The racist incident on a Ryanair flight is what happens when black people are stereotyped as confrontational

Sunday’s Doctor Who episode on Rosa Parks showed us how far we’ve come – the racism on that flight reminds us how far we’ve left to go

Biba Kang
Monday 22 October 2018 16:35 BST
Man racially attacks elderly black woman on Ryanair flight

On Friday, footage of an elderly black woman being abused on a Ryanair flight went viral. In the video, filmed by a fellow passenger, a white man can be heard shouting at a black woman, calling her an “ugly black bastard”. When the woman responds in a Jamaican accent, the man shouts “Don’t talk to me in a f***ing foreign language, you stupid, ugly cow.” He threatens to “push” her if she doesn’t leave her seat.

Instead of removing this man from their flight, Ryanair escort the woman, who we now know is Mrs Gayle, a 77-year-old member of the Windrush generation, to a new row. Since the video went viral – a factor which must have complicated and possibly compounded the victim’s trauma – she has apparently received no apology from the airline. Mrs Gayle’s family told Nadine White at HuffPost UK that they are “surprised, disgusted and hurt” by this lack of contrition.

Politicians have also denounced the behaviour of the airline. The secretary of state for transport, Chris Grayling, told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “What we saw was totally unacceptable. The fact is that race abuse of that kind is a crime. And if a crime is committed it should be dealt with appropriately.” Theresa May’s spokesman has said: “When people are travelling, going about their public life, no-one should be subjected to intimidation or any form of abuse.” People have been quick to comment on the irony of this statement in light of the hostile environment policy and the detentions and deportations of the Windrush Generation.

MP David Lammy, who recently demanded that Theresa May immediately introduce a hardship fund for Windrush citizens whose compensation schemes have been delayed, has also commented on the Ryanair incident. He tweeted: “Ok boycott @Ryanair if they think it’s ok for a racist man to abuse an elderly black woman and remain on the plane. It’s 63 years since Rosa Parks said “No “ to sitting on the back of the Bus and we ain’t going back.”

The comparison is striking. In yesterday’s episode of Doctor Who, written by Malorie Blackman, we saw the Tardis land in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. We’re introduced to the political landscape of Rosa Parks’s America, when we see Ryan, a young black boy played by the actor Tosin Cole, being slapped across the face for trying to return the glove of a white woman.

The optimistic but hard-hitting episode focuses on how far we’ve come since the inception of the civil rights movement, while also reminding us how far we have left to go. In one particularly moving scene, Ryan and Yas are hiding from a police officer. Ryan reminds Yas that “this ain’t history”, and that racism isn’t a thing of the past. He says, “I’m having to work so hard to keep my temper.”

The episode was a sobering reminder of the fact that, whether or not they retaliate, black people are treated as aggressors in scenarios where they are really the victims. In the Ryanair video, we see that Mrs Gayle is moved from her seat, instead of her white verbal assailant being removed from the flight and reported to the authorities. It’s as though she shared responsibility for the incident; like it was an argument, rather than an attack.

And if this is how a vulnerable female pensioner is treated, imagine how young black men, riled by racial abuse, are responded to by officials. The racist stereotype that black people are innately confrontational or aggressive is not a coincidence; it is a hugely effective oppressive tool. Because abuse is likely to provoke anger and retaliation, and black people are the most likely to receive racial abuse, we are taught to perceive those natural human reactions as evidence that the abuse was provoked.

The idea that black people must have somehow been complicit in their own mistreatment is so deeply entrenched that a frail pensioner was treated like a scrapper in a pub brawl, moved away from her abuser as he assures people “I’m alright”.

We love to say “no smoke without fire”, but it’s this very mentality that allows racism, and most particularly anti-black racism, to thrive in modern society. We need to understand that bigotry is provoked by nothing more or less than the colour of somebody’s skin.

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