In truth, Whiteness affects everyone. It favors some of us and threatens others daily.
In my life, I have argued with, silently resisted, and fled from the police. Despite all that and my general comportment, the latter born from a distaste for authority and the tyrannical attitudes of the particular officers I encountered, I have never been arrested. I have never been handcuffed, tased, beaten, shot, killed. America’s epidemic of police shootings suggests that my experience might have been different if I weren’t white.
As a pasty fellow of Irish descent, I understand Driving/Walking/Standing While Black at a strictly intellectual level. Experientially, my closest corollary might be Driving While Looking Like an Angry Drug-Dealing Pirate. I have long hair and a goatee. My default facial expression is, apparently, seething rage. I wear rock and roll/biker jewelry and favor dark clothes. When confronted with authority—especially the petty martinets in police uniforms that I have personally encountered, whom I do not claim were representative of their profession in general—I tend to resist, often belligerently. Yet I sit here, writing this in my comfortable middle-class home, while Mike Brown and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and dozens of others lie cold in the ground.
Yes, police kill unarmed white people, too. When attempting to justify all police shootings in what they see as our post-racial society, conservatives often quote statistics indicating that police kill more white people than black or brown. Different studies have yielded conflicting data, so it is difficult to say that any one number reflects objective truth. Even if such studies are correct, though, conservatives seldom take proportion into account. People of color die in police encounters at a higher percentage than white people.
Pure luck and individual circumstance might play some role. The officers I met, while far too impressed with their own authority, might have been different than those who have shot unarmed black people—more competent, less cowardly, or simply having a better day, one in which a complex accumulation of events, emotions, experiences, and sense perceptions did not lead to tragedy. Looking back at my own actions and words, though, and comparing them with what we know of police shootings around the country, it seems likely that racial attitudes, prejudices, and beliefs played some role in certain outcomes, consciously or not.
When I was 16 years old, my girlfriend took a babysitting job in my town’s only affluent neighborhood. She invited me over. Not wanting to attract the neighbors’ attention, I parked on the street a few blocks away, walked to the house, and went in. An hour or so later, I was strolling back to my car when a police cruiser pulled up beside me, turned on its lights, and parked in my path. I kept walking forward, knowing I had done nothing wrong. The officer got out, told me to stop, and asked what I was doing in that neighborhood. Someone had spotted me, realized that I did not live there, and called the authorities.
“Are you serious?” I said, offended. “It’s against the law to use a sidewalk if I’m not rich?”
“Answer the question, son,” the cop said. “What are you up to?”
I told him the truth—that I was clandestinely visiting my girlfriend. He looked at me as my father might have—judgmental and disappointed. “Look, maybe you think it’s immoral, but it’s not illegal,” I said, still indignant.
Scowling, he shooed me away. “Just go. Don’t be walkin’ around in places you don’t belong.”
Where, I wondered, might that be—in public? In a rich neighborhood? In America?
Still, I was safe and whole. I approached an officer without permission. I argued with him. I suggested that I knew his job better than he did. My punishment? A mean look from a man whose feelings toward me meant nothing. Later, when recounting the incident for friends, I painted myself as a victim of class profiling. Back then, it felt like real injustice.
In the wake of Eric Garner’s death, or Castile’s, that experience and my reaction seem trivial. I lived. They did not.
One summer, when I worked at a factory for a few months, I was driving home at night and turned off the highway onto a rural road. A state trooper’s car followed me for perhaps a mile before pulling me over. I rolled down the window as he approached. His friendly smile disappeared when he saw a grimy, long-haired, angry-looking man behind the wheel. His hand dropped to the butt of his service weapon. He gestured, and a trainee officer appeared at my passenger window. Both men shone flashlights into the car as the first officer asked me the requisite questions.
“Put both hands on the wheel. Do you know why I stopped you?”
“License and registration?”
“I can’t get them with both hands on the wheel.”
“Take ’em out slow and easy. Got any weapons or drugs in the car?”
“Step out here, please.”
While I stood on that lonely road, no other traffic in sight, the trainee trained his flashlight on my face while the other officer frisked me, asking if I carried any paraphernalia, any needles that might stick him. Next, they positioned me six inches in front of their cruiser’s grill and asked permission to search my car.
“Why?” I asked.
“We’re looking for illegal materials.”
“What does that mean?”
“You already asked me about that. Why did you bother?”
“Don’t get smart with me.”
“You’re not my father. I can talk however I want.”
“Can we search your car or not?”
Not wanting to wait while they called a K-9 unit, I sighed, and said, “Fine. Whatever.”
“Anything we need to know before we start?”
“Yeah. Watch out for the dirt.”
After they found nothing, the first cop lectured me on why he pulled me over—a burned-out taillight. His explanation took perhaps 20 minutes because he also corrected my posture: Don’t lean against the car. Don’t cross your arms. Don’t hook your thumbs into your pockets. Take your hands out of your pockets. Don’t move any closer to me. Don’t move at all. He wanted me to stand perfectly still with my arms slack, an uncomfortable and unnatural posture. I rolled my eyes, laughed, shook my head, and sighed heavily. At one point, I suggested that, if two armed men were still this scared of me, perhaps they had chosen the wrong profession. They were not amused. Eventually, though, with no reason to hold me, they sent me on my way.
Contrast that with the video of Castile’s shooting, or the footage of his female companion who maintained the presence of mind to be deferential, calling the officer “sir” even after the shooting. Isolated on that country road, those officers could have done anything to me. I made no efforts to endear myself, and I cooperated begrudgingly. Castile was much more forthright, respectful, and careful than I was. Yet here I sit, alive and well. He is dead.
I could tell other stories: the time a cop broke up a confrontation between my friend Gene and me and his wife’s ex-husband, and the officer found a loaded handgun that Gene had concealed under my car seat; the time I was stopped for speeding on a state highway and got out of my car instead of waiting for the officer to approach; all the occasions when my crew’s youthful hijinks resulted in our running from the cops or leading a trooper on a car chase until we could hide down a hunting trail with our headlights off. I could even tell you about the day a traffic cop screamed at my ex-wife, and she had to stop me from physically assaulting the man.
Meanwhile, unarmed people of color die for selling loose cigarettes, for running away, even for complying with orders.
Again, I am not suggesting that all police officers are overtly and consciously racist. Many, perhaps even most, are trying their best to do a dangerous job. I am not suggesting that only black people die in encounters with police; the case of Daniel Shaver in Arizona demonstrates police overreactions can potentially affect anyone. I am not suggesting that only legitimate authorities kill people of color. Along with overwhelming daily inter- and intraracial violence, cases like Trayvon Martin’s—murdered for the crime of Wearing a Hoodie While Black—remind us that our problems extend far beyond interactions with law enforcement.
My own anecdotal experience and the disproportionate statistics on nonwhite victimhood suggest, though, that more than mere luck or circumstance might be at work in America.
Many of my white conservative friends hate the term “privilege.” They reason, “I have never been gifted a perfect job or a lot of money or free merchandise because I’m white or male or straight or able-bodied, so how am I privileged?” Thinking like this demonstrates one divide Americans must cross if we are to solve our major social problems—different definitions of words like “privilege” and how those terms apply in complex ways. “White privilege” might be partially defined as an increased likelihood of surviving interactions with police, the ability to understand “to serve and protect” unironically, the stronger chance that your kids will be safe from the nightsticks and tasers and bullets of those who should protect us.
Many white conservatives also seem to believe that any social progress means we have balanced the American account and have restarted everyone on the same mark. This is, of course, nonsense. History shows that the manumission of slaves did not erase racial prejudice in people’s hearts or in the American socioeconomic sphere. In the wake of the Fifteenth Amendment and, later, the Civil Rights Movement, many white people wanted to wash their hands and say, “Well, surely now we can stop talking about racism,” ignoring assassinations, segregation, employment and education inequality, Republican gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and a thousand other factors retarding true freedom and safety for people of color. When Barack Obama was elected President, many white people offered him as proof that we now live in a post-racial society, despite the unrelenting personal and political attacks on Obama, the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement, and legislation that seems aimed at destroying poor nonwhite communities.
White Americans should understand that “privilege” does not necessarily mean receiving your dream job without earning it or being handed a 30-room mansion because hey, you’re white. Sometimes, it simply means you might survive longer because society has not taught its citizens that your skin color makes you inherently more dangerous and prone to criminality. In truth, Whiteness affects everyone. It favors some of us and threatens others daily. Everyone, including the police, must negotiate often-unconsciously learned beliefs and attitudes in real-time. Perhaps the first step to making those negotiations less dangerous is the universal admission that white privilege exists and is often quite literally a matter of life and death.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press). His work has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. My feature-length screenplay, Candy’s First Kiss, has placed in five screenwriting contests.