09 Nov

White Man Rules

Southwest Boarding ProcessAs we have previously discussed, systems have consequences.

And when we create nested systems within larger systems, often times those who benefit in the large system receive the benefits of the nested system, unless we account for it to be otherwise.

Case in Point–A few years ago, Southwest Airlines revised their boarding system from a “first come, first served at the gate” model to one that gave the early boarding spots to those who checked in online first. This was a natural evolution as the internet became more prominent in our lives.

Southwest additionally created their version of a tier system to honor and recognize its regular customers, which is also not uncommon in the airline industry. Southwest then revised its boarding system once again to reserve the early boarding spots to their frequent travelers with high tier membership and those that bought into the full fare ticket price.

On face value, this is a good system for recognizing brand loyalty by an organization that prides itself on low-frills, and is also fairly simple, which sets it apart from other brand-loyalty programs. On face value, nothing in this system is set up to unequally reward one group over another (assuming of course that the value within a capitalist system of rewarding customers who have given you a lot of their money is fair—but that is another post).

What I have experienced over the last two years—as I have traveled more and advanced in my tier status—is that most often, the prime boarding spots (A1-A15) are comprised of “A-List Preferred” members (Southwest’s highest Tier), business travelers who have (or their companies have) purchased full fare flights (“Business Select”), and individuals who have the means to purchased the full fare flights.  The next level of prime boarding spots (A15-A40) are comprised of “A-List” members, a second tier with less privileges than “A-List Preferred” but still a modicum of recognition from the organization, and more privilege than casual fliers. My experience is that the casual fliers take up the remaining boarding slots on a first come, first served basis.

And, most often, those in the prime boarding spots are white men of economic means. Rarely do I see a woman or person of color in those spots.

I don’t doubt that there are lots of legitimate reasons for this outcome on individual levels. But we are talking systems here, and the system within the United States benefits white men of economic means (for more information on this point, visit here). So we have this nested system of the boarding process on Southwest that is designed to incorporate and complement the nested system of tier-membership within Southwest. Because these systems were not designed to benefit one group over another, or not designed to balance out the unequal benefit distribution system within the United States, the group that benefits from the larger system (i.e.: white men of economic means) is the one that, over time, benefits from this nested system.

I became aware of all of this as I observed how white men of means were treating those that “didn’t belong” in their group and taking “their spots.”

I have observed:

  • a white man challenge a woman of color who was earlier in the boarding that he was;
  • a white man, who apparently is usually first to board, visually expressing his frustration that he was second to board to a woman;
  • a white man saying to another woman of color who was first: “I have always wanted to be first;”
  • white men pushing their way past others to “claim” their seat in the exit row.

So what do we do? Assuming we want to change it, how do we resist a system that continues to flood us with unearned, unjust benefits? Consciousness building is a part of it, but that is not enough. Resisting privileges in all of its forms, as bell hooks challenges us, is not enough either, for while we make change on an individual level, there will be plenty of others to step in and take our place.

My fear is that we, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva states, are moving toward a “multicultural white supremacy” where these systems are upheld by everyone, regardless of our place or benefit within that system. Sadly, I suspect we are well on our way.

Andrea Smith has a great essay on shifting systems of privilege, and this quote in particular speaks to the path we must follow:

individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation.   That is, the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges

There is no magic formula, or sadly, replacing “their person” with “our person” (Robtheidealist has a great piece on that). The work of change is shifting the injustice in ourselves, building community and shifting the injustice in our communities and systems, and creating new systems built on justice, love, and collectivism.

As I say that, I recall that even I have been one of those white guys, being impatient and pushing past others, when I am stressed. It reminds me of how automatic it all feels, and how important my constant vigilance and groundedness is to shifting the injustice in myself.

I can shift the injustice in my community by building on my individual efforts, and addressing the injustices I see around me. Using my airport example, that means calling the unjust behavior of those around me, and standing up for justice, love, and compassion. It is not a zero-sum game, even though we all have been conditioned to think that it is.

And I can use my leverage in the organization to share my feedback, and explore other ways for them to reward frequent travelers and board a plane that results in more just, loving outcomes.

Shifting systems is possible, it does take time, and it will be hard at times. But if we don’t do it, who will?