Facing Racism at 30,000 Feet: African American Pilots, Flight Attendants, and Emotional Labor
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In this qualitative study, I examine the experiences of African American pilots and flight attendants with emotional labor. Integral to existing theories of emotional labor is the incorporation of voices of color and their contemporary movement into professional industries. Essentially, most all theories of emotional labor were built through the examination of low-wage service workers in gendered or racially segregated occupations, with only recent incorporations of gendered occupations within professional settings. Using the theoretical concept of emotional labor, or the labor required to reduce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others, I argue that emotional labor is much more than labor produced within the confines of a job, but is also based on identity characteristics that directly influence interactions in the workplace. Therefore, I qualitatively examine, through in-depth interviews with more than thirty African American flight crew members, how emotional labor is influenced and performed when people of color are introduced to professional settings. The results of this study show that there are multiple dimensions of emotional labor that should be added to existing theory. Primarily, existing standards of emotional labor in the airline industry are a direct result of institutional structures and cultures created during a period of systematic exclusion that do not account for contemporary racism and sexism. Thus, performing emotional labor in this industry is unequally placed on those white women and people of color that had no input into its creation. The results of this study suggest that emotional labor should be inclusive of systemic racism perspectives as a method of understanding how salient identity characteristics, such as gender, race, and class, are directly connected to preconceived ideologies that influence interactions that call for emotional labor. Moreover, because African American men and women in this industry are underrepresented, emotional labor becomes a necessity in their interactions with coworkers, consumers, and management. In addition, African Americans experience highly regulated emotional labor that influence how they perform their jobs, interact with others, and formulate appropriate counter-narratives.
Evans, Louwanda (2012). Facing Racism at 30,000 Feet: African American Pilots, Flight Attendants, and Emotional Labor. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from