A passenger has accused a United employee of calling her a monkey. There were witnesses. Now the passenger is suing, creating a monumental headache for United.
There are certain code words that are so deeply linked to race that they cannot simply be called an insult. Words like “monkey” or “uppity” are so historically associated with marginalizing black people that the use of such words, especially when describing black Americans, is simply unacceptable in any context.
And yet that’s exactly what a United customer service agent in Houston recently called a black passenger when she complained about her canceled flight. Cacilie Hughes claimed the United agent Carmella Davano told Hughes to stop looking at her with her “monkey face” and proceeded to call her a “shining monkey”.
Even if the exchange became heated and Hughes was nasty to the United agent, there is no excuse for such language.
Other witnesses attempted to calm down Davano and Hughes asked another United agent to call the police. When that request was denied, she called the police herself.
The police issued a citation to Davano for disorderly conduct.
Here’s where it gets sticky. Hughes is suing and her lawyers are attacking United as a whole, not just Carmella Davano:
Unfortunately, the racism experienced by Cacilie was not an isolated incident with United Airlines, but part of a companywide pattern of racial discrimination. We are going to fight to enforce Cacilie Hughes’ civil rights, to ensure that United Airlines eliminates its practice of racial discrimination, and to ensure the ongoing criminal prosecution of United Airline’s racist employee Carmella. Racial slurs like ‘shining monkey’ should be relics of history, not resurrected to fuel the fire of racism faced by so many African Americans in today’s society and condoned on United Airlines flights.
Part of me just rolls my eyes. When was such behavior “condoned on United Airlines flights”? The incident took place on the ground and as we’ll see below, United quickly condemned the slur and has removed the employee from service.
Since there were witnesses, there is little doubt that Hughes was called a monkey. But to say that such action is condoned by United is simply slander.
Quite the contrary, United issued the following statement on the incident:
At United, we believe that the diversity of our workforce makes us stronger. Together, we proudly hold ourselves to the highest standards of professionalism and have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. This incident is deeply offensive and does not reflect the fundamental values of our company and our 90,000 employees. That is why we took immediate action to remove this individual from the job. Since then, we have been following all of the required procedures under this individual’s union contract and are actively pursuing termination.
Wow. That could not be clearer. There will be bad apples in an organization of 90,000 employees. That must be kept in context.
But United Is Not Off The Hook…
Even so, this incident should serve as a wake-up call to United. This isn’t the first incident in Houston. Remember that another United agent punched a senior citizen in 2015, knocking him unconscious (then sued him). That’s wasn’t racial, but it was horrific behavior.
I’ve asked my inside contacts to keep me apprised how United handles this matter internally. Will this be used as a teaching moment for all employees? Will United make clear to employees, as it PR team did in the statement above, that such action is punishable by immediate termination?
For a company that prides itself in seeking equality in accordance with the Zeitgeist of the era, this painful new allegation will test whether such commitment to inclusivity is a facade or simply failed to permeate to one bad apple.
I fly United enough to see that most employees are great; that most treat all passengers with basic respect. But while I’ve never witnessed any sort of racial hostility, I certainly see poor customer service from time to time. Sadly, one poisonous apple can spoil the entire crop. For an airline that has weathered many customer storms over the last couple of years (dragging passengers, killing dogs, etc), the last thing United needs now is to be branded as a racist airline.
Thus, it must continue to assert what it already has: that such behavior will not be tolerated. But it must do more than assert. It also must ensure that every employee is onboard and in full compliance.