Almost a year ago to the day, I had the opportunity to ride along on a friend’s brutally long commute home from the office.
Earlier that day, I got to see him work first-hand. Rarely have I seen someone so busy. In and out of meetings all day — barely the chance to gulp down a coffee — he was enthusiastic, lively and game for just about anything.
Watching how hard he works to provide for his family made my head spin. I also knew how busy his wife’s day had been, caring for their adorably rambunctious children, and how much he wanted to get home. Time is precious for a family man.
Speeding passed dozens of strip malls, business centers and showy gated communities, I took a quick glance at the speedometer. Ten over.
Couldn’t say I blamed him. There’s nothing more draining than a long drive home.
That’s when I noticed the red and blue lights flashing behind us.
“Shit,” I sighed. We were being pulled over.
This is where I should take a timeout to point out that, as a young(ish) white woman, I’ve never had a real reason to dislike the police.
Generally, they let me off with a friendly warning and a “be safe, ma’am. When I tell them where I’m headed, they tend to believe me. When I apologize about my taillights and promise to get them fixed pronto, they take my word for it (they shouldn’t).
And I can be damned sure my race won’t count against me.
But this wasn’t me driving. This wasn’t my car. And my friend is not an unassuming white lady. He is a six-foot-plus, muscular, ex-football-playing brown man.
As we slowed to a stop on the side of the road, I looked over at my friend’s large hands on the steering wheel, praying to the universe that he’d keep them there.
(I had learned somewhere that little black boys are taught by their parents to keep their hands on the steering wheel whenever they are pulled over, to protect them from flying bullets. As the officer approached, I suddenly became aware that this lesson applied to my friend, a hardworking [brown] family-man who just wanted to get home.)
So I took a deep breath and begged god almighty that his registration was up-to-date, with his insurance card tucked safely in the glove compartment. Otherwise — as he’d mentioned during prior conversations — this could get messy quick.
With a friendly smile, my friend asked through the window, “Is there a problem, Officer?”
And apparently there was. The officer began to yell — and I mean scream.
“DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW FAST YOU WERE GOING?! DO YOU KNOW THE SPEED LIMIT ON THIS ROAD?! WHAT IN THE HELL WERE YOU DOING?!” And so on and so on.
Calmly, my friend apologized for speeding, explaining that it was dinner-time and his family was waiting for him at home.
When the officer asked whose car this was, my friend stated it was a family member’s, who was currently out-of-state, and he was borrowing it while she was away. All true.
When questioned as to why (in the hell) he had a license from another state, my friend explained he had recently relocated and had not yet updated it. Also true.
Yet what rattled me most was the Officer’s incongruous response to these perfectly reasonable (and definitely true) explanations.
Furious — I actually saw him spit — he sarcastically responded, “Oh, really? So I’m supposed to believe a far-fetched story about a family member out of town and a driver’s license from another state? Do I look stupid to you?!”
Still calm, my friend answered that he really didn’t know what to say because he was telling the truth and he was sorry for speeding.
As the berating continued, I very seriously considered interrupting. He was being completely unreasonable, unprofessional and inappropriate.
What is your name and badge number, sir? I’d like to contact your superior, I imagined myself demanding.
But alas, I was scared to make things worse.
In the end, the officer let us go with a stern warning — he didn’t seem interested in processing that out-of-state license he found so suspicious — and as we drove away, I found myself completely enraged.
Who in the hell did he think he was? Where did he get off speaking to someone like that, and at a routine traffic stop? I was completely rattled and shocked. In 32 years, I had never been subject to such treatment by a person in authority.
That’s when the painful truth hit me over the head with such force, I have yet to shake it.
I am the beneficiary of white privilege.
I know that a routine traffic stop will not result in verbal or physical violence against me.
I feel safe when interacting with authority figures.
I can trust that my word will be taken at face value.
I am not automatically suspect because of my race.
Yet taking stock of these painful facts did not make me feel defensive, because they do not make me a racist.
So instead of trying to muffle the voices of black and brown people across this great country, I’ve decided it is my job to listen. To validate. To empathize. To be an ally.
And most of all, to be an agent of change.