This morning, I made my way to Washington, DC. Boarding my connecting flight in Atlanta, I approached my designated row only to find a woman already occupying my seat. She looked to be southeast Asian and only a few years older than myself. At first I assumed it was a mix-up. As I stuffed my duffle bag in the overhead bin I noted her mistake in seating.
“I’m sorry ma’am, I think I’m the window seat.”
But it wasn’t an accident. She had the tray down, a coffee mug and muffin placed atop, her headphones were in. She looked up at me.
“Oh I know, if you want I can move,”
At first I hesitated. I have nothing against the aisle seat, I just prefer the window. I like being able to rest my head against the wall of the plane. I like looking out when we’re taking off.
Another second passed and I considered relenting. It’s a short flight, I thought, I’d probably be asleep for most of it anyways. It’s just a seat. But then, I decided the window was what I wanted.
“If you don’t mind,” I said, firm if not a bit conciliatory. “I actually would prefer the window.” I may have apologized, I can’t remember.
Without protest she moved, and I sidled into my seat. But before I even sat down my feelings were mixed. I’m not usually an aggressive person, I take minor slights in stride. I make concessions and avoid conflict whenever possible. I often lighten my voice, I’m quick to smile. All of this is largely motivated by being consciously black in predominantly white spaces.
But why this morning did I feel ok asserting myself? I could say that I’ve been trying to be more assertive as of late – which is true, but it doesn’t feel like a full explanation. A scarier response is that subconsciously I saw someone I could be more assertive with — a youngish woman, a youngish woman of color. To think that maybe my courage to ask for what was ‘mine’ was in part motivated by that fact makes me feel a bit hollow.
At the same time I thought about the absurdity of my stand. To my knowledge every seat on that plane would take me to Washington, DC. Regardless of where I sat the cost was set. I didn’t own the seat any more than she did. My urge to have the window seat, this strong sense of deserving in the moment left me ashamed.
These thoughts pushed through my head as the other passengers filed on board. As I pulled out my phone to take notes of my morning encounter a small commotion broke out in the aisle. An older white man attempted to open an already closed bin to settle his luggage. The flight attendant, a black woman, politely informed him that he should try one of the open bins, as they likely had more room.
“How do you know that?” He replied sharply.
The response took me off guard. Equally in its abruptness and in its lack of understanding. Anyone who flew with any semblance of regularity understood that bins were closed as they filled.
The flight attendant was also taken aback. This was not the response she expected.
She raised her voice slightly, “Sir, I work here. I’m merely trying to help you find space.” She didn’t look away, her eyes were wide and unblinking. There was a moments silence as the man collected his bag. The attendant maintained her stare. But as quickly as the episode had started it was over. The man had lost interest. He shuffled down a couple rows, tossed his bag into an open bin and moved into his seat. He opened his newspaper.
It is probably overdramatic to say, but it is true; I was proud of the flight attendant. I understood what had just happened. I understood the need to be firm. The announcement of respect. The exterior.
But I also understood the adrenaline rush, the increased heart rate, the collapse after the high. A feeling of wanting to curl into a ball. I understood that nagging feeling that maybe ‘how do you know’ meant ‘know your place.’ That feeling of never knowing what exactly motivated anything.
The attendant shook her head. Our eyes met. I smiled sympathetically hoping she’d understand. Maybe she did. Maybe it wasn’t any of my business.
On takeoff I gazed out the window. Atlanta sprawled out beneath us, slowly transforming. Slowly shrinking and becoming gray.
I leaned back so that the woman next to me also had a view.