Not long ago on a flight from Paris to the United States, while the plane was taxiing for longer than usual on the tarmac, an older black American man stood up and took his bag from the overhead compartment. The captain had repeatedly asked in both French and English that no one unbuckle their seatbelts until he expressly gave the signal. No sooner had the man stood up than a French (white) flight attendant told him sternly but not impolitely that he must remain seated. The older black man bristled but did not immediately sit down and continued rifling through his bag. “I said Ok,” he replied when the flight attendant repeated himself, visibly uncomfortable with the commotion, but deliberately taking his time before complying. The flight attendant didn’t pursue the matter further; the incident was over.
This was not a huge scandal. But seated beside the man and watching the flicker of pain pass over his face, and also watching the French man whose instructions were being defied, I felt a burst of conflicting emotions. Without entering into his psyche, I’m fairly certain the older black man felt embarrassed, and given his body language and reaction, I would bet that he sensed there was a racial edge to the sternness in the younger white man’s tone. Having lived in France for years now, I equally imagine—without having access to the feelings in his heart—that the French flight attendant would be astounded to learn that this brief interaction could be interpreted through the lens of historical American racial dynamics. I imagine that he would be shocked to be told that he ought to adopt a softer-than-usual tone to protect this man from taking offense, and I tend to believe that that would be the correct reaction. But I also viscerally understand why that older man might be offended.
I am not sure there is a tidy way to reconcile these two perspectives, which is probably why I, like everyone else around me, averted my gaze and pretended that nothing had happened.