Rev. Kate J Meyer, LPC
Slapped in the Face by Privilege
It was the end of a whirlwind weekend in WA for my brother-in-law's wedding and my husband and I were at the airport getting ready to go through security. Because of some challenges, this was kind of a big deal, so the entire drive to the airport and while making our way to security, I focused all my positive thoughts and prayers on my husband having a smooth TSA encounter. I have pre-check so based on the way Sea-Tac does things, I left him in line and made my way further into the airport to the pre-check line. While in line, I was completely unaware of the travelers around me; instead, I alternated between wondering about my husband and listening to the woman squawking (I wish this was hyperbole) directions at us.
Finally, with license in hand and boarding pass illuminated on my phone, I made my way to and through the kiosk without issue. I then proceeded to place my backpack on the screening belt and step in line to go through the scanner; I had two people in front of me. The person (I couldn't tell you if it was a man or a woman) went through, the person in front of me stepped through, then there was a beep. He froze, ready to return; I froze in case he needed to return. The TSA agent turned his head towards the person who had just gone through, waved and said, "keep going. That was a different kind of beep" (ok, he may have said "alarm" or "buzz", but beep is simple), all with a patient and nice smile on his face while waving me through with his other hand.
I met up with the man in front of me while waiting to retrieve our things and we tried to just laugh off the moment together--he said something about Pavlov and then we smiled at each other as our belongings came through the x-ray. He grabbed his things, so did I, and that was that.
Except it wasn't. Because this was two weeks ago and I'm still mulling it over. The man smiled when we "debriefed" the moment together while awaiting our things--but the more I thought about it the more I recognized two key things. First, it was an anxious smile--the smile of one trying to convince themselves they can now return to a state of calm. Second, his eyes held a variety of emotions. I won't claim to know the depth of his thoughts in that moment, but calm and peace were nowhere to be seen in his eyes.
As I walked back towards the line my husband was in, tears began to gather in my eyes. Then I shook them off because I didn't want to be "projecting" "stereotyping" or "overreacting"--all of which are possible for me. But this brief encounter is also an itch I can't scratch. But you know what? I think that is actually where I'm supposed to be.
When I meet my hospice patients, I talk with them about the difference between knowing one day we all will die and being told your own death is just around the corner. Abstract vs. concrete. Able to be put on the back shelf vs. always in the forefront. Consistently ducking reality vs. being slapped in the face by it.
In that moment, I was slapped in the face by the privilege I carry. I don't hear an alarm and see people in uniforms that grant them power and privilege and feel a sense of fear. I don't have that Pavlovian response because I've never had cause to fear the sound or the uniform.
But a young, African-American man traveling on his own? I won't presume to know his story. I won't presume that he has experienced profiling. But if his eyes and smile are anything to go by, I'm guessing he has. His experience going through security appears to have been significantly different than mine.
I know too many who don't see racism today, who don't see it in the infrastructures of daily life, and who think "that doesn't happen anymore."
It does happen. More than you want to know and it is your privilege that allows you to ignore it and going on living in ignorance.
I've been filled with questions and wonderings since that moment in Sea-Tac airport with a man I'll likely never see again. A man that may not have ever had a second thought about me; or, equally possible, a man who (rightfully) resents that I could truly just laugh off that entire experience and go on with my day.
I don't know his story and I won't presume to tell it. But, I do know my story and I know my story is filled with privileges that allow me freedoms meant for all, but reserved for few. So I write this to keep myself uncomfortable, in hopes that it leads to discussion and action. I write this in hopes others will recognize their own privilege.
I write this to the man I met in Sea-Tac for maybe 60 seconds of our lives with my regret and apology for not seeing the reality of that moment in time to ease your experience in some way.