home Commentary, Culture, North America, Racism How Did Race Motivate United Airlines’ Treatment of Dr. David Dao?

How Did Race Motivate United Airlines’ Treatment of Dr. David Dao?

By now, I suspect that most everyone with access to the Internet has seen the videos of Dr. David Dao being dragged from a United Airlines plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

At first, United asked four passengers on the fully booked flight to volunteer to give up their seats to traveling airline employees. After the airline offered hotel accommodations and US$800 and still nobody volunteered, the airline began to “randomly” (based on frequent flyer history, fare type, etc.) select people to deplane. Dr. Dao was the fourth selected and the only one who would not relinquish his seat.

When asked to give up his seat he resisted, insisting that he had to get home to attend to patients at the hospital where he worked. In the videos that have now gone viral, Chicago Police can be seen confronting Dr. Dao at his seat. When they reach for him in order to forcibly remove him, Dr. Dao screams and resists the officer’s physical attempts to pull him out of his seat. Eventually he is wrestled into the aisle and hits his head on an armrest, before going limp. The officer then drags a bloodied and seemingly unconscious Dr. Dao down the airplane aisle, shirt raised over his belly, glasses askew, while many horrified passengers look on.

Additional video shows Dr. Dao somehow returning to the plane, clinging to a curtain, and dazedly saying, “Just kill me.”

The footage is upsetting. It’s very hard for me to watch. Fear is the overwhelming sense I get when watching the videos. Dr. Dao is afraid. Many of the passengers are afraid. I am frightened by what I see.

The violence seemed to escalate so quickly. Dr. Dao refuses to deplane, police are sent in, and in a matter of moments he is being grabbed, yanked, and is bloodied. In the face of Dr. Dao’s refusal to comply, there appeared to be no middle ground – no negotiation, no explanation of rights – before hands were being roughly put upon his person.

In the days following the incident, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said that he supported how employees “followed established procedures” when handling a passenger whom he characterized as “disruptive and belligerent”. When Munoz’s remarks were called out as “tone deaf” and a “non-apology”, he finally apologized later saying, “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right. It’s never too late to do the right thing.” 

Amidst United’s staggering mishandling of this entire situation, one question keeps bobbing in and out of the media coverage: did Dr. Dao’s removal have anything to do with his race?

While Dr. Dao’s lawyer says that race was not a factor, many are not so quick to remove race from the equation. Even if Dao’s selection was done “randomly” by a computer, as has been stated, can his race really be discounted when considering Dao’s subsequent treatment?

To not include Dr. Dao’s race in how we as a culture discuss this incident is to ignore the institutional racism that informs how we digest such occurrences. Dr. David Dao is an Asian-American man, he is Vietnamese-American, he is an immigrant; did his race impact how airline employees, his fellow passengers, and the police treated him?

This is an uncomfortable question to ask. While I know anti-Asian and anti-Asian-American racism is very real – my family and I having been the focus of it at one time or another throughout our lives in the America – Asian-Americans also get it drummed into them they are “basically white” and aren’t really the victims of racism. After all, “Asians” are the model minority.

As Asian-Americans, we’re sometimes conditioned to believe that we have nothing to complain about as a minority so be quiet, be good, and play nice.

I’ve often been told that I’m being “too sensitive” when I call out casual (or not so casual) racism. “That could happen to anyone” is a response I hear a lot. Yes, sure, the literal action of being silenced, or shoved, or screamed at, or worse could be done to anyone – it could be done to a fire hydrant. But the fact that someone chooses to do it to me or another Asian person or person of color, at a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain way is not a random bad situation. It is a racially motivated choice that is an attempt to illicit a specific reaction; be it to silence, to subjugate, to intimidate, to erase, to remove.

What’s frightening is that such actions are not always a clear case of “I will do this because of this person’s race,” it’s rather, “I can do this because of this person’s race.” Sometimes racism is permissive rather than explicit.

Was Dr. Dao treated so roughly because he is Vietnamese-American? An immigrant? Did the police and employees act with such aggression because, either consciously or subconsciously, they believed there would be fewer consequence due to Dr. Dao’s race?

Versions of the above questions have already been tossed around the media. Many are saying that the violence was due to Dr. Dao’s lack of cooperation, that “it could have happened to anyone,” that it was Dao’s behavior, not his race, that escalated the incident.

It could happen to anyone.

It’s hard for me to believe this.

It’s hard for me to believe that, had a 69-year-old white man identified himself as a doctor that needed to see his patients at a hospital, he would have been violently removed from an airplane. It’s hard for me to believe that a white male doctor, who was not inebriated or inciting physical violence, would have been dragged bleeding from a plane simply because he refused to give up his seat. It’s hard for me to believe that a white, senior citizen, professional man would have been blamed for his “belligerent” behavior.

Somehow it does not seem audacious for a white man to refuse to give up what he paid for. But for an Asian man to say “No”, to not be obedient, is jarring; even an act of aggression. So people respond aggressively.

Is this what happened on that United Airlines plane?

Whether the employees and police knew it or not, did they interpret Dr. Dao’s obstinate behavior as far more inflammatory than it actually was because of his race? Do we consider it normal and acceptable for white men to stand their ground, but when a man of color does the same thing, it is considered an act of aggression?

I don’t know. I don’t know what went through the minds of the police and United Airlines employees. While they may not have been consciously acting on racial motivations at the time, to say that race had no bearing on the incident is at once naive and troubling.

If race is entirely removed from the conversation about Dr. Dao and United Airlines, I fear that future incidents like it will occur, in the name of “It could happen to anyone.”

Featured image via aeroprints.com/Creative Commons.


Louise Hung

A Chinese-American writer living in New York, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.