I have a friend who for sake of brevity, I’ll call Bob.
Bob is Black. I am White. That is really our only difference
Like me, Bob is in his 50’s, seen a bit too much of life and is a little tired of what he has seen. Like me, he is married to a woman of another race, has a young daughter who he spoils and has worked hard all his life. Like me, Bob managed to go from poverty to middle class on his own.
Bob and I met through our wives, who were mutual friends and brought us together over barbecues and birthday parties. Although I’m not much of a talker, and really didn’t want anymore friends, I got to like Bob through his loud laughter, great sense of humour and shared stories.
It was through one of these stories that I learned what “White Privilege” really was.
It is a tale of two realities.
One night, I told Bob a story from my youth and my experience with the police.
It happened when I was still poor. I dressed shabbily and often went days without bathing. I didn’t have money to waste on things like laundry or hot water or clothes that weren’t torn. I got two haircuts a year, and at this time was long and unkempt as well.
One afternoon, when people were usually at work, I was walking through a downtown mall coming back from the library, when suddenly in front of me was a police officer.
He was professional enough; asked me what I doing in the mall, did I have ID, where did I live. While answering these questions, I was suddenly aware that there was another cop to my right and a third standing slightly behind to my right. They were serious, grim men, and one had his hand on his service pistol the entire time I was being questioned.
My ID was taken and handed to the cop on the left who spoke into a microphone on his shoulder, reading my name and details. The cop in front continued to question me, asking seemingly innocuous questions, such as where was I yesterday, was I sure I wasn’t on such-and-such street, did I know this particular person, etc, etc. I’m answering the questions as best I can, getting increasingly anxious. My own questions of what this about, is deflected as “just routine”, “please just answer the question Sir” replies.
Now I’m asked if I’m carrying any weapons, like a knife. I say no. Do you mind if we search you to be sure. I realize it isn’t a request and if I say I do mind, they will take that as probable cause and search me anyway. No, I have no objections. I’m against a wall, in the position. I am searched (groped it feels like), and nothing is found. Now I’m starting to freak a little. I begin to see myself in jail or worse. Still my questions aren’t answered; “we just have to be sure, please just answer the questions Sir”.
Finally, the mic cop hands back my ID to the first cop and says it checks out. The cop hands me back my ID, and tells me that there had been an incident in the neighbourhood recently and I matched the description of a man they were looking to question. I was free to go and he thanked me for my time and apologized for the inconvenience.
I later find out the “incident” was a person being knifed to death, which in Canada, even in a big city, is an event that triggers headlines.
At the end of my experience, I was shaken; a little disoriented and went straight home. A few days later I had recovered enough from the shock that I began to talk about it and gradually came to realize that the cops were just doing their jobs. When I read about the murder on such-and-such street, I realized the full story of what happened and was willing to put it down to unlucky chance on my part.
It became simply a story I now tell.
When I was finished Bob told me his story of his run-in with the police.
In actual fact, Bob is constantly stopped by the police.
You see, Bob is successful. He drives expensive cars. As a result, he is repeatedly pulled over, questioned and has to prove he owns the vehicle he is driving. But this story was much more than that.
Like me, it happened when Bob was younger, but unlike me, he was not by this time still poor. At this point in his life, he was beginning to make money and was able to buy new cars; not the luxury vehicles he drives now, but new.
At the time, a car company had a program where you could take one of their cars home with you for the weekend, drive it around for personal use and at the end of the weekend return it. I remember the ad line was something like “we’re so sure you’ll like it, you’ll want to keep it”.
Bob took advantage of this program and made all the arrangements with the local dealership. Leaving his own car with the dealer, along with copies of his driver’s license, insurance and financial details, he drove the car off the lot with dealer’s plates for the weekend.
Bob had to pick up a friend at the train station, so that Friday night, he drove to the station and had his “run-in”.
He says all of a sudden, a police cruiser raced in front of him and cut across his path. Another raced up behind and a third came to stop beside the driver side. Police poured out of the cars, guns drawn, all shouting orders for him to shut off the vehicle, put his hands where they could be seen, to open the car door and to get out of the car.
Of course none of this was said in sequence but at the same time by different officers shouting with greater levels of intensity as Bob failed to comply with all the orders at the same time.
In fear for his life, Bob finally put his hands out the window and shouted he was unarmed. At that point, the police charged, physically dragging him out of the car window and pushing him to the ground. As one officer pushed his knee into his back, another twisted his hands behind him and put on handcuffs. Bob was then pushed into the back of a police cruiser and driven to the station.
During the entire process, including the drive to the station, Bob repeatedly asked what was going on and why was he being arrested. He was told to “Shut the Fuck Up”. He gave them his name, where he lived, told them the car was being loaned by the dealership. He told them the contract and details were in the car’s glove compartment, he gave them the name of the agent who had leant him the car and offered to call the man directly. He was ignored.
Bob was booked, finger printed, photographed and tossed into a cell. He sat there from Friday night till Monday morning without a phone call, without being questioned by anyone and without being told why he had been arrested. No one knew where he was. Not his friend, stranded at the train station wondering why he didn’t show up; not his parents who hadn’t seen or heard from him all weekend and were growing increasingly worried and – especially – not the car dealership who wondered why he hadn’t returned the car on Monday morning as agreed.
On Monday at 10:30 am, an officer showed up and entered his cell to question him. Bob had never seen this officer before; he wasn’t one of the 6 officers at his arrest. The first question the officer asks is does he know why he has been arrested? No, Bob says, they haven’t told him anything.
He’s been arrested for auto theft. The vehicle he was driving was reported stolen.
Of course it was, Bob replies. It was a loaner that had to be returned by 9:00 am Monday morning. When he didn’t show up, the dealership reported it stolen.
Can he prove this?
Look in the glove compartment, the agreement is there.
The cop disappears.
Two hours later a guard comes and opens the cell. Charges have been withdrawn, he is free to go. He is given back his belongings and leaves the station. No one speaks to him during the entire process and he speaks to no one.
Bob considered filing a suit against the police for false arrest and violation of civil liberties, but the attorney he speaks to tells him bluntly, a black man suing the police is dangerous. Bob’s daughter was recently born. The lawyer tells him, Bob could be a live father, or he could likely be a dead hero. Is he sure he wants to proceed? Bob chooses to be a live father and lets the matter go.
Bob’s story in comparison to mine, defines White Privilege.
This wasn’t the Deep South United States. This was Canada. Progressive, racism free, liberal minded, Canada.
I was “Sir”, despite being unwashed and poor. My white skin and submissive attitude kept the police professional and respectful. I had no doubt that if I mouthed off or resisted their questions, or refused their search, I would have found myself face first on the pavement with a knee in my back. If I had made a gesture that suggested I had a weapon, I probably would have been killed.
But until then, I was protected by civil codes and rights and more importantly, by my skin. More importantly, I understood this. I knew I could control the situation if I just stayed calm and did nothing to provoke a violent response. I expected a certain outcome, based solely on how I behaved.
Bob had no such protection or choice. He didn’t mouth off or resist or refuse a search. He was grabbed, assaulted, arrested and tossed into a cell without any questions or any answers. He was left forgotten and ignored for two days until the next shift officer came on duty. And when the mistake was discovered, he was tossed without ever seeing the duty officer again.
This is why, I think, it is so hard for some Whites to understand the complaints of Blacks when it comes to how they are treated by the police or other authorities. In our world, how we behave, determines the outcome we get. So it is a common White refrain to say “just do what the cop tells you to do”, if you mouth off, of course you’ll get grief”. We heard much of the same with Trayvon Martin; “his parents should have taught him to simply answer questions politely instead”.
We don’t understand that for blacks there is far too often no such luxury of choice. They are guilty for just being there; for just driving an expensive car; for just what they are wearing. And the violent response all too often does not require a trigger, such as mouthing off or refusing reasonable requests. All too often the violent response is immediate, inexplicable and without provocation.
That is the reality of being White. We have choice. We have control. And should our rights or dignities as human beings be violated, we have recourse.
That is our privilege.
Fri Aug 09, 2013 at 5:37 AM PT: I woke this morning to find my diary not only on the rec list but on the community spotlight as well. I honestly didn’t expect this and I know Bob will appreciate that his experience mattered to so many here.
I am unable to answer comments but I have read them and would like to respond in a sort-a general way to some. There are those who are parsing the term “privilege”; that is fine. I look at my experience as privilege in that I know (underline, bold and in caps) that my behaviour will govern the response from police – or store clerks, security personnel, cab drivers, etc, etc. I consider that a privilege. Like any privilege, it can be taken away depending on the circumstances but it is mine to claim. I have this privilege because of my skin colour.
Bob doesn’t have this privilege. He is the same age, same gender, lives in the same neighbourhood and he is richer than I am, but is stopped by police more often, has difficulty getting a cab, is followed by security in stores and had difficulty getting service from store clerks.
I don’t feel Bob and my experiences were so much driven by racism as they were expectation. I knew what it was like to be treated with indignities because of my poverty. I could tell stories of being made to feel less of a person because I didn’t have a large enough wallet or nice enough clothes. So can Bob. Such indignities are part and parcel of being poor in a capitalist country.
But where our experiences diverge is how we are treated now. Bob is not expected to be wealthy. He not expected to be successful. Every time his daughter starts a new school, his wife is asked if he is “still in the picture” and offered free “hot lunch” program information. My wife is never asked this question and is never offered information on any lunch programs that you don’t pay for. Why? The only reason we can see, is that looking at both our daughters you can see they are bi-racial and if the wife is of one race, then the father must be another.
In our respective stories, the police knew that they might have the wrong person when they stopped me. They were careful, therefore, to check the details and ask questions to be certain. I knew this too. I knew I was innocent of any crime and if I just stayed calm, polite and cooperated, I would be okay. I was scared but I knew it would be okay .
With Bob, the police just assumed he was guilty. They did not expect a young black man to be driving a new car with dealer’s plates. He MUST have stolen it; and they treated him as if he had.