Tamika Cross, a young OB-GYN flying Delta from Detroit to Minneapolis, heard flight attendants calling for medical assistance when a passenger man two rows in front of her was found to be unconscious. Dr. Cross raised her hand, only to be told, according to Cross’s subsequent Facebook post on the incident, “Oh no, sweetie, put your hand down. We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.”
Cross says she tried to explain that she was a physician, but was “cut off by condescending remarks,” from the attendant. A moment later, when there was a second call for medical assistance and Cross again indicated that she was ready to help, the same flight attendant said, according to Cross, “Oh wow, you’re an actual physician?” She then quizzed Cross about her credentials, area of practice, and where she worked. In the meantime, a white, middle-aged male passenger appeared, and Cross, she says, was dismissed.
On her now viral Facebook post, Dr. Cross concludes:
“She came and apologized to me several times and offering me Skymiles. I kindly refused. This is going higher than her. I don’t want Skymiles in exchange for blatant discrimination. Whether this was race, age, gender discrimination, it’s not right. She will not get away with this….and I will still get my Skymiles….”
What’s going on here?
1. This was an emergency situation.
2. Dr. Cross sincerely felt insulted and treated with disrespect.
3. She also feels that she was the victim of stereotyping,, bias and prejudice.
4. Her account can be presumed to be an honest recounting of how she experienced the episode.
5. The Roshomon principles apply. We do not know how the flight attendant perceived the situation as it developed, and will never know, since the incident is already tainted with accusations of racism.
6. This was an emergency situation.
7. There is no way to determine what the flight attendant was thinking.
8. Despite all of the above, observers, analysts and others will be inclined see the event as confirmation of their own already determined beliefs and assumptions.
9. This was a single incident, involving a set of factors interacting in unpredictable ways.
Next, some ethical observations….
1. The Golden Rule appears to have eluded Dr. Cross. The flight attendant deserves the benefit of the doubt, as Cross herself would want to have if the positions were reversed. She doesn’t know that this was “blatant discrimination,” though it might have been, and she is obviously inclined to take it that way. A passenger might have been dying, the attendant was stressed and panicked, and it is at least possible that she might have misunderstood what Cross was trying to convey. If Cross’s quote is accurate—“We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel”—that suggests to me that she assumed Cross was a student or volunteering to help. Biased or not, who isn’t accustomed to seeing young black women serving as “nurses or some type of medical personnel” even if one is unable to envision such an individual as a doctor?
2. Cross says that the white, older male doctor wasn’t asked for his credentials, but Delta says otherwise. We don’t know, and presumably Cross doesn’t know, why he was designated as the emergency physician. She is an OB-GYN; maybe he was a neurosurgeon or a general practitioner. Maybe bias was involved, and he just “looked like a doctor.” Maybe, as older men are wont to do, he just pushed his way to the front of the line. Cross doesn’t know, and we don’t know. Not knowing, it is unethical to presume racism.
3. Dr. Cross leaped to the assumption most disrespectful to the flight attendant, because she was white. She also calls the attendant a “heifer,” an insult based on her appearance. She does not accept the attendant’s efforts to apologize. Instead, she is hell bent on vengeance, and announces her intention to play her alleged victimhood to maximum advantage.
I don’t like Dr. Cross very much, based on her conduct in this episode.
4. Although she ultimately concludes, “Whether this was race, age, gender discrimination, it’s not right,” Cross begins by writing,
I’m sure many of my fellow young, corporate America working women of color can all understand my frustration when I say I’m sick of being disrespected.
Thus she frames this at the outset as a racial incident, not knowing herself whether it was one. Unfair. Irresponsible. Unethical.
5. Cross could have written,
“I’m sure many of my fellow young professionals can all understand my frustration when I say I’m sick of being disrespected.”
“I’m sure many of my fellow corporate America working women will understand my frustration when I say I’m sick of being disrespected.”
She could have reasonably concluded, “Well, once again someone mistook me for a college student instead of a doctor. I guess this will stop happening eventually, and then I’ll look wistfully back on these days!”
6. Why didn’t she? She didn’t because accusations of racial discrimination are more sensational, newsworthy and social media-incendiary than accusations of gender bias or age bias, or because he natural inclination is to assume racial prejudice given any provocation.
7. But it got her publicity as a victim of pernicious discrimination. Delta is sure to grovel and give her the Skymiles she has pledged to acquire, because she framed this as a racial incident, though the only evidence of that is how she says she felt. Maybe the “heifer” will even lose her job.
8. Again, I’m sure she is sincere. However, the fact that she believed that this white woman was racially stereotyping her doesn’t prove or even suggest that this is what the flight attendant actually was doing. Like most African-Americans, Dr. Cross has been conditioned to see race as the reason behind every slight, every hostile look, every indignity and every failure. The fact is that the exact same thing could have occurred if she was a young white woman, or a young white man whose intent in raising his hand was misconstrued.
Finally, some ethics conclusions:
1. Does an individual who claims to have been racially discriminated against have a “right to be believed”? No. Therefore, the presumption of racism in an interaction between a white individual and a black individual is itself racist.
2. It is unfair to \come to any conclusions about the episode without hearing the flight attendant’s side of the story. Nonetheless, Colin Kaepernick would undoubtedly describe it as one more example of the nation’s “systemic oppression” of blacks, and take a knee during the National Anthem in support of Dr. Cross.
Confirmation bias has U.S. race relations by the throat, and if anything is tightening its grip.
3. Because this was a single incident, featuring ambiguous circumstances during an emergency, it is irresponsible to make any general conclusions about it whatsoever. Naturally, that’s what a lot of people and pundits, and especially social media participants, are doing.
Cross’s story calls up other incidents in which black professionals claim to have been racially profiled. Over the summer, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) made waves with a speech from the Senate floor in which he recounted being questioned by police because of his race. And in a now-famous confrontation, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested by a white police officer at his house in Cambridge, Mass.
Wrong, and incompetent. This incident has no clear relationship to those at all, so “calling them up” is misleading. Senator Scott was talking about racial profiling in traffic stops. Prof. Gates, we learned, was arrested because he was acting like a jerk and interfering with a police officer who was trying to do his job, because Gates applied his own bias and assumed he was being discriminated against.
Hmmm. Maybe Dr. Cross’s experience does “call up” that episode after all.
5. The Washington Post’s headline on the story is unethical and misleading. “Flight attendant to black female doctor: ‘We’re looking for actual physicians’” suggests and is intended to suggest that the flight attendant knew Cross was a doctor, and didn’t consider any black doctor a “real” one. Click bait: shame on the Post. A national newspaper is tarring a flight attendant with the label of racist without speaking to her or fairly representing what she said. The Post owes the woman an apology.
Our U.S. society is currently incapable of interpreting this kind of incident objectively, honesty, dispassionately or fairly. The episode itself literally proves nothing about anything, except how these particular people interacted under these unusual circumstances. The aftermath, however, proves conclusively that a society where people choose to believe the worst about their fellow citizens, seek vengeance and the benefits of victimhood rather than being gracious and accepting apologies, and refuse to apply the Golden Rule and the benefit of a doubt when the alternative is magnifying distrust and division, doesn’t work.