Some time ago, I read a New York Times Opinionator piece, “Class Struggle in the Sky.” Reading about the growing class divisions was particularly disheartening because I spent a fair amount of my childhood traveling in first or business class enjoying the extra leg room, the doting attention of the airline staff, and generous snack and meal offerings. The notion that oppressive dynamics were creeping into a realm that provided me with such fond memories of leisure made me very uncomfortable.
By the time I finished college, I had visited all continents but Antarctica. I absolutely love traveling, experiencing new cultures, and being (ever so comfortably) transported to new worlds different from my worlds in Boston, MA for undergraduate and Long Island, NY, where I grew up. My parents emigrated from the Caribbean so my sisters and I were accustomed to spending summers in the Caribbean with our relatives. Our travels were not just limited to the Caribbean; we also visited Southeast Asia, Europe, and South America. While in college, I traveled to and lived in South Africa, Australia, and Greece. All of these experiences not only exposed me to a variety of different cultures but also exposed me to the views foreigners held of Americans, particularly Black Americans. Oftentimes in my travels, I was the only one or one of a very small few, and those few were usually my family members.
What is particularly funny is that I traveled in much greater comfort with my family than on the trips arranged through my university. One time, I was explaining to my sister how my Australia program arranged for all of us to travel in economy. As I was relaying this information, she grimaced and recommended that I trade in my ticket for a first or business class seat instead of riding in “cattle class” like everyone else. As children, we viewed traveling in economy as a punishment.
Despite my relative privilege traveling, there was an underlying story about class that I often preferred not to disclose. Traveling in first or business class was a perk of my father’s position within the airline. However, my father was neither a captain nor an esteemed airline executive. He was a cleaning agent, the lowest on the proverbial rung. His daily work involved cleaning the cabin from top to bottom using harsh chemicals and solvents, wearing a uniform with his name clearly identified, and coordinating a team of other working-class Caribbean men and women whose job it was to clean up after all of us travelers.
Although his work was long and hard, he believed the benefits outweighed the costs as his position afforded us the opportunity to travel all over the world. As stand-by passengers, we could have been subject to class-based discrimination because our tickets were non-revenue generating; luckily, my dad’s charm and wit often ensured that we received the best possible treatment from all airport staffers. We were able to very seamlessly blend in with other first and business class passengers who likely paid full price for their tickets.
Once we landed in our desired destination, it did not matter that we were the last to board the plane or the most well-dressed (a requirement of airline staff members and their companions when traveling on non-revenue tickets). I guess what most startled me about the NYT Opinionator piece is that it reminded me of the somewhat hidden class dynamics underlying my childhood flights of fancy. I could ignore the issues and anxieties then, but that time has since come to an end.
Nelson Myhand says
Thanks Shane for this great complex class story. I have a great appreciation for your parents and their strategies for negotiating racism and classism.