ignorance is a privilege
July 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
I was driving in the small downtown area of the Maryland suburb where I used to work a few years ago, and pulled out in front of a police cruiser. I barely noticed this because I wasn’t speeding and I was thinking ahead toward the show I was planning on seeing a few of my friends in that night. I pulled into the small dead end street where the theater was, and the cruiser turned with me, parking in the middle of the street about a car’s length behind where I parked on the side. This felt odd, but since the lights for the cruiser weren’t on I couldn’t tell if it was there for me or for some other unknown reason, so I sat in my car for a minute or so to see if the officer would get out or move. He didn’t, and I was worried I would miss curtain if I didn’t go in, and I still wasn’t sure if I was sitting in my car eyeing this idling cop car for no reason.
So, cautiously, I started to open my door and peek around. The officer then leaned out of his car and gesticulated wildly at me, yelling at me to get back in the car. I did, hurriedly, a little freaked out but mainly confused. While I waited, two more police cruisers showed up with flashing lights, and when the officer finally came over to my window he asked me get out of my car. He had me put my hands on the hood of his cruiser and proceeded to lay down four tickets related to driving with an expired license plate sticker, all totaling to several hundred dollars’ worth of fines and one required court appearance that, if I were not to follow through, could result in jail time. My heart jumped at the phrase “jail time,” and then the tow truck showed up. I had been a bit surly before but at the sight of the tow truck all pride left and I panicked, desperately asking if there was anything I could do for them to not tow my car. He said no, this was all already in the works, and I began to get hysterical. Another officer on the scene recommended I contest every single one of the tickets I had just received. They towed my car away as I pulled my phone out, pacing furiously on the curb. My officer asked if I needed him to call someone to get me, and I snapped at him that I would take care of it. They left me standing on the curb by myself, still trying to find someone who could come pick me up, stunned and near hysterics.
My husband, who was police for another government body at the time, had no pity for my sob story. “You did wrong,” he told me, “officers are allowed to choose to be lenient, or they can ticket you to the full extent of the law. It’s not malicious, he didn’t owe you anything, and you probably scared the crap out of him when you tried to get out of the car.” But I was furious. I railed against the town police, and I told everyone who would stand still long enough my story of gross injustice. I couldn’t believe the callous way I was handled for something so minor. I couldn’t believe a dumb mistake like not realizing my updated sticker had been sent to my parents’ house instead of my own should result in fines that went above and beyond my paltry artist salary, a towed car, and time in court. I told everyone who would listen, “he made me get out and PUT MY HANDS ON THE CAR,” and “they just LEFT me there, BY MYSELF,” and “why did he think he needed THREE COP CARS for ME?” and at this part I would open my arms and step back, displaying my apparently non-intimidating figure as evidence of the aggressively unfair treatment I had received.
It wasn’t until a year or so later, in one of those mind wandering moments in the car or the shower, that it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I was so shocked and upset because he hadn’t treated me like a white person. He had pulled me over for wrongdoing and prosecuted to the full extent of the law, giving me no lenience, no preferential treatment, and no extra niceties like making sure I got home safe, and I was furious because for the first time I had not been afforded special treatment for being a petite, attractive white woman. I have gotten my share of tickets and fines in my driving life, and it never occurred to me that I had still yet been getting preferential treatment the whole time. Even now, rereading what I’ve just written, I realize he offered to help me find a ride home, and the other officer was extremely helpful in giving advice for how to deal with the financial blow I’d just been dealt.
It took even more time, more subconscious rumination, for me to have the jarring, terrifying realization that if I were a different person, particularly a nonwhite person, that small confused moment when I opened the driver’s side door, or later when I became agitated and snappy with the officer, or when I jerked my phone out of my pocket, may have gotten me seriously injured or killed.
I consider myself an ally, and I hope those I consider myself allied to also feel that I am their ally. But it took me almost two years (on top of a lifetime of privilege) to realize just how privileged I was in that first tense moment, and in the moments after. I don’t know if that officer would have taken me down if I were someone else, I honestly don’t feel he would have, but I do know that my whiteness almost ensured that he was not going to seriously harm me, no matter how erratic I behaved. I know this because I know in my head the statistic that an armed white man is less likely to be killed by police than an unarmed black man, but in my heart I know this because with all my studious enlightenment and so-called liberalism, my first and foremost feeling regarding this policeman’s call for backup was incredulity. “Why did he think he needed THREE COP CARS, for ME?” Opening my arms and stepping back, reveling in my perceived innocence, taking a full 365 days to realize exactly what the subtext of that statement is: I am observably harmless because I am white.
When that realization first came to me, it was like a physical slap. I was disgusted with myself. I was horrified and embarrassed and I didn’t know what to do, how to fix this broken part of myself that until that moment I had no idea I had. But once I realized this the first time, it was like a shade had been drawn back and I started noticing it in myself and fellow whites more and more.
I sometimes get teased now by other white people for continually and constantly attempting to check my own privilege, for being hyper-aware of my impact as a white person in any situation, for “thinking about race all the time.” But I’ve never had a non-white friend tell me I go too far, or that my personal quest to know my own privilege is obnoxious or off-putting, or that thinking about race all the time is wrong, so I soldier on. I know I don’t do enough. I know I let moments pass by when I could have stepped in and said something. I know I say things that are ignorant or wrong or muddled and I get embarrassed when I realize it, usually way after the fact. But all I can do is try, and fail, and try again to overcome my programming.
I think this is a systemic problem; a general reluctance to empathize and a reluctance to look deep inside ourselves and face what is ugly. I think it is our civic duty to try, because I truly feel this is less an issue of police brutality, but white brutality. I hope to be an ally, and a helper, and a bringer-about of change, even if the only person I manage to change right now is me. I will vote of course, and try to raise civically-minded, empathetic children when the time comes. And I will try to put a little more understanding into the world through conversations and attempting to stand up to my ideals in rooms where I am made to feel uncomfortable by the shitty remarks white people make to each other when they think they are alone (and not apologize when someone inevitably says, “uh oh we’re making Bee uncomfortable can’t take a joke hah hah”). I will try not to despair, because it is not my place to despair, and because it is not helpful for me to do so. I will try really hard not to be an asshole. And I will send as much love as I can muster to my friends who are despairing this week.
Black lives matter. Friends, acquaintances, strangers: YOUR lives matter. I am sorry it took realizing how much my life matters to me, and how cavalierly I had been taking for granted the system rigged in my favor, to connect the dots.
The most common question I hear from whites, both liberal and conservative, when someone points out a personal story of a person of color struggling under our oppressive system is, “Are they a good person?” and I find that maddening. A person shouldn’t have to be a model citizen or “good person” just to not deserve to be shot in the back by a person of power. We, white people, have so far to go on the road to decency, where can we possibly even have room to judge?
Nonwhite friends, I don’t deserve patience, nor have a right to your understanding, but I do appreciate your giving it while I muddle through this very intense, very personal struggle.
White friends, we have to do better. We have to. Put yourself on your own journey if you haven’t yet, or push yourself past your comfort zone if you have. The Equal Justice Initiative compiled an enormous list of lynchings and the reasons for them from the last century. Read that list, look at the photos. Look into the eyes of those manic grinning white faces and take your defenses down. Recognize your personal benefit from that evil.
Empathize, and love thy neighbor, and fix this fucking broken system.