Once when I was living in Maryland, I was driving at 11 pm down a road with a very confusing intersection. There were three different roads all crossing at one spot at odd angles that would have made H.P. Lovecraft horny for the old ones. This meant that there there a tangle of traffic lights.
I was tired, it was night, and I ran a red light because I thought the road I was travelling down had a green light.
If you’ve ever lived in Maryland, you know the struggle is real.
I was immediately pulled over. So I turned on my hazard lights, slowed down, and pulled into the empty parking lot of a business. I rolled down the window, stopped the car, and put my hands on the steering wheel so the officer could see my hands.
When he walked over, before he could speak, I said, “well, officer, I see that you witnessed the dumbest thing I’ve done in about 8 years.” He laughed, asked for license and registration, went back to his vehicle, came back, and gave me a warning while chuckling. He let me off.
What hit me on the ride home was this: I had NO fear. I had no concern that I was going to be questioned about driving my vehicle, I knew that there would be no assumption that I was out for any bad reason, there was no search of my vehicle, I was never asked if I had a weapon and was let off from an MD Transportation Code Title 21, Subtitle 2 violation that carries a $140 fine.
My expectations of the encounter were met: I expected the police officer to act dispassionately and with respect. I got exactly that. My joke saved me $140, but I also knew that if I had more melanin in my skin, the encounter would have been more fraught.
I don’t think at all that if I were black the police officer would’ve immediately assaulted me or would have been a terror. I feel completely certain that officer would have approached me in a very professional manner.
But I DO think that the encounter would have been different. It would have been more fraught, the officer would have been more nervous when approaching me, and the need for me to justify my being out at 11 pm would be more necessary. I think that my joke would have fallen flat and that I would’ve owed the state of Maryland $140.
If I were fined as a white man, it would have been just. It’s on the books that way. I definitely ran the red light, only recognizing the offence when I was more than halfway past the light. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I DID IT, so although it would have been an inconvenience to pay that money, it would also be the logical conclusion. I broke the law. I pay for it.
My white privilege here wasn’t how the law applied to me, it was how the law wasn’t applied to me. Privilege comes from the Latin privilegium, or “private law.” That is a set of laws that apply to a set of people that doesn’t apply to others. Or in my case, don’t apply.
That might not have been the only factor in this encounter. The officer could have been tired and didn’t want to do the paperwork. But my privilege was, I feel, a very strong factor.
MORE ANECDOTES, PLEASE!
I was inclined to speed in my 20s and in many encounters with the police, I got exactly four tickets. In two cases, I went to the court and the traffic officer never showed, so they threw out the ticket. In one case where the officers showed up, I paid the fine and took the hit on my driving record.
In the cases where I was let off with a warning, the officer was friendly and professional. There was a “boys will be boys” attitude about the whole thing.
A MOST UNFLATTERING STORY
Once, I tried to outrun a police officer. I was speeding down an interstate and I heard the sirens start off in the distance. Instead of slowing, I gunned it for the nearest exit, hung a hard right, and parked my car at a college.
The officer found me (of course). I had shut down my car, had the window rolled down, and had my license and registration out.
He walked up to my car with a smirk and said, “you tried to run, didn’t you?”
I said, “yep” in a matter of fact way.
He laughed and said, “I woulda done the same thing. Let me let you off with a warning, partner.”
A PARABLE THAT IS ACTUALLY A TRUE STORY SO I GUESS ISN’T A PARABLE AT ALL
There is one case in my whole life (so far) was I treated poorly by the police. I was driving from Austin to Houston in what turned out to be a heavily used drug corridor. I didn’t know this until that very night when I was pulled over. The officers were rude, cruel, and ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN my body and car were made out of Angel Dust.
They were pretty pissed to find only meat and metal. They insinuated, tried to entrap me, and didn’t like the fact that I was very carefully watching them search my car.
That’s it. I was not scared for my life. I was severely put out. I was indignant. How DARE the police treat me this way!
And the fact I could feel that way shows my privilege. I didn’t fear for my life, I was thinking about lawyers. I knew they weren’t going to haul me off to jail. They originally threatened to do so. One said “you know, we can impound your car and do a thorough search. We can take you to jail at any time.” So I said, “yes, and I can sue the town for false arrest because I don’t have so much as an aspirin in that car or in my system.”
I played with fire because as a white man I knew my life was protected with metaphorical oven mitts. I could be as “uppity” as any other white man.
They gave me a ticket which I never payed because I decided to use a new route from Houston to Austin and because screw those guys.
I called up the court of that town a few days later and asked if they had a ticket in the system with my driver’s license number. The lady said, “no, would you please tell me the nature of the infraction” and I said “nope” and hung up. I was not about to help them find a ticket that slipped through the system.
I checked my driving record later and it was never recorded, so the cops probably never submitted the ticket because it seems to be legal to drive the speed limit at night. Yes, even in Texas.
You see, the law didn’t apply to me. I got away with it because I COULD get away with it. I was a white man in Texas. That is pretty much the top of the cow patty pile.
(NOTE: I am STILL a white man, just not in Texas.)
SO, ABOUT THAT PRIVILEGE…
My privilege is not something that I’ve willed into being. I didn’t MAKE my white privilege. That’s not how it works. I was born into a system made by white men for white men. I was raised in it blissfully ignorant that I was not only given an advantage in life; I was given cheat codes.
I was a baby Buddha still in the protective castle walls of his father.
Only later when I actually listened to people outside of my “tribe” and read history not taught to me in basic elementary, middle, high school, and college history that that I found out that my tribe has done and is still doing some very shady and cruel things.
Americans are deprived of history. White people ignore it because we can and black people have had theirs taken away.
I have gotten away with a LOT of little things over the decade, most often in the most cavalier manner. I shrugged off minor infractions like they were nothing more than a cloud of gnats flying in my face while on a walk.
That is the immense amount of privilege I have inherited from my white, racist ancestors – a world where the laws bend to us, where we can ignore suffering because that shit gets in the way of shopping, where we can live an entire life without feeling an ounce of the weight of an entire system that says to the other, “we are not for you. You are at most tolerated or used for entertainment.”
Some white people might have stories about how they were discriminated against, but that again is a privilege. They can be upset about it, enraged even. They have the privilege to do that. With black people, that experience is so woven into their lives that it is “just the way it is.”
We can look at the murder of a white man and feel the profound injustice. We don’t have look at the murder of someone with our skin color on television and think, “it happened again like it always does, and again nothing will change.”