To Be The Only Minority On A Plane

Whenever I travel from Chicago to Nashville I usually fly out of Midway Airport, which is situated on the South Side of Chicago — well, Southwest Side, but you get the idea. Historically, this area is known for its Irish communities surrounded by black communities, which has made Chicago infamous in some regards. It’s a green dot in a sea of black, and this is where one can most easily fly to Nashville on any day. Flights are always traversing between Midway and Nashville International Airport, both of which seem to be dominated by Southwest Airlines.

I have been flying to Nashville through Midway for five consecutive years now, at a frequency averaging every three months. So I am pretty familiar with the layout of the airport, and I know when it’s busy, when it’s not, and what I can and cannot do while I am there to pass the time.

I know that there is a local sandwich shop that sells Starbucks coffee because there is no Starbucks. I know that McDonald’s will always have a line and is much more expensive than other McDonald’s, and that flights to Nashville are always in Terminal B — most commonly in the gates 20, 21, or 22. (This area is also at the very end of the airport and takes about 10 minutes of walking once you get past security.)

Every time I’m there I remember the time the handle on my luggage broke off in security and I had to carry my 50 lb bag to my gate in >10 minutes to get home for Christmas. I remember a 60-year-old man propositioning me in the bathroom, and I remember watching sunrises from gate windows that danced across the South Side landscape. But what I always remember most, and what I always experience, is that when I get to gates 20 or 21 or 22 that Nashville, based on my fellow passengers, is so damn white.

Before I move on, here is a racial demographic breakdown of the town I am from outside of Nashville, to give you an idea of my ‘roots,’ followed by that of Chicago. I have provided asterisks (*) to show which area I fit into:

Hendersonville, TN

92.93% White

4.12% African American

0.27% Native American

1.10% Asian

0.03%  Pacific Islander

1.71% Hispanic or Latino

0.65% from other races

0.90% from two or more races***

Chicago, IL

45.00% White

32.90% African American

0.50% American Indian

5.50% Asian

28.90% Hispanic or Latino

13.40% Other Race

0.07% two or more races***

(Source: 2010 United States Census)

Summary: I am part of the >1.0%     


My town (Hendersonville) is north of Nashville and is best known for its churches and country music singers, and not for its liberal attitudes and democratic voting, which is how one could describe Chicago. In some respects, and in some perspectives, these two places are opposites. I share all of this to help aid in understanding that I am used to everything being ‘so damn white’ as I mentioned above. I actually used to find comfort in that normativity.

So, as I sit at gates 20 or 21 or 22, I sit there alone and watch and listen and ready myself. Being in Chicago for so long I have become used to sitting in a café and hearing multiple languages. I have become used to being able to walk down the road and a white girl not always grabbing her purse in fear when I am near — hell, I am used to seeing white girls walk down the street at night, which doesn’t really happen in my town. White girls don’t walk down streets at night, no one really does.

At the gate I hear the dialects slow down, and tongues become lazy. “Hello” becomes “Hai,” people are always “fixin” to do something, and it’s never “all of you” but instead “all y’all.”

For me those gates serve as a site to reacquaint myself with what is to come. Something I ran away from about five years ago.

Eventually when we are all allowed to finally board the plane I always pick an aisle seat. I usually get on the plane before the masses because I neurotically check-in to my flight exactly 24 hours before takeoff so I can be in boarding group A. By getting on the plane before most I can survey everyone that boards; I like knowing who all is on a plane before I’m stuck on it. As I wait in my seat I lock my eyes onto the boarding door and count off the minorities as they enter.

“Oh, an Asian woman… one.”

“Is he gay… yep, that bag is gay, gay…two”

“Do white women count?…Hmmm.”

“Gay and Black. Bingo! …three”

And so on. The count usually doesn’t go higher than five on flights to Nashville.

The other day I flew home to see my mother for a few days. When I got on the plane and got ready to count I was disappointed. One after the other, no one seemed to be a minority. Of course some closet gays could have slipped by, but no one boarded that I could really be sure of their minoritarian status. Instead the plane was filled with white, presumably straight men with sprinkles of older woman, and a few children. Again, all white.

As each person walked past me, and I sat in the aisle seat, no one stopped to ask for the seat next to me. As they continued to pass, the flight attendant came on the microphone, “Passengers, this plane is going to be at full capacity. Take the first available seat. Thank you.” Yet still, they passed.

Around me were men in there 40s and 50s discussing the upcoming weekend games and whom they bet to win. Each of their left ring fingers had a gold band squeezed onto it. Their hair was highlighted by variations of grey, light blond, and a few receding hairlines. They spoke in thick accents and laughed at the end of every sentence.

As fewer people walked onto the plane, the less likely I thought a fellow minority would board to save me. I didn’t need saving, per se, these men were harmless, but I needed some comfort. I thought to myself, “I can’t be next to you guys by myself for an hour. What happens if you ask me a question? What happens if you ask me if I’m dating? What happens if you say nothing to me — is it because I am ‘two or more races?’ Is it because I am gay?”

I was the only minority on the plane.

As I sat there thinking about all these questions buzzing through my head a hand touched by shoulder. It was a 20-something white woman with a Gucci bag.

“Can I sit there?”

“Yes. Please… please do.”

I stood up and let her in. As she settled in, I noticed her pull out a gossip magazine, turn her iPhone off, and zip up her workout jacket. In that moment I felt better, I felt at ease. Though she and I had no physical intersections — I am male with brown skin, gay, tall-ish, and she, white, female, and short-ish — I felt more at ease. I felt that she understood how uncomfortable it could feel being stuck on a plane next to testosterone raging men talking sports and laughing. I felt she probably even knew more about this than me.

As the plane took off I thought to myself, two, there are two here.

Whether she realized it or not, she was a minority for that plane ride home to Nashville, even if she was so damn white. And we said no words to each other the whole ride, she slept and I read. We just existed next to one another, floating above the morning clouds. TC Mark

image – Shutterstock

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