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The Tale of the Racist Airline Passenger

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Long circulated story relates how a racist airline passenger receives her comeuppance from airline staff.

Racist Airline passenger

Brief Analysis

While the story has recently resurfaced on Facebook, versions of the tale have circulated since at least 1998 and have been set on several different airlines in several countries. There is no evidence that the incident described actually took place on any airline. The tale is almost certainly apocryphal.



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This happened on TAM airlines.

A 50-something year old white woman arrived at her seat and saw that the passenger next to her was a black man.

Visibly furious, she called the air hostess.

Racist airline passanger story

"What's the problem, ma?" the hostess asked her

"Can't you see?" the lady said - "I was given a seat next to a black man. I can't seat here next to him. You have to change my seat"

- "Please, calm down, ma" - said the hostess
"Unfortunately, all the seats are occupied, but I'm still going to check if we have any."

The hostess left and returned some minutes later.

"Madam, as I told you, there isn't any empty seat in this class- economy class.
But I spoke to the captain and he confirmed that there isn't any empty seats in the economy class. We only have seats in the first class."

And before the woman said anything, the hostess continued

"Look, it is unusual for our company to allow a passenger from the economy class change to the first class.
However, given the circumstances, the commandant thinks that it would be a scandal to make a passenger travel sat next to an unpleasant person."

And turning to the black man, the hostess said:

"Which means, Sir, if you would be so nice to pack your handbag, we have reserved you a seat in the first class..."

And all the passengers nearby, who were shocked to see the scene started applauding, some standing on their feet."


Detailed Analysis

This story, which is currently circulating vigorously on Facebook, relates an incident in which a racist passenger on a TAM Airlines flight is firmly thwarted by airline staff. When the woman complains about being required to sit beside a black man, staff resolve the issue by moving the black man to a first class seat so that he does not have to sit next to such an unpleasant person, thereby humiliating the racist and eliciting a round of applause from other passengers.

The story is certainly an entertaining one. The idea of such an obnoxious individual being so elegantly and thoroughly put in her place is one that many of us would relish. The story is obviously intended to relay to readers the immorality of racism. And as an anti-racist anecdote, it does a splendid job.

But, while it may be uplifting, it is almost certainly a work of fiction. In fact, dozens of different versions of the story have circulated, by word-of-mouth, email and, more lately, via social media posts for well over a decade. The various versions of the story have been set on many different airlines. The nationality and gender of the racist passenger have also altered many times in different incarnations of the tale. One popular variant, which has circulated continually since 1998, portrays the passenger as a white South African woman en route to Johannesburg via a British Airways flight:
On a British Airways flight from Johannesburg, a middle-aged, well-off white South African Lady has found herself sitting next to a black man. She called the cabin crew attendant over to complain about her seating.

"What seems to be the problem Madam?" asked the attendant.

"Can't you see?" she said " You've sat me next to a [derogatory term for a black African person]. I can't possibly sit next to this disgusting human. Find me another seat!"

"Please calm down Madam." the stewardess relied. "The flight is very full today, but I'll tell you what I'll do-I'll go and check to see if we have any seats available in club or first class." The woman cocks a snooty look at the outraged black man beside her (not to mention many of the surrounding passengers). A few minutes later the stewardess returns with the good news, which she delivers to the lady, who cannot help but look at the people around her with a smug and self satisfied grin: "Madam, unfortunately, as I suspected, economy is full. I've spoken to the cabin services director, and club is also full. However, we do have one seat in first class." Before the lady has a chance to answer, the stewardess continues ... "It is most extraordinary to make this kind of upgrade, however, and I have had to get special permission from the captain. But, given the circumstances, the captain felt that it was outrageous that someone be forced to sit next to such an obnoxious person." With which, she turned to the black man sitting next to the woman, and said: "So if you'd like to get your things, sir, I have your seat ready for you..." At which point, apparently the surrounding passengers stood and gave a standing ovation while the black guy walks up to the front of the plane.
In some versions of the story the person accosted by the racist passenger is Jewish. In others, he (and yes, it usually seems to be a "he") is Asian. In at least one variant, the story focuses more on class distinction than race, and features a wealthy female passenger who stridently objects to being seated beside an obviously poor and scruffily dressed man.

It is unclear who originally penned the piece. But it seems doubtful that the incident described ever actually took place in real life.

While the anti-racist message that the story conveys is compelling, some versions may backfire somewhat in that they potentially portray a particular group or nationality in an unfair way. For example, according to, some years ago, a New Zealand cereal company was castigated for including the above South African version of the story in an inserted children's newsletter. Some South African people living in New Zealand felt that the story unfairly portrayed all white South Africans as racists.

The Facebook version of the story calls on users to "share if they are against racism". However, as with similar stories that ask people to share to fight against child abuse or animal cruelty, it is difficult to see how simply sharing will do anything to help. The act of sharing such posts often leaves people with the largely misguided belief that they have actually done something to remedy the specified problem. Unfortunately, racism is still deeply entrenched in many people and societies. Often, racism is exhibited in much more subtle - but equally destructive - forms than the blatant example outlined in the story above. Of course, effectively combating racism in all its insidious forms requires a lot more than sharing a story on Facebook.

Last updated: February 26, 2013
First published: 30th January 2012
Research by David White and Brett Christensen
Written by Brett M. Christensen
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