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This Happened on TAM Airlines…or Somewhere, Sometime, Maybe…

If you can read this, you’ve probably seen this: the story of a “50-something woman” who took issue with being seated next to a black man on Brazilian airliner TAM, and is smoothly upbraided by an airline attendant when she offers to reseat the black man in first class, to the rousing applause of nearby passengers.   It seems disingenuous to call this hopeful  story a “hoax“, although it’s certainly an urban legend, almost as old as the Internet itself.  Original circulation of the tale dates back to 1998.

What’s touching about the story is how many people want to believe it’s true, and therefore a sign of the times – of better times, and better people, who stand up for what is right and good and true.

It’s kind of disappointing to realize this story probably doesn’t have any basis in reality – or perhaps only remotely so – but that there really is a chicken nugget girl, who ate almost nothing but chicken nuggets for 15 years (and only recently became sick?), and that a blob of glue vaguely resembling Homer Simpson just sold for nearly $240,000 on eBay.  Why are the stupid things true?

Most of us would like to believe that we could be good and noble like the unnamed flight attendant who put the racist passenger, quite literally, in her place.   And maybe a lot of us actually would.  Most people I know really are good and kind and noble.  We’re just not always in the right place at the right time to exercise our good intentions.  We just read about awful things in the newspapers or see them on the news, and are left to wonder if we’d step in to stop the fight, dispel the argument, bring common sense to bear in a situation that badly needs it, or if it would be another one of those times when you think of the perfect thing to say or do long after the opportunity to say or do it has passed.

Stories like the TAM Airlines tale give us hope, help us rally, inspire and empower us.  Does it matter whether it really happened, if it inspires us to speak out?

Hoax-Slayer observes, “The Facebook version of the story calls on users to “share if they are against racism”. However, as with similar stories that ask people to share to fight against child abuse or animal cruelty, it is difficult to see how simply sharing will do anything to help. The act of sharing such posts often leaves people with the largely misguided belief that they have actually done something to remedy the specified problem. Unfortunately, racism is still deeply entrenched in many people and societies. Often, racism is exhibited in much more subtle – but equally destructive – forms than the blatant example outlined in the story above. Of course, effectively combating racism in all its insidious forms requires a lot more than sharing a story on Facebook. ”

That’s true – but I also think the act of sharing the piece, which I saw being passed around by friends who really do work to combat social injustice in their everyday lives, is also an act of solidarity.  In sharing this anecdote, they’re saying, “This is what justice can look like.”   Combating racism requires feet on the ground, but it also requires dialog. Stories create powerful dialog and this little piece of mythology can be another tool in the social justice arsenal against the mythology of racism itself, a good fiction against the bad fiction that some people are better and more important than others just because of the color of their skin.

Whether it really happened on TAM Airlines is moot.  That we want to believe the story is true and consider it an example of how we can stand up against racism and hate, is deeply relevant and important in creating a world where this kind of story would also be ancient history.



  1. Balaji says:

    I came across your blog when I was searching for the TAM airlines story, which I was pretty sure is a hoax. I just wanted to comment on your thought of sharing such stories. Yes stories create powerful imagery and dialog. But the problem is that the ease at which they are shared in FB totally dilutes the effect.

    When I saw the TAM story on my wall, I was like oh no! not again. It is my belief that these things are similar to spam and serious issues get trivialized by it.

    So as a story maybe the TAM episode is moot, spreading them as facts is harmful in the long run.

    Just my thoughts


  2. tmw2010 says:

    I agree that the “spam” nature of such posts is problematic. But I think the fact that there have been over 500 hits in the last couple of days on this story on my small site alone, suggests that while a lot of people may take such chain mail stories at face value, thereby truly trivializing an important issue, a large number of people also go looking for more information – and then engage in discussion about it. Additionally, the type of people drawn to a story like the TAM Airlines piece are not the same type of people drawn, let’s say, to stories of President Obama’s “true” birth or faith. Many people who forwarded the TAM story preceded it with a comment along the lines of “I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it’s a great story.” That disclaimer alone was a valuable admission, and a promising note.

    That said, I totally agree that spreading, via email or FB or verbally or via Fox News, unsubstantiated, poorly sourced anecdotal tales as factual can be harmful, if only because we become complacent, unable and unwilling to take the time to distinguish fact from opinion or simply plain old storytelling. And once we begin to accept everything we hear and see at face value, we are at serious risk of being controlled by those who will tell or show us anything to get us to believe or do what they want.

    Some basic clues that forwarded stories are just that – stories – are exemplified well in the TAM piece: There is no specific date or place identified, no one in the story is identified by name, and no media source is given. Lacking any one of those items is a big clue to the anecdotal chain mail nature of a piece; lacking all three is the final nail in the coffin of truth.

    Thanks for weighing in with your sage and thoughtful observations, Balaji.

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