racial coding in the skies

On the way to a wonderful vacation this summer, I flew Delta RDU-ATL-SEA and SEA-MSP-RDU. The flights in and out of SEA showed Delta’s edgy new safety videos, a version of one of which is here:

(The versions I saw were slightly different, as I’ll describe below. One was on a 767-300, the other on a 757-200). WARNING: Spoiler alert below the break.

Delta is clearly trying to make the safety process more fun, and flyers and journalists have noticed.

I want to flag, though, something my brilliant wife and I noticed in the video. The moment is at about 0:40 in the video. Seated at the exit row are two of the same white guy (a bearded redhead in a striped polo) and an African-American in a sport jacket and open collar. The white guys look friendly and confident; the black guy, uncomfortable. The flight attendant asks the men if they’re ‘willing and able to assist in the event of an emergency.’ The white twins respond, in a monotone unison: “yes.” (Does anybody ever actually refuse?) It turns out the black guy isn’t: “not really,” he says. Maybe he’s just freaked out sitting next to two of the same white guy. But guess who replaces him in that prime exit-row aisle seat? Another of the same white guy! They’re multiplying like tribbles! “Hey,” says the new same guy. “Hey,” the old same guys reply in the same unison.

So the featured black guy is the one unwilling to help out; and he is therefore demonstrated to be different, while whiteness is represented as homogeneity, with all three of the seat-mates the same guy. I’m not claiming that the racial implication is intentional, but there’s definitely a racial message incorporated in that set of decisions.

To make matters worse, in the video on my second flight the same black guy makes a reprise appearance at the end (when the video tells us to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”) As the plane takes off, we see him nervously holding the hand of an elderly white woman next to whom he’s been re-seated. The woman, the video implies, is comforting our African American hero through his nervousness about the takeoff. In this scene gender is introduced–a brave woman comforting a nervous man?–along with a set of tropes about age and race. The video’s attempt at humor plays directly on the (assumed) unlikelihood of an elderly white woman being in a position to soothe the nerves of a younger, black man.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

11 thoughts on “racial coding in the skies”

  1. Why focus on the first black guy, whose appearance lasts only 8 seconds, rather than the second black guy? This one calmly, coolly, competently demonstrates how to put on a life jacket. He is also on screen for about 30 seconds, or over three times as long.

    Or, for that matter, why not focus on the young, Middle-Eastern woman around the 1:00 mark? Does she fit into our racial stereotypes?

    If there is a “racial message” incorporated into this set of decisions, as you argue, I think a broader focus would yield a more accurate reading of what the message is. But of course, all cultural objects are polysemic, so we will read into it whatever is more compatible with our pre-existing world views.


  2. I have seen those videos (often, actually), had some of the thoughts you had about the exit row stuff, then went back and forth in my own mind, much as thinkb4post did. It still seemed weird, but my responses/analyses were mixed. The repetitive white guys was definitely arresting.

    As for the exit row stuff, all that started after people objected to being categorically excluded from that row on presumptive grounds. I have observed some flight attendants insisting on affirmative responses in English, while others have gone through the ritual without worrying about getting a response.Can’t recall ever seeing anyone change seats over it, though. I have seen flight attendants rearrange people on the grounds that a child could not sit in that row.


  3. I have a streak of six consecutive flights in the exit row. Explicit verbal yes required, each time.

    I have seen elderly people moved out of the exit row a couple times. It’s true that the commercial is weird in that I’ve never seen somebody move out of an exit row simply as a function of being intimidated by the responsibility.

    Once the “writer” of the film came up with the triplets joke, probably the path to bothering some people was inevitable. Comedy writing 101 would be that the joke needs a strong visual contrast between the triplets and the person who moves. As a sociological exercise, run through all of the different gender/race combinations they could have used and there’s a way to spin it as bothersome. Plus, who knows how easy it is to cast adult identical triplets for an airline safety film? At least the Black guy looks professional and the White guys look schlubby.


  4. Did anyone watch Version 2? Other stereotypes leveraged in the caricature:

    -cowboy with a glossy pink suitcase
    -flirty, winking redhead
    -clueless British aristocrat with cup of tea
    -clueless intellectual in tweeds with a sherlock pipe
    -fragile “white boy” with neck-brace and glasses

    And a dignified black woman conducting the presentation.


  5. Just for the record, since I teach about race and think about race pretty much all the time, I want to reject the implications that might be read into some comments that there is something wrong about being uncomfortable with the segment that Andrew highlighted (i.e. in seeing a negative stereotype in it), even as one can recognize how many different ways these things can be read and notice the counter-interpretations offered by different segments in the same video. The point about recognizing that we live in a racially stratified and racially hierarchical society is that there are no innocent or single-valent or correct interpretations. People inevitably bring the weight of their prior experiences to any interpretation, and as long as those experiences involve both instances of overt racial bias (which still is quite present in the everyday experiences of many people, not to mention the accumulation of life experiences) and strong correlations of race with disadvantage, negative interpretations will inevitably be imposed on what to others appear to be innocent stimuli, and no one can be sure that unconscious stereotypes did not infect a portrayal or statement or action. My own view is that what matters is to recognize and appreciate these multiple perspectives and what they imply, rather than to insist that only one of them is right.

    Which is perhaps an excessively ponderous or pretentious comment on the issue at hand. If so, please forgive.

    And what may or may not be relevant, I am reading one of Brian Greene’s books, a popularization of debates in modern physics, which makes physicists’ understanding of the physical world sound just about as indeterminate as I described social interpretations above.


    1. Greene’s book sounds good, and more popularizations of the point that science is an interpretive exercise are important — it’s an old point probably to most readers here, but certainly not in the street.

      “The point about recognizing that we live in a racially stratified and racially hierarchical society is that there are no innocent or single-valent or correct interpretations.”

      Surely not single-valent, but the point of dedicating enormous time to studying race, class, nationality, and gender, seems to be to showcase that these categorical distinctions are the majority of what motivate people’s perceptions of and behavior toward one another. So not single-valent, but dominant-valent. And I was pointing out that any number of these hobby horses can get picked out of the videos, in my previous list, respectively:

      -cowboy with a pink suitcase (anti-masculine bias; alternatively anti-feminine)
      -flirty winking redhead (pro-sexualization bias)
      -clueless aristocrat with cup of tea (nationalist bias)
      -clueless intellectual with tweeds and pipe (anti-intellectual bias)
      -fragile white boy with neck brace and glasses (anti-white bias)

      Regardless the interpretive nature of science and scholarship, we have to pursue truth — it’s the point of debating and measuring what is more and what is less, socially and materially. We all have our hobby horses. McCloskey said somewhere that to be a physicist, you have to believe the world is made of particles and waves; to be a biologist, you have to believe its made of selection and replication; to be me, you have to believe its made of unsubstantiated (if old) ethical tropes about the economy.

      I’m all for the inclusion of multiple perspectives, but some on empirical demonstration are righter than others.


      1. Greene’s book is not about science as an interpretive exercise, it is about explaining developments in modern physics, which has empirical evidence that time and space are not constant but vary depending on the vantage point (relativity) and it is not possible to know everything about particles (quantum physics). I am not a physicist and can very quickly get in trouble if I try to explain any of this. But I’m only 1/3 through the book, still doing history; these things were established by the 1960s and are considered mainstream indisputable undergraduate textbook facts by physicists. Today’s cutting-edge Phd-level physics is considering the possibility that there are parallel universes and other even weirder possibilities, all of which acknowledge that what we think we know from common-sense practical observation is basically wrong. And I’m not saying this has anything to do with sociology.

        Regarding hobby horses and such, I’m going to assume you just disagree with me rather than failed to understand what I said. And I’ll say that your reply is actually an example of what I’m implicitly criticizing, which I’m going to assume you know. In my view, it is just wrong to write as if all stereotypes or biases are equivalent. The significance or sting of a stereotype varies depending on what else it is associated with, both in an individual observer’s biography and in society’s social structure.

        As we already know that we disagree on this, and that there are well-established communities of thinking that disagree on this, I don’t see value in repeating the debate here. I only put my comment up because I wanted to state my position on the larger issue, having previously made a comment that could have been construed as defending the other side of this long-standing debate. I do recognize that there are many ways to interpret these kinds of stimuli, depending on what background and perspective one brings to them, and that people can and do disagree about this. I’ve picked a side in the dispute, but this is not because I am unaware of the arguments on the other side. I’m assuming you are in the same position.


  6. “In my view, it is just wrong to write as if all stereotypes or biases are equivalent.”

    I didn’t get that from your OP, no. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you being more prone to detect and get upset about anti-black biases than others. I think it’s less scientifically meaningful than trying to understand the generalized mechanics of categorization and in-group formation, across the number of contexts in which it appears.

    I don’t think studying anti-black bias and studying categorical heuristics generally are antithetical, the former is a subset of the latter. So I’m not sure there are even sides here to be taken. Other commenters and I have argued that the relative magnitudes of stereotyping in the video are misidentified without an appreciation for the number of dignified ways in which blacks are portrayed, and number of derogatory ways a number of other social categories are.

    Your argument is that nevertheless, the one negative portrayal of a black man is amplified by its situation in the history of black America and current institutional outcomes like the prisons. I can understand why our effort to underline the ubiquity of categorical biases in the videos, and countervailing examples of black progress, makes the anti-black bias seem smaller in relative magnitude. It does look smaller next to these big variables. Maybe you’re right that nevertheless, the anti-black bias is enormous when put in broader historical context. That’s a much longer conversation.

    But if sociology is forever trapped in the historically contingent and particular politics of a handful of political movements in late 20th century America, we will not be able to discover the actual, general social mechanics with make the social world nor will we actually empower people’s understanding and reformation of it.


  7. I should say that if there are “well-established communities of thinking that disagree on this,” I’m not aware that my arguments are old hat. Nor am I assured of my positions or identity in either of those communities. Chalk it up to learning, and thanks for the tete-a-tete.


  8. This conversation has been interesting. I do tend to side with OW on this one: that there’s something historically special about racial prejudice in the United States that makes it incommmensurable with other “biases” demonstrated.

    The main point I wanted to make was not the presence of bias, racial or otherwise, in the video, but rather that I suspect viewers learn cultural cues from these rather minor inputs. I don’t particularly study race and ethnicity, but in my area (citizenship and political behavior) there is a tendency to assume that people learn political ideas only from overtly political sources (e.g., Fox News, MSNBC, political activists). I believe we miss a lot of political socialization by ignoring the small, off-hand comments that license political messages. And I think this was one example.


  9. That’s an important point. Phil Cohen made a similar argument about gender when Steubenville happened, that Steubenville incidents are merely the knife-edge of a much broader phenomenon, where the majority of the blade of the knife is accounted for by myriad micro-aggressions making up a rape culture.

    Critics of these kinds of “tacit transfer of knowledge and belief” hypotheses highlight that they can look like hunting boogy-men (a term which itself has notably racist origins from early anthropology!). Empirical demonstrations of these theses I think look unpersuasive to skeptics because the demonstration can look like cherry-picking: “Note this one case of very subtle transmission of a belief.” “Ok, I can’t disagree – there it is.” “Now extrapolate with me based on my theory that there are zillions of these which are really doing the social action.” “Where is your evidence that there are zillions and that in aggregate they are the large-magnitude social force?”

    A better methodological approach, rather than finding base cases and asking people to extrapolate inductively based on the theory, may be the argument from residual. That is, if we can show that the explicit, dramatic, and intuitively obvious manifestations of belief transmission actually have small coefficients, if we can show Fox news and Occupy actually have small effects, then we are at least left with a large residual suggesting that myriad micro-aggressions communicated and reinforced tacitly are doing the work.

    There seems to be a bit of a contradiction in sociological research, on the one hand claiming that big and loud interest groups like Fox News and Occupy, concentrations of ideology, move society by spawning social movements — and on the other hand claiming that it is a large aggregate of tiny and tacit transfers of belief which do the work. It may be the case that, following a traditional diffusion pattern, loud and growing interest groups get a belief to threshold of adoption, after which tacit imitation and reproduction take the belief to a dominant and stable equilibrium. This would seem to satisfy both otherwise contradicting hypotheses.

    Lest I be read as the resident race denier — I want to reemphasize that my goal here is simply to take a step back from fresh-wound political disputes of recent American history to attempt to identify generalized patterns of social change that span across geography and time. So I’m not out to minimize work like olderwoman’s on current racial outcomes, which is of striking social relevance (not to mention scientific quality), but to add to our understanding of these issues.


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