The Woman Who Showed Me How To End Racism

Putting down the invisible knapsack.

Steve QJ


Photo by Godisable Jacob

Last month, as I was boarding a flight to Vienna, a woman showed me a world beyond racism.

She was at the boarding gate with her daughter, trying to cram her oversized bag into one of those undersized metal cages airlines use to justify their “carry-on” fees. And since my bag was also slightly too big, I was eager to see how it would go.

It wasn’t going well.

A few other passengers had already been stopped, grumbling under their breath as they handed over the €70 ($75) fee, but this woman was particularly disgruntled. And as I got closer, I noticed a familiar tone to her disgruntlement.

That’s okay,” she said as she slammed her credit card onto the counter. “We both know this is a racial issue. I saw you let a white man through with a case the same size as mine.”

How dare you?” replied the agent with all the indignation you’re imagining. “I deal with customers from all over the world every single day. This has nothing to do with race.

The two of them went back and forth, each convinced the other was judging them unfairly. But in the midst of all that racial tension, I saw something beautiful: a natural order that went beyond luggage allowances and hidden fees. An implicit truth that all the staff and passengers understood. An insight that transcended matters of “race” and culture and prejudice:

There was no way these people were going to stop me.

There was no way, while a black woman stridently accused them of racism, that they were going to single out the only other black passenger in the line. I could have been carrying a lumpy duffel bag with the word “BOMB” painted on it, and they’d have waved me through.

And sure enough, when I got to the front, I handed over my boarding pass, flashed the agent my winningest smile, and walked my oversized bag onto that plane free of charge.

Truly, I have seen the promised land.

In 1985, psychologists Robert Kleck and Angelo Strenta conducted an experiment on self-perception.



Steve QJ

Race. Politics. Culture. Sometimes other things. Almost always polite. Find more at