I landed to a hazy sunrise around the hills rising above Addis. The air was surprisingly cool as I walked off the plane, inhaling the all familiar fragrance of betel nut, diesel fumes and smoke from cooking fires.
It had been a flight from hell – possibly the worst plane ride I’ve ever taken in my life, and I’ve had some difficult ones growing up in rural Canada. But when 3 out of 4 toilets weren’t working, the film had no sound (let alone seat-back screens) and my ‘beef’ curry meal had only gravy and not a single piece of meat in it, I was mildly surprised.
But the worst was yet to come. I had been sitting in front of a loud African woman (of ambiguous nationality – definitely not Ethiopia, but possibly from any English speaking African country from Nigeria to South Africa to Botswana) with a screaming child with her for most of the flight. When it came time to sleep, I reclined my seatback and dozed. Only to be woken by this women shoving my chair up violently. We ended up in a minor tussle over whether or not I should have my seatback, with her telling me I was skinny enough that I didn’t need the space, she had paid for her ticket and I didn’t have the right etc. etc. etc. I apologised saying I knew the flight was crowded, but that I had the right to put my chair back and she pushed it up again, this time shaking it a few times for good measure. I called the stewardess.
From there things escalated pretty quickly and before I knew it, 3 Ethiopian airlines staff members were arguing with the women about whether or not I could put my chair back. At one point the stewardess forced me to recline my chair only to have the woman again push it up violently. She accused them of being racist (and I suppose myself as well) for listening to my complaint instead of hers. They threatened to land the plane and ban her for life. She threatened to punch them in the faces if they didn’t ‘back off’.
I can’t imagine what its like to be an ethnic minority and experience prejudiced and racist behaviour by people around them – I know its impossible. I especially can’t imagine the feeling of helplessness and injustice that must come when confronted with these problems in institutional and entrenched formats. But I imagine they must be somewhat related to what I felt when this woman accused me of being racist: like I had been punched in the stomach.
I can say that my fellow passenger’s race had no impact on whether or not I felt I could recline my chair, that would be ridiculous. But the encounter got me thinking. Our respective races may not have influence my decision, but they definitel infused our encounter overall: race and gender inform all of our encounters, everyday, for our entire lives.
I have no response when accused of racism, and in general I would defend to the death the minority party’s right to determine when situations have crossed a line (just like we don’t allow men to define when interactions are sexist – the power dynamic is in the wrong place). However, I felt the injustice of this accusation, I was exhausted, the fight had now lasted 45 minutes so I did what I normally do when given a moment to wallow in self-pity: I started to cry. Wow, I thought, I haven’t even arrived in Africa yet and I’m being accused of being racist. I couldn’t articulate my worst nightmare any better.
I know now that woman was struggling with a terrible fear of flying, the stress of looking after a young child on a crowded flight and a general feeling of loss of control. It seemed, in the end, my ability to recline my seat defined the last realm of personal control over her life she was willing to give up. Things can be said in anger, and I hope that’s what this situation was.
The Canadian in me was dying to apologise to fellow passengers for creating such a scene and disturbing their flight, but a stubborn part of me refused (the same stubborn part that did not cave in to her demand for an upright seat and for the remaining 6 hours and kept my chair reclined). I did not disturb their flight, she did. I am not responsible for her behaviour, her reaction or her accusations.
The fact is we all have moments in our life where race or gender or sexuality may cloud out our ability to interact with people as human beings. We are all guilty of allowing preconceptions, judgements and assumptions interfere with our daily interactions. We are also often guilty of exploiting them for our own benefit (I am guilty of accepting many free drinks!). The key is to examine these interactions, be self-reflective and self aware and try to do better next time.
The harder truth is that when we are guilty of such things, we are very rarely called out on it.
I am confident of my behaviour and reaction in this particular instance, but its reminded me of the complexity of human interaction and well, I hope I have a nicer flight home.
More interesting and fun posts on Addis and Ethiopian adventures to come!