Maybe Flight Attendants Can Teach Courts Something about Overcoming Unconscious Bias

I think there is pretty broad agreement that all of us who work in and with the court system that it could benefit to more mindfulness in dealing with unconscious bias.

A recent article in the Washington Post by a woman who previously worked as a flight attendant, Gillian Brockell, might help us.

In an article responding to the recent incident on SouthWest, Ms. Brocknell describes the pressures under which flight attendants operate, conscious both of the importance of avoiding over-reaction, and at the same time the huge stakes if there is a failure to correctly identify a real risk of terrorism.

Flight attendants are trained extensively in evaluating suspicious behavior with videos, checklists, regular exams and drills. (And drills and drills and drills.) This infuses you with an automatic, paranoid vigilance that follows you forever and insists that you take all threats seriously, since the cost of being wrong is too high.


Flight attendants are often made to play referee when hundreds of humans with wildly different life experiences are crammed into an aircraft cabin.

It’s usually simple stuff, like asking a young woman who has never seen a Hasidic Jew if she can switch seats with her boyfriend so she’s not touching the devout man next to her. (She, of course, has the right to say no.) Or moving the man with the severe dog allergy as far away as possible from the blind woman’s service animal. Or asking the bachelor party to pipe down for the umpteenth time, because not everyone is going to Las Vegas to get drunk.

But sometimes you’re asked to be someone’s accomplice — in their racism, their homophobia, their cruel joke about the larger person seated next to them or their demand that the mother in front of them drug her children to shut them up. For professionals who are supposed to be polite, it can get awkward. The expression “Takes all kinds!” becomes your best friend.

Ms. Brockell concludes that keeping an eye on someone perhaps wrongly reported is the right way to go.  But what I like in the article most is her sensitivity to how differences in background can cloud perception (including, I infer, her own.)

When passengers report an issue, it’s impossible to know what their life experiences are. That’s why it’s so important to make assessments based on training. In this case, being polite and being vigilant should have called for the same thing: a conversation. Anyone who makes a snap judgment from the cocoon of the galley has no business being a flight attendant.

All in the court need to be thinking about this, and thinking of how to be clear of whatever may be influencing their own judgements. In a court, unconscious bias would not lead to a plne diversion, but it might result in an increased or decreased sentence, or a failure to understand the source of articulated resentment.

The more we talk, and are unafraid, the more mindful we can become, and thus the more just.



About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
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