Voices: I was told off for changing my baby’s diaper on a plane. Then the bizarre phone calls started

·7 min read
Both the FAA and IATA have recorded a surge in unruly passenger incidents since the pandemic began (Getty Images)
Both the FAA and IATA have recorded a surge in unruly passenger incidents since the pandemic began (Getty Images)

Of all the things in my life to become famous for, I never would have guessed it would be a dirty diaper.

I was the only person with a child, and the only person of color, in the first class section of an early morning flight from Montana to Texas when one of the flight attendants yelled at me for disposing of my daughter’s dirty diaper in the bathroom trash. Not only did he berate me, he actually made me go back into the bathroom and dig it out of the trash. When another flight attendant tried to come to my defense, he yelled at him as well. Humiliated, I ended up sitting with the diaper at my feet for the rest of the flight. Not quite the first class experience I had been hoping for on our first flight in over a year due to the pandemic.

When we deplaned, I tweeted directly at the airline about the mortifying incident and made a personal vow to never fly them or any of their domestic partners ever again. Little did I realize what would unfold after this seemingly simple customer service complaint on social media.

In the Houston hotel where I was staying with my husband and my daughter, I began to receive multiple calls on my cell from a 1-800 number identified through Google as a number belonging to the airline. In between doing my hair and makeup for a family wedding that night, I managed to pick up on the caller’s third attempt. A male caller identified himself as a representative with the airline and informed me that my family and I had been placed on a “no-fly list” due to my disposal of a diaper in the airplane bathroom. When I challenged the caller and tried to defend myself and my family, he launched into a shocking, very personal tirade. He started talking about how “you people” bring “your children” everywhere. During an especially vile part, he referred to my toddler as “vaginal waste.”

Floored by the vulgarity coming from a person I assumed was the flight attendant I had dealt with on the plane, I put the caller on speaker so my husband could hear what was happening. We ultimately hung up because the caller wouldn’t stop verbally harassing us. My heart was pounding, my brain was scrambled, and my anger quickly shifted to panic. If this person had access to my personal cell phone, what other information did he have access to? What lengths would he go to in order to harass me and my family?

I took to social media to try to get answers from the involved airlines after my husband had waited and waited for somebody from the airline’s customer service phone line to pick up his call. I contacted the police, both in Houston where the incident took place and in Seattle where we live, because I was scared our home address might have been compromised.

One of the posts I made finally caught the eye of the airlines and somebody from corporate damage control reached out to me that night. But they provided no answers and offered zero solutions as to how we could protect ourselves from their harassing and stalking employee.

I received no meaningful resources or help from the airlines after this initial contact. My story ultimately went viral, and I was overwhelmed by requests from media outlets who wanted to hear more. Even after several rounds of emotionally draining press, I still had no answers from the responsible parties. Re-telling my story every time I talked to a journalist caused me to relive the trauma over and over. And for what? Airing my family’s “dirty diaper story” garnered nothing more than a fleeting spurt of internet attention, complete with racist and sexist comments.

All this attention did, however, lead to somebody claiming credit for the harassing call. A professional internet troll who makes his living via YouTube humiliating and harassing people – often at the bidding of his fans – said that it was all just a “prank.” A prank.

To call the most hateful and traumatizing conversation I have ever experienced in my life a “prank” epitomizes the belittlement people of color face every day in this country. All my life I’ve been forced to look the other way, to smile and laugh, when what I’ve really wanted to do is scream when I hear these types of comments – microaggressions that have repeatedly echoed throughout all corners of my personal and professional life: “Wow, sweetheart, tell me something: how do you speak such good English?”; “No, I know you said you were born in Alabama, but where are you really from?”; “I am sick of dealing with foreign doctors!”; “I’m sorry, it’s just hard to keep track of all you people.”

Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, I am about as American as they come. All of my schooling and medical training has been in the US, my paternal grandfather did his PhD in California, and my father spent a large chunk of his childhood in America. And yet, every day, I am reminded that I don’t belong in this country because I am brown. If not in America, where do I belong?

The viral nature of my story helped me find an army of supporters who came to my and my family’s defense; however, it also brought out an online troll militia set on belittling me and my family even further. Women are particularly at risk of being targeted and harassed by online trolls, and being a woman of color puts an even bigger target on your back.

Perhaps the most disheartening part of all of this is that the airline and powers-that-be have remained uncooperative. They have refused to communicate what they are doing internally to investigate the original incident and have refused to release the name of the flight attendant involved. Just as frustrating, no one has been able to tell me, or even attempted to tell me, how the alleged prankster got my number or how he spoofed an airline’s caller ID.

Our laws have yet to catch up to today’s online world of swatting, doxxing, and harassers-for-hire. And the airline’s lack of cooperation has resulted in a dead-end for law enforcement who are unable to do anything for me or my family in the face of the harassment and verbal assault we dealt with from an alleged international prankster.

Despite raising hell, I literally have nothing to show for my diaper-gate crusade. What I have discovered in all of this mess is that victims of targeted online harassment are left with little, if any, recourse. This “prank” had real-world consequences for me and my family: over half a year away from the initial incident, and I am still triggered every time I change my toddler’s diaper in a public place. I feel vulnerable, waiting for someone to scream at me. Every time I fly, I specifically ask the flight attendants where they want me to dispose of the diaper. Traveling while brown and flying as a parent with a young child has always been hard, but now it mostly feels impossible. I’ve come to dread air travel.

I am a brown woman, I am a mother, and I am fed up — because nobody cares. But I will continue to fight the good fight, if for nothing more than the hope that at some point in the future, people will

care; the hope that we’ll finally be able to stop fighting and be able to just be. It’s the least I can do for my little brown daughter and her future in this country she calls home. Some day, we will belong.

Farah Naz Khan, MD is a physician and freelance writer who is based in the Seattle area

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