Why are Most of the People Who Work at Airports of Color? And Pilots White?

Boarding the plane for a recent trip, my daughter inched patiently behind me counting each row we passed anxiously waiting to get to row 26. As we approached our seats she tapped me on the lower back and said, “Daddy, can I sit next to you? Sister can sit next to mommy.”

“If that’s what you want to do, sure.”

We got to our seats, sat down and began digging around for our seat belts. Settling in, I started to untangle my headphones and quickly download some music before setting my phone to airplane mode. My daughter looked out the window curiously. After a minute or so she said, “Daddy, why are most of the people who work in the airport people of color, like the people who drive the carts and at the restaurants and the people on the plane like the pilot and other…whatever they’re called…people who help?”

“The flight attendants?”

“Ya, them. Why are most of them and the pilots white?”

I thought to myself for a moment and took a subtly deep breath trying to 1) come up with an answer for myself and 2) determine how to provide her with an answer. We were stuck next to each other on a plane for 3 hours so there was no shortage of time to think, but she was looking for an answer.

I began. “Well, you know people usually get jobs close to where they live. It’s much easier, especially if you don’t like driving or have access to a car. A lot of my former students at the college worked or still work at the airport. They work here because the jobs don’t require them to have a college education. They do the job while they go to college. They can also do the jobs late at night because the airport is open. Other places are not.”

She cocked her head, appearing a little confused. “So everyone who works at the airport is in college and the pilots and, whatever you call them are not?”

Not necessarily. At many airports the closest neighborhoods are segregated with people of color; black, brown, it depends on which city you’re in.”

She looked at me briefly and the continued looking out the window.

“Why?” she turned and said.

“Well, do you remember that talk we had a while ago about environmental racism and segregation through redlining?”

“Ah, like where Ms. Lupita is?” she asked. 

“Yep, remember I said how many times when people of color, like Miss Lupita and her family go to buy a house, they are not allowed to borrow as much money from the bank as white people and they are told they can afford to buy houses in certain areas of a city? It’s called redlining.”

“Oh ya, when we were diving and it smelled like farts? How do you know banks don’t give people of color as much money?”

I laughed from her initial comment, then replied, “Because there’s a lot of research on how banks do not treat people of color, especially black and Latino people the same and I’ve experienced it. When we went to the bank they offered to lend us a lot more money than we could afford. I know other people who had more money than us and the loans they were offered were not as good. Your uncle and I were talking about it. Not a lot of people want to live by the airport because of the noise and it’s farther from the city so the cost of a house is cheaper. There’s more to it, but that generally what happens.”

“Oh.”

She looked out the window watching the bags get loaded into the plane.

“Why are the pilots usually white? Do they live far away from the airport?”

“I don’t know. Probably most often, yes. But it depends on the airport. Remember how I’ve talked about how it’s easier to get jobs when you know other people who have those jobs. You can learn about the job before going to college and they can help you get a job. If you look around the plane, most of the people are white. White people might have more opportunities to explore planes and be interested in flying them. Especially when the pilots look like them.”

She looked around the plane. “Can I watch a movie, now?”

“Let’s wait until we get into the air.”

“Ok.”

The conversation ended there. I continued to think about it. Do I reinforce stereotypes? Was I say anything that might have implicitly suggested people of color are less than white people? These are always things to consider when talking about racial or ethnic stereotypes. What I have continued to find is that I find a balance between addressing the situation as both a matter of benefiting from privilege, but also that people are much more than the stereotype observed or reinforced in the situation. I never stop doubting the appropriateness of my response, I always search for better information that might help clarify my response or understand the situation better, and I always try to keep the door open for further discussion.