UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest flight on Saturday because a passenger complained that he was speaking Arabic. The headlines just won’t quit:
“Arabic-speaking student removed from flight”
“UC Berkeley student kicked off Southwest Airlines”
“Iraqi refugee seeks apology after being removed from Oakland-bound plane”
The list grows as each hour passes.
There are a million ways to say it, but it all comes down to this: one human being expressed ignorance and intolerance toward another, and a major American corporation enabled it.
The company’s current slogan reads, “If it matters to you, it matters to us,” which is a little cringe-worthy, considering its latest behavior.
This is not an isolated incident, nor is it the first for Southwest. The Council on American-Islamic Relations said there were at least six similar instances this year. It’s April. And those are only the reported cases.
Last week, Southwest also removed a Muslim woman from her flight for switching seats. If you have yet to fully understand the concept or impact of white privilege, consider the number of times you’ve switched seats on a plane, a bus or a metro. Were you removed from the flight? Were you uncomfortable in a middle seat, or did you just want to sit closer to your boyfriend?
The ability to speak and move freely while traveling should be an American constitutional right, but for now, it remains a privilege.
After the press jumped on the incident, the company gave a cookie-cutter statement that failed to reflect their attention or care to the matter, “We regret any less than positive experience a customer has onboard our aircraft,” the company said in a statement. “Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.” A spokeswoman further stated that the company is unable to comment on the conduct of individual employees.
Not to mention the employee who responded to the passenger’s complaint spoke Arabic and could have helped both parties come to an understanding, but instead treated Makhzoomi “like an animal.” Unsurprisingly, the employee was unavailable for comment.
Though Southwest’s primary focus is safety for all passengers, they just contributed to the real danger: racial discrimination.
Discrimination anywhere is discrimination everywhere, and for an international airline to participate in and allow intolerance toward one customer on behalf of another paints a rather depressing, daunting picture of Americans and customer service.
How long must racial and ethnic discrimination last until we discover the line between the right and wrong side of history?
How long must we tolerate intolerance?
And yet, the most mature of all parties involved was the victim himself.
“I don’t want money,” Makhzoomi said. “I don’t care about that. The message of Islam is forgiveness. That’s all I want.”
Let’s imagine what the story would be like if the newswire headline had actually been “Muslim Student Refuses Money, Seeks Apology for Discrimination.” How far would the story have gotten? Would you have clicked on the link? Would you have shared it online?
I applaud and admire Makhzoomi for his tactful response; I cannot imagine what I would have done in his place. To him, I say thank you, for expressing compassion in the face of adversity.
To Southwest, I say shame on you. This isn’t an isolated incident. As a leader in air travel, you have the resources to make passengers and employees better educated and equipped for safe travel. As an American corporation, you have much work to do on your brand status, your practices and your mission. Get to work.
If you’re reading this and you identify more with the woman who complained, I say think again! If diversity makes you uncomfortable, reconsider your flight to Oakland.
If you’re reading this and you feel compelled do something about this, I say (a) thank you for reading this far and (b) God bless you, you beautiful, complex, powerful human being! You absolutely can do something!
- Share the story on social media! Whether you read the New York Times, Washington Post, or some other outlet, get the word out. It matters.
- Call your mom and tell her about it! Different generations get their news from different places; it’s worth mentioning to your parents.
- Get involved! Hundreds of organizations exist to battle systematic discrimination. Take five minutes from your day to research how you can join one. Don’t have five minutes? Choose from this list: Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
- Ask questions. The best way to offer help to someone is to say “how can I help?” as opposed to guessing at the best practices.
- Own up. If you offend someone, it’s not the end of the world. But you do need to apologize. Take ownership by asking how to fix your mistake.
- Listen: A dialogue works best when both parties listen to each other. If someone you know or love is speaking out about injustice or intolerance, take the time to hear them, and let them know they are understood. Be human, with humans.
- Know that this is bigger than you. This blog post isn’t going to end an era of racial discrimination, but hopefully it will contribute to an intricate discussion that values people and ideas.
There is no quick fix to ending racism, but if we challenge each other to think critically about discrimination, we can be better than we are right now.