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Always a Panther: Former Pantherette Takes Conversations on Race to New Heights

JacqueRae Hill has made it her mission to engage people in conversations about race. Not just in the past few months, but for more than a decade.

Last month, she started a conversation with a passenger on her flight with Southwest Airlines. After finishing her duties as a flight attendant, she sat down next to him to ask about his thoughts on the book he had placed in the pocket of the seat in front of him. The book’s title – “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

That passenger wasn’t just ‘someone;’ it was Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines. He was flying Southwest because he needed to get to Florida, and that route on American was was completely booked. When Hill began the conversation, she had no idea who he was.

“If you just look at who Doug Parker is, he’s one of those people who could go through life not needing to know about this,” Hill said. “The fact that he’s reading that book shows me that he is seeing things.

That conversation was so affirming to me. I’ve been having these conversations over and over for years. He was validating everything I was feeling.”

Following their in-flight talk, Parker wrote an email to Hill’s mother, who, ironically, works for American Airlines. In his message he said, “Your daughter’s visit was a gift to me. She is a special young woman. She had the courage to approach me only because I was reading a book on racism in America. She, like most all of us, is questioning how we got to this spot and why we can’t be better. Her kind heart and open-mindedness were evident – you raised her well. He also joked, How did we let her go to Southwest?”

Hill wrote about her conversation with Parker on her Facebook account. Her life hasn’t been the same since. The post went viral generating more than 14,000 likes, almost 1,500 comments and more than 7,000 shares. She has also been featured in interviews with USA Today, ABC news and CNN Travel.

On a personal level, Hill has invited people to talk with her about race relations in America and the response has been overwhelming.

“People are saying ‘Thank you for your voice,’” Hill said. “Some have said, ‘I don’t have a black friend, will you talk to me about this?’”

And she has. Hill says she is trying to respond to every private message and email – although she has lost count of how many she has received.

Hill, who graduated from Duncanville High School in 2000, says her thoughts on race, on living in community with one another while appreciating each other’s differences is deeply rooted in her years at Duncanville High School and playing basketball for the Duncanville Pantherettes.

“Everything I learned about life, I learned about playing with people who were different than me who were taught different than me,” Hill said. 

Hill is embracing this moment for the opportunity to advance conversations on race relations. She’s not sure what the next step is, but because she is a spiritual person, she is praying about how she can use her platform to improve our community.

“I don’t have a quick and easy fix in how to start conversations about race,” she said. “We are just beginning to have authentic conversations. People are telling me I’m courageous, and I tell them I don’t feel like it was courage. I just feel like I was doing my part to help others understand.”