When JacqueRae Hill, a black Southwest Airlines flight attendant from Dallas, saw a white passenger reading an anti-racism book, she stopped to have an honest conversation with him about her experience as a black woman, the long-lasting effects of discrimination in the United States and what his effort to learn and understand meant to her. What resulted from that conversation was a genuine example of what the history-making events of the last week are meant to invoke throughout the country.
While emotionally-charged protests continue to wrack the nation and the world at large, white Americans are being called on to continue to engage in the type of contemplation and education that allows self-reflection of privilege in the face of ongoing oppression among the black community. Resources upon resources are inundating social media platforms and brand communications in order to do so, including literature meant to teach and enlighten us about how to be better allies.
One such book, "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" by Robin DiAngelo, has become so widely circulated over the last few days that it’s being sold out across retailers. The 2018 New York Times best-seller challenges the perception of white people in how they perceive racism and their own bias and privilege; it’s becoming a vital resource for those seeking ways to make a difference for the movement in their own lives.
When Hill reported to work as usual on May 29 after reading through harrowing news, she was finding it difficult to remain upbeat and maintain the light-hearted, comical attitude that Southwest flight attendants are notorious for. "It's so difficult with everything going on. You want to be informed. But my job as a service person [is] to provide somebody with happiness," she told CNN.
Still, she did her job with a smile, but with stories and images of Black Lives Matter protests at the front of her mind, she couldn’t help but notice a passenger who boarded the plane holding "White Fragility." Hill sat down next to him and asked about the book; she hadn’t read it yet, but wanted to talk openly about his reaction.
Hill said he was brutally self-reflective and candid: "'It's our fault,'" she recalled him saying. "'We have to start these conversations.' It was just a genuine moment for me, and we talked for 10 minutes." She thanked him for caring and sympathizing, for taking the time to talk and for his effort to begin to understand.
Hill shared the story on Facebook, and hearing about this most sincere of moments is a light spot in the midst of a dark reality. But this particular spotlight will continue to grow: Hill was actually conversing with Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines, who left her a note before deplaning thanking her in return for sharing her emotions and offering him crucial perspective. Hill’s mother, an American Airlines employee, corresponded with Parker herself to express her own gratitude for his taking the time to listen to and learn from her daughter.
As a white man with influence, seeing Parker taking steps to educate himself and better understand the situation in this country made an impression on Hill, who said she was grateful no matter who he was.
"I was thankful if he was a random person that had no influence. But because of his position in life, the fact that he's reading that book...he does not have to educate himself," she said. "And the fact that he is, I just think that speaks volumes as to the work we all have to do in trying to bring ourselves together."
And the influence continued. Parker went on to send a message to American's employees, recounting the story of his conversation with Hill and encouraging his staff to seek out ways every day to make an effort to do better.
"I had done nothing, of course. JacqueRae was the brave one,” he wrote, according to CNN. "I was sitting comfortably in the back sending you guys emails without thinking twice about what this young woman -- and others like her -- were going through. She was a gift to me."
This small yet powerful moment continues to create discourse and influence now. Southwest's Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly shared his own sentiments on Twitter, and Hill’s Facebook post explaining the encounter has been shared over 5,000 times and counting.
Hill’s 10-minute talk was something personal to her, something that she as a black woman simply needed in that moment. But what she realized and shared with her community -- and the nation as a whole -- is that initiating discourse is what’s most important, even if who you’re talking to isn’t the CEO of a giant airline. The point in sharing her discussion with Parker is to encourage just that: discussion.
"I want to work on a solution. I want to have conversations. This experience gives me hope. I feel like a shift will come out of this," she said.