New attitudes about race relations fly to new altitudes


Lean Into Aviation (3)The other night, I saw a Facebook post on Mary Kirby’s timeline about a grand jury in New York City declining to indict a white police officer who put Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in an illegal choke hold that killed him. It came right on the heels of a proceeding in Ferguson, Missouri, where no charges were brought against Officer Darren Wilson who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

I read the comments on FaceBook, and added my own, saying: “I’m just too tired to comment except to say this ruling, like the Michael Brown ruling, is exactly what I expected. It’s a sad, sad thing for me to say, but I thank God every night that I have a daughter instead of a son…”

Then I read a piece by Runway Girl Network contributor John Walton, and I felt the same way he did – minus the white man part. “It struck me that it might seem odd to read an aviation news outlet for a white middle-class Anglo-American man’s thoughts on the endemic state of racism,” he wrote as part of the trending Twitter hashtag #ICantBreathe. When I was asked by Mary to write something, I didn’t think I had anything to say – until  I realized that I did.

I am the daughter and granddaughter of Air Force officers who both served their country for more than 30 years, spanning from World War II to the first Gulf War. Being an Air Force brat gave me great exposure to the world at a time when flying was reserved only for the wealthy.

I took my first flight at the age of six, a Pan Am Boeing 747 from JFK Airport to London Heathrow after my father was assigned to a military base in England.  I remember how we were all dressed – my mother, sister and I in dresses, hats and gloves, and my father in his Air Force uniform. I remember that my New York cousins came to the airport to see us off, also dressed to the nines. This is where my lifelong love of all things aviation and travel began.

When I was growing up, it was still unusual to see black officers, so most of my childhood was spent around Caucasians, both U.S. and international. My parents made sure we knew our black heritage, but I was never one to dwell on race and the sticky issues behind it.

I went to an all-black school for the first time in 10th grade. I lived in the international dorm at American University in Washington, D.C., for my entire four years, which gave me a diverse mix of progressive friends that I have to this day.

I worked as a journalist for 10 years covering topics including economic development, welfare reform and agriculture/agribusiness until I got my dream job as an aviation journalist, in 1992. Imagine getting paid to cover your hobby.  I quickly realized that aviation was one of those industries that were still overwhelmingly white, but I was able to fit in easily – most of the time.

But there were always little things that I had to deal with, like having aviation conference organizers try and block me from entering events because they didn’t realize I was a working aviation journalist. Like having a man on a Virgin Atlantic flight repeatedly question me about how I was sitting in Upper Class until a kind flight attendant told him I was personal friend of Sir Richard Branson. Like having aviation executives who should know better proposition me for a “little chocolate fantasy”.

I’ve seen flight attendants give “those looks” to people of color – including me – when sitting in first or business class.  I’ve seen travelers show their ugly side when seeing people of color – especially those who appear to be Muslim – get on a flight. I’ve also seen rude and mean behavior toward those who don’t look like white anglo-saxon travelers. I could go on, but I’ve never been one to dwell on these things – instead, I’m usually the one to call out people on their bad behavior and do what I can to help.

So John Walton is 100 percent right – we need to speak up. And for those of us blessed with the gift of travel, we need to expand our horizons, be more tolerant and welcoming and not so quick to judge or stereotype our fellow travelers. And despite all the ugliness and disappointment of the past few years in the area of race relations, I still believe in the inherent goodness of people.

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Love, Actually”. The movie begins and ends at London Heathrow Airport, one of my favorites, and I’ll end with these words from the Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant.

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”

About the photo above:  Captain Roscoe C. Brown (RET) stands next to the actual P-51 Mustang he flew as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. The two swastikas painted on the plane’s side symbolize two Nazi planes he shot down during his 68 combat missions. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)