be flying Delta again. Who treats a person like this? Have you forgotten that the people that pay to fill the seats are actually human beings who sometimes have emergencies (like having to use the bathroom when you have been waiting on the plane for an hour)?” ~ A fellow passenger, Krista Rosolino, and lawyer who recorded the events
So, was what he did illegal? Here’s a legal link (bold print is my addition): http://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/tarmac-delays-airline-passenger-rights-33011.html
New Rules Protect Airline Passengers
New U.S. Department of Transportation regulations on tarmac delays went into effect in late April 2010. So how do the new rules protect air passengers? Here are some highlights:
- Airlines must return planes to the gate and let passengers off any time a flight is sitting on the tarmac for three hours.
- Airlines must provide passengers with adequate food and water within the first two hours of any tarmac delay.
- Adequate toilet facilities must be maintained and made available to passengers during the delay.
What is Kima’s take?
“Was race a factor? Yes. How did I feel? Like another Tuesday. Even if I’m right, as a man of color, I have to calculate when to advocate for myself and when to let things slide, how to preserve my dignity and protect myself from harm. The full letter of the law that Delta keeps referencing actually allows for common sense discretion, but the flight attendant chose not to treat me with compassion or respect. She conveniently reported me as ‘unruly’ which was proven untrue. These are the microaggressions we have to process every day. I waited as long as I could. Communicated at every step. Was mindful not to appear ‘threatening,’ and still, here are two FBI agents with instructions to arrest me? How do I pay money for a flight and be left at the mercy of a crew that doesn’t care about the passengers in every seat?? How do I complain and not be dismissed as ‘the angry black guy’? What do I want? A healthy dialogue about decency. About the abuses in airport culture. About corporate responsibility from Delta and accountability for the unnecessary extremes enacted by an employee. I want us to acknowledge how quickly this unremarkable event became a volatile incident and how easily it could have ended in tragedy. You could be interviewing my wife or mother right now because of a string of events set in motion by a power-tipsy flight attendant. What I want is the return of human dignity.” ~Kima Hamilton
With all this talk of Kima, I have to also give a shout out to his partner, Dasha Kelly. She is the reason I got a chance to meet him. She was our main speaker at Rec Lab two years ago and they both presented material. She, a force of nature in her encouragement and teaching, a gentle breeze of critique. He, a ferociously honest spoken word artist, a warm hug of comfort. They are a perfect pair. That sunshine you feel when Kima smiles at you? Dasha has that same magic with her words. You instantly fall in love with her. I admit I had just read her book Almost Crimson – a delightful and insightful read – so was already in Groupie mode when I met her face to face. But watching everyone else at Lab, hearing this year how many folks missed the two of them being at camp, I’m pretty sure they are just as buoyantly lovable as I hold them in my heart to be. Here’s a beautiful story of a student of Dasha’s from recent news: https://www.facebook.com/88nine/videos/10154439929702478/
So what has this led me to? A real evaluation of Privilege and consideration of what I can do to alleviate the systemic ways we sustain it. A wonderful article by Peggy McIntosh (sadly, from 1988 – how slowly we learn) on the topic can be found here: https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-and-male-privilege This article is beautifully written and is followed up with a summary of talking points to consider in addressing the topic. I will readily admit to my own shortcomings in applying them – I am such a bull in a china shop when I get passionate about an idea. There is much to learn from this piece and I encourage you to take the time to read it along with the talking points. If we can all incorporate the concept and work towards a more egalitarian way of life, the world will be a better place.
Being at Rec Lab also taught me a real lesson on my Physical Ability Privilege. It was so interesting to see the world a bit more from the perspective of friends Roxanne and Dorothy who use wheelchairs for locomotion. Being in Roxanne’s specially designed vehicle was an eye-opener to how much work goes into simply getting from one place to another. Her strength is amazing. And that is one of the key points to the article above. “…’Privilege’ may confer power, it does not confer moral strength…. In some groups, those dominated have actually become strong through not having all of these unearned advantages, and this gives them a great deal to teach the others. Members of so-called privileged groups can seem foolish, ridiculous, infantile, or dangerous by contrast.” Yes, I can see how foolish I often sound to one who deals with having to work twice as hard to earn half as much.
Even in my attempting to speak with Roxanne and Dorothy about the ideas for wheelchair access, I was clumsy. And once I realized how much I didn’t know, I wanted everyone to know. I found occasions through the week at Lab to move chairs or let someone know we might want to be sure we have wheelchair access. I was not always graceful in these efforts. I forget how uncomfortable it can be for any of us to confront ideas with which we are not familiar, especially when we are also feeling chastised for not being more aware. I have such a curiousity that I jump in and try to work on better comprehension and often don’t realize how I leave behind ideas of helping others gracefully walk with me. Instead, I am like a computer gathering data, knowing I will work on putting all the pieces together later. I am an enthusiastic newcomer wanting to take in as much about the new idea as I can. I often ask dumb questions, thoughtlessly. I direct people or make offers to share on the idea and am often not appreciated or seen as helpful. 🙂 But from those who deal every moment with others who don’t understand, I often find kindness and understanding. They calmly answer my questions. Gently correct my perceptions. Show me ways I can help or understand them.
I know I am where I am due to Privilege. While I experienced my own place of disadvantage when it came to my sex and my size, I faced so little of what others face in a daily way. I never had to worry too much about being accepted for the most part, knowing life would be easy by-and-large. Even when things seemed tough, I could usually retain faith that all would work out for the best. I always had a roof over my head, never went hungry, found it easy to get a job when I needed one, never was dragged to jail (even when I’d done something that likely deserved it). Many do not have this pleasure. Many have to deal with an uphill battle that is unrecognized and often invisible to the majority.
It’s a good thing to reflect on my luck of birth. And to think about how life may be from a perspective of not being so lucky. I have the privilege of being born white, middle-class, tall, healthy and in America. For all our faults here in this country, we live in ease compared with much of the rest of the world. And in some ways, this is a good place to be as a person dealing with being in a minority or a class deemed as “inferior”. There are laws that help assure fair treatment. Unfortunately, these laws are not always enforced or abided. We’ve made some progress through the decades… slow, sometimes back-and-forth progress, but some. But there are many places way ahead of us in dealing with human rights and treating ALL people with dignity and respect. I am hopeful that instances like the one Kima faced will give us all a moment to think and thus allow us a chance to live in a more humane and compassionate way with everyone around us, not just those in our own groups… who look, walk, talk, worship and love like we do.