If you've watched Mad Men or seen the promos for ABC's upcoming show, Pan Am, about the glamorous lifestyles of a group of posh international flight attendants, or if you're old enough to remember back that far yourself, when people flew on airplanes in the '60s they got dressed up for the occasion. But the jacket and tie standard has long since declined. Nowadays most airlines don't have official dress codes and their behavioral policies only state that people should act in an "appropriate manner." But appearance and demeanor are often lodged in the eye of the beholder and there are many things that can lead people to code them differently.
Take a few recent cases. In July of 2010, Malinda Knowles, a 27-year-old financial consultant, boarded a 6:00am JetBlue flight from New York to West Palm Beach, Florida. Because it was in the 90s she dressed casually, her baggy T-shirt hanging down to her mid-thighs, lower than her shorts. However, once comfortably seated, her tray table down, sipping orange juice, Malinda was approached by a gate agent who asked her, with a sneer, if she was wearing underwear. He wanted proof. Now we don't know how you would react to that, but Malinda didn't take it too well. Eventually she raised her tray table and he stuck his walkie-talkie antenna between her legs to look underneath. Not satisfied, he escorted her off the plane to the gangway where police verified that she was wearing not only underwear but shorts. Forced to produce her driver's license, she was humiliated, but reboarded. Still unsatisfied, the gate agent summoned the Port Authority police and forced Malinda to deplane once again. With the flight delayed half an hour, the pilot, attendants, and fellow passengers became agitated. The captain requested her departure. Fellow passengers told her to get a lawyer. Malinda was rebooked on the next flight and flew without incident. Needless to say, she's suing.
Yet take the case of the man wearing women's lingerie who was allowed to board and fly a US Airways plane in June of 2011. Dressed only in a blue bra and blue Speedo-style underwear, a sheer white sweater, leather neckband, black stockings and platform heels, this male passenger attracted complaints from nearby travelers who didn't want to get so up close and personal with a scantily-clad cross-dresser. No question here that he was wearing underwear. Yet despite his attire and despite passenger protests, US Airways pronounced him suitable for flight.
Yet within days of this incident, on the same airline, another passenger was not only forcibly removed for his attire but arrested and charged. Deshon Marman, 20, a football player at the University of New Mexico, was returning to Albuquerque from San Francisco when a flight attendant objected to his appearance. His pajama pants were hanging low, exposing his briefs underneath. Underwear again, in full sight. When flight attendants asked Deshon to pull up his pants he refused to comply, saying he didn't have to. One thing led to another and he ended up being handcuffed by the police, taken off the plane, and arrested for trespassing, battery, and resisting arrest. His mother said he was lucky he didn't get shot like Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old unarmed Black man who was facedown when he was shot in the back by a transit police officer in Oakland two years ago. What are we thinking? Was he having a bad hair day?
What do these stories tell us about the ways that decisions are made in cases like these about who gets defined and treated as deviant? Who has the power, who has no power, and what are the standards by which these decisions get made?
It's clearly obvious that the man in ladies' lingerie was showing a lot more skin than the two young people, with private parts outlined for all to see. Do people want to sit next to his near-naked hairy skin any more than they want to sit next to overweight people who spillover into their seats, something many airlines are trying to charge extra for nowadays? Probably not. But let's face facts: he was White. If it's White, it's all right.
Malinda and Deshon had the misfortune to be FWB- Flying While Black. They were dressed in the current urban hip-hop style of baggy clothing that hangs down low, a fashion trend popular not only with young Blacks, but their White and Asian wannabe imitators. We're not even talking about showing crack here, just boxer shorts. And when singled out for differential treatment, something Blacks experience every day, they didn't just meekly submit, they resisted. They were then deemed "unruly." It's a cycle of oppression.
In our society we color-code these looks and demeanors as threatening when they come from young Blacks. There's nothing subtle about this institutionalized racism. Those people on the plane - the flight attendants, gate agents, and pilot - looked at Deshon, a young Black man with pajamas on, and read: gangsta. They saw Malinda, a young Black woman who looked like she just rolled out of bed, and read: 'ho. They looked at the nearly naked guy in women's lingerie and read: elderly White man exercising his right to dress eccentrically.