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April 15, 2013

New Eyes

Where I am right freakin’ now.

I know you’re probably expecting to hear something about my time in Florence, or subsequently in Rome.  But that’s not what I’m going to talk about, because although it’s seemed like it lately, this actually isn’t a travel diary.  This is a blog about Clark, and the reasons both explicit and implicit that you, the reader, should apply and then attend.  That’s a little starker than I’d usually say it, but it’s true.  And so in today’s post I want to talk about an incident I experienced at gate B31 in Zurich, a moment I would have perceived completely differently had I never attended Clark.

At the time I arrived at the gate, about ninety minutes before departure, it was already in use by an earlier flight to Amsterdam.  Boarding for that flight was proceeding smoothly until one woman – mid-40’s, African – was stopped at the ticket kiosk.  Her bags were (and here I should emphasize that there’s no doubt about this point) clearly much too big.  She had already paid for her ticket, and €60 for her first checked bag.  This bag was one too many.  She was stopped, and told that to get her (and her third bag) on board, she would need to pay  €200 (or 250 Swiss francs) immediately.

The woman did not have €200.  She had  €130, in cash, and no credit cards.  This she offered, with increasing desperation, to the three KLM employees at the gate.  “If I had the money, I would pay.  I have no money.  I did not know.”  The employees, all white and all Swiss, were polite but extremely firm.  “I’m sorry, madam.  The size is unacceptable.  You knew the rules, and you need to pay, or you will not be able to travel.  I am sorry.”  The woman was getting frantic.  I don’t know why she was heading to Amsterdam, but I imagine it wasn’t for leisure – the size and visible contents of her bag suggested otherwise.  Her other luggage was already loaded and the other passengers were all aboard.  She was crying now, loudly, and I and two other passengers were the only other people at the gate.

That’s when a man, probably about a decade older than me, white, buzz-cut, and wearing a fancy t-shirt and nice jeans approached the counter.  To the shock of the woman, and especially the KLM workers, he asked that the charge be put on his credit card.  After the flabbergasted Swiss employees confirmed that he was serious, the charge began being processed.  The woman, now even more beside herself, offered up her  €130, making the man’s charge  €70.  At this point, one of the KLM employees got on the phone, speaking quickly in furious French.

Here I apologize to the reader, because I can’t speak or understand French, save a few critical bathroom-related words.  So I can only report on the result of the call, which was this: the woman was charged her  €130, in cash, and the man was thanked profusely by everyone involved and told the additional  €70 had been dropped.  The woman, and her enormous bag, were rushed to the plane, and the man returned to his seat next to me in the gate.

Now.  Had I encountered this scene three years ago, I’d have thought it was a win-win-win for everyone.  Everyone’s happy, right?  The woman gets her bag on board, the man doesn’t have to pay an unexpected  €70 charge (he didn’t look that rich), and KLM doesn’t have to deal with a furious passenger – plus, the gate clerks get karma for getting the charge reduced to  €130.

But here’s the problem.  Nothing about the woman’s offer or presentation changed between before the white man approached the counter and after, except the outcome.  The black African woman, with her poor English and her big bag full of what were presumably her life’s possessions, was willing to pay the  €130 – all that she had – before the man came to the desk and offered to help, and that’s what she ended up paying anyway.  Her claim that she was willing to pay all that she had in her wallet had to be legitimated by the white man before it was accepted.  I never saw the KLM agents raise a finger to call and get the charge reduced before he offered to pay.  Now, this is taking nothing away from this man, who made an extremely genuine and kind act, and presumably was willing to pay the entire  €200.  He did a great thing, there’s no doubt about that.

But why the heck did it change something that this black woman had a white man helping her?  Why was it any more acceptable for her bag and her lower fee to be charged after he offered to help?  Why did the KLM agents not try to reduce the charge for this woman when she was begging for it, earlier?  If they had just charged the man  €70 I could understand, but to take her €130, which she’d offered earlier, and not charge him?  I can only conclude that before the white passenger granted her legitimacy by his beneficence, she was being viewed as something slightly above a criminal, trying to sneak onto this legitimate flight with her oversized luggage.  (“You knew the rules.”)  After the man came to help, she was a poor woman who just needed a little support.  In the first view, what limited agency the woman had was viewed as malevolent.  In the second, she had no agency whatsoever.  Her situation and others’ perceptions of her were shaped by the gaze and the approval of the white man at the gate.

So, back to Clark.  All I want to get across to you today is that I never would have seen the event this way before coming to Clark.  I just wouldn’t have understood it, wouldn’t have seen a problem with what happened.  Maybe some of you don’t see a problem, right now.  But if you do, if you see even the inklings of an issue, then maybe Clark is a good place for you.  Maybe Clark will give you the opportunity, as it gave me, to view the world through a different set of eyes.  Maybe.

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