When racism sails, bad behavior ensues

Arnie Weissmann

Earlier this month, Carnival Cruise Line president Christine Duffy made a video citing the uptick in social postings of “bad behavior” in stores, restaurants, theme parks, schools, airplanes “and, yes, on cruise ships, too.” She went on to outline what Carnival was doing to enhance its safety and security policies to prevent such incidents.

Travel advisor Margie Jordan is among those who have been exposed to some bad passenger behavior on a cruise ship — and not, it should be noted upfront, on a Carnival ship.

MSC had offered travel advisors a discounted rate to invite friends and families to sail on the line. Jordan, never having sailed MSC, booked five cabins.

Among the guests she brought onboard, three were Black men: an attorney, a nurse and a paramedic (the latter two work for a fire department). One evening, the nurse and paramedic went to a sports bar. It was crowded, and as they stood behind a white passenger seated at the bar, they heard him say, “I hate (n-word)s” after a Black referee on a TV made a call he disagreed with. At first, the men couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but he said it again.

One of them tapped the man on the shoulder and suggested he not say that. He responded, “You guys say it, why can’t I?” They exchanged a few more words — nothing physical happened — and Jordan’s guests went to the other side of the bar to get away from the man.

Unknown to them, the bartender, seeing the situation, had called security. When security arrived, they approached Jordan’s guests and asked them to step out of the bar. Meanwhile, the offending man at the bar continued to watch the game and be served more alcohol. It was, Jordan related, “racial profiling at its worst. When there’s a problem, it’s the Black men who are approached. The white man wasn’t even spoken to. He just went on drinking until he decided to leave on his own.”

The night before, Jordan had had her own racially charged moment. She had gone to her cabin to relax after dinner, and flipping through the channels settled on having Turner Classic Movies play in the background. She was startled to hear the n-word said repeatedly, and then shocked to look up and see a noose placed over the neck of a Black actor whose character was then dragged behind a car as the white actors, in the car, laughing, said, “This is how we lynch (n-word)s.” (The characters were all drug dealers.) The movie was “Coffy,” a blaxploitation film made in 1973.

It upset her greatly. “This isn’t what I want to hear when I’m on vacation,” she thought.

Later in the cruise, the attorney and his wife had rented a cabana on a private island. They got up to look around the island, and when they returned, two white people had taken their seats. Jordan’s guests asked them to leave, saying that they had paid for it. The intruders refused to get up. Her guests called security, who did get the interlopers out, but not before they took all the water that had been prepaid in the cooler. Security did not interfere with that nor offer to replace the water.

Jordan contacted her MSC business development manager via email to relate these disturbing incidents. In their correspondence, she made some recommendations, among them revisiting the offering of a movie channel that shows films that could be offensive to a large number of people during evening hours; looking at diversity, equity and inclusion training to avoid racial profiling; and even putting a ribbon of some kind across a cabana entrance to indicate that occupants were gone but will return.

She had also asked to speak to someone higher up and received an email from a sales executive. That response was focused on the movie — it included a note forwarded from Turner Classic Movies which, in essence, said the movie was groundbreaking for its time and that context was provided by an interview with its female lead, Pam Grier.

Margie responded that she was disappointed with that reply — regardless of what artistic merits the movie had in 1973, it wasn’t something she and other Black people would want to see while relaxing on a cruise. The other two incidents were not addressed, and Jordan expressed her disappointment about that. The sales executive asked when Jordan might be available to speak on the phone. Jordan gave her some times when she would be available, but she didn’t hear back. She sent her availability again on Feb. 2 and still hasn’t heard back.

After Jordan related this to me, I reached out to MSC. They responded with a statement: “The events and actions that Margie Jordan described took place while traveling aboard MSC Seashore last year do not reflect the values of our organization, and we have zero tolerance for behavior that breaches those values. The safety and comfort of our guests and crew is our most important priority, and we are committed to fostering an environment where everyone aboard our ships feels safe.

“For years, we’ve had policies and procedures in place to prevent harassment, including mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training for crew members, but what the experiences described by guests during this particular voyage have brought to light is that there is a lot more to be done. We’re evaluating next steps for MSC Cruises to continue investing in diversity, equity and inclusion, expand its existing anti-harassment programs and make the necessary changes to operations aboard our ships to counter unconscious bias, microaggressions and make sure everyone feels welcome and respected while traveling with us.”

Jordan is dissatisfied by the general nature of the statement and lack of response to the specific incidents.

Cruise lines can’t easily screen passengers for their potential bad behavior, but they can, as Carnival Cruise Line did, insist that guests sign a code of conduct. Violators face fines, being restricted to cabins, disembarkation or bans from sailing. While enforcement is likely to anger the guest who is disciplined, other guests will applaud.

When I first conveyed Jordan’s information to MSC USA president Ruben Rodriguez, he seemed genuinely appalled this had occurred aboard one of his ships. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words, and I hope MSC will share broadly the next steps it determines are necessary to effect positive change. 

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