MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now to a personal story. Now we've all had close encounters with strangers in line for coffee or on an elevator. Now you might be thinking, oh, nice shoes or I hate that cologne. Now usually, we keep those thoughts to ourselves, but digital technology could be changing that. Brittney Cooper, a Rutgers University professor, was recently sitting on an airplane waiting for it to take off.
She was headed for a fun weekend with family. Then she noticed that the woman in the seat next to her was typing out a text message with a racist slur directed at her. Professor Cooper wrote about that experience for Salon, and she's with us now, and I do want to mention here that the words were ugly. So with that being said, Professor Cooper, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
BRITTNEY COOPER: Thank you.
MARTIN: So what exactly did the woman say?
COOPER: She said: "on the plane, sitting thigh to thigh with a big fat nigger. Lucky me."
MARTIN: And how did that make you feel?
COOPER: I felt a range of emotions. I felt embarrassed, humiliated and very angry at the same time.
MARTIN: What do you think - and this may be a ridiculous question - but of all of those words, what do you think was the most upsetting? If you can even - if you can even parse it that way.
COOPER: I think that I had different reactions to the two slurs. So the fatphobic slur embarrassed me because weight is a struggle for me. And so when you have a struggle that's very public, you are self-conscious. I am certainly self-conscious, and at the same time, really committed to being confident in my body as I am right now, even as I work to get to a weight that I'm more comfortable with.
The use of the N-word absolutely infuriated me. It is a dehumanizing term. It's, you know, it's part of a long racial history that says that we don't recognize another person's humanity when we call them that word. So it made me very angry that she would use that term.
MARTIN: And you mentioned in your piece that you had actually noticed her before she got on the plane, and she had her two boys with her. She had her family - she was traveling with her family. And I remember you wrote in your piece that you had noted, and I think you said - you were thinking to yourself something along the lines of, what a lovely family, right, or something like that?
COOPER: Absolutely. They were a handsome, you know, all-American family. And I just thought they were a nice family. I frequently people-watch when I'm getting on the plane, and she was talking to the older son about how he needed to do a summer reading, and I used to be a reading teacher, my very first job out of college. And so, you know, so I was just interested in them as a family. You know, nothing particularly remarkable, I just thought that they were a nice-looking family.
MARTIN: Sure, but even more what a slap in the face when you had kind of had warm thoughts towards them. So then - so what did you decide to do? I mean, the flight was delayed, so you had a little bit of time to think about it. What did you decide to do?
COOPER: Well, the first thing I did was to post a status about it on my social media page, on my Facebook page, and I wasn't exactly sure what to do. And then several friends encouraged me to take a range of responses - to spill a drink on her, to call a flight attendant. I didn't want to create a - cause a scene. And so, but I was asking myself, what can you live with, because my work is about social justice and anti-racism and anti-sexism.
And so finally, I, after a certain point that we were sitting on the runway waiting to take off, I just got her attention and said, would you read my Facebook status update, where I had pretty much told my friend group what she had said. And so she looked at me and then she read it and then she kind of grunted her assent that she'd seen it. She didn't really say anything. And when she didn't say anything, then I said to her, you know, I hope that you don't pass this ignorance on to your boys, your words were very hurtful.
And she said, I don't. And that was really almost the end of the interaction. I sort of pressed forward and said, you need - you know, I hope that you don't, but they watch everything that you do and you're their primary role model. And then the conversation just kind of fizzled from there.
MARTIN: And then you had to sit there for four hours.
COOPER: Yeah, it was two or three - yeah, it was two or three hours to make our connecting flight. But, you know, I didn't want to - I didn't want to create a scene. And I wanted more than anything for her to know, I decided that my point was for her to know racism and fatphobia are hurtful, and if no one has ever told you that, then now someone that you have used those slurs toward has made you confront the reality of that. And what you choose to do with it is your choice from here forward, but now you can't say that you don't know.
MARTIN: And, you know, you're using very appropriate, you know, professorial language here. But I do want to mention in the piece that you were in tears, or you felt that you were you - you felt - you were very hurt. I don't want to kind of glide past that aspect of it. Well, what do you think now? I mean, how do you feel about it now that you've had a few days to think about it?
COOPER: Well, I will say it took me a couple of days to really process it. I did feel hurt, and racism is hurtful. And I think in my public life, I'm very committed to a sort of fiery kind of brand of, you know, just telling the truth about social injustice. But in that moment, I was hurt and humiliated, both at the fatphobic slur and at being called the N-word. And I think that we have to own that racism is a hurtful thing.
It's not merely an angering thing, but hurt is a, you know, being hurt and not having other human beings recognize your humanity and your right to be seen as a person, as opposed to in terms primarily of your skin color, is a problem. And so it absolutely hurt me, and I put it in the piece because I think that we need to to be very honest. And sometimes that's the thing that doesn't come out when we talk about racism, is that it is not merely - I mean, so there're the systemic issues, and I focus on those in my work, but on our personal, human, day-to-day interactions there are certain kinds of pain that we just have the choice not to cause each other. And I wish we would make that choice more often.
MARTIN: Brittney Cooper is an assistant professor of women's, gender and Africana studies at Rutgers University. We caught up with her in Shreveport, Louisiana. Professor Cooper, thank you so much for speaking with us.
COOPER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.