When my partner—now husband—and I travel and our seats aren’t booked together, I have always asked, without hesitation, someone to switch so we can sit together. I like being beside him, resting my hand on his leg. And he has a great shoulder for me to pass out on.
This morning, I followed a couple onto the plane and obliviously sat down beside the long-bearded man wearing a turban who had tossed his backpack in the middle seat while he settled his wife to her seat across the aisle. I had seen them talking in line on the jetway. But I didn’t see them. Maybe it was being up so early (I had 3 hours of sleep and arrived at the airport at 545 am.) But far more likely, it was being so drenched in my own privilege.
Earlier, I had been purposeful about taking the only seat on two back-to-back rows of men in turbans and women in saris (presuming them to be Muslim) instead of sitting in the empty seats across from them. [I would later learn that the man and his wife, and presumably most of the men traveling were actually Sikh.] A #BlackLivesMatter button on my backpack, I carried my copy of “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” in my hand (mainly because I was determined to travel for the weekend with only a backpack and avoid a carryon fee so there was no room left for this rather small book). All of this to declare:
“I am an enlightened white person. I am not afraid of difference. I just am not fearful of you. I stand with you.”
Or so I presume.
But in that moment, my whiteness blinded me from seeing our similarities; don’t we all prefer to sit beside our partners rather than across the aisle? I failed to see them because somehow, subconsciously, I did not … see us as the same? What the hell?!
But it’s worse before it gets worse. As he took his seat beside me, I, a brave but ignorant seventh-week student in an “Introduction to Islam” class, shored up my courage and spoke to him:
Yeah. I was kinda proud of myself and my bravery. But: if you know much about world religions, you’ve already figured out that I mis-religioned him. Yes: Indian, but not Muslim. Yeah. I’m so enlightened.
He paused only for a second and gently said,
“Well, that would be a greeting for a Muslim; I am Sikh.”
Then he took out a magazine from the seat-pocket and wrote an appropriate greeting and said it for me. [And then wrote a longer, more formal greeting below it and explained the need for a less complicated greeting.]
Despite my display of ignorance, the man and I exchanged names and talked easily—him about his faith tradition and differences from other religions, his work, and his family; me about school, my Islam class, the book I’m reading (and why I’m reading it), my children, and plans to visit my husband. When he learned I am a seminary student, he pulled out his phone and showed me photos of Sikh temples, festivals, and parades—even inviting me to attend sometime.
It was not until he ordered coffees for himself and his wife that it dawned on me they were not sitting by each other. Flummoxed, I immediately apologized. Again. He graciously brushed it off laughing, “Oh it’s ok, we sit together all the time…” I winced.
As I sat there beside him reading my book, I reflected on our places in a white, heteropatriarchal society:
If I had asked to switch seats, someone might have obliged me or my husband (who is African-American) just to avoid having to sit by a gay person or a Black man. Perhaps if he had asked, his presumption may have been that the switcher would have been similarly relieved.
And then the dissonance between our lived experiences settled on me: Perhaps the man did not ask because he was intimidated by the thought of drawing any kind of attention to himself by asking someone from the dominant culture to perform even a small kindness. Me? If you’ve seen me move through the world, you know I am hardly ever intimidated by the visibility of my gayness. (As if I could hide it!) More than any sense of bravery, it is my white privilege that allows me to move throughout the cabin, yea even the world, thusly. The sea parts, people switch seats, in the presence of whiteness.
Maybe the man did not mind sitting across from his wife for the short flight. Maybe the man was glad of conversation with a friendly person who showed interest in getting to know him and hearing about his faith. And maybe he’s just used to being misunderstood, misidentified, and unseen.
But I owe it to him, and others like him, to do better. To pay attention and put theory and social analysis into practice. To move through the world really seeing people beyond the scope of my good intentions.
Sat sri akal.