Several years ago, I received a crash course in privilege.
I took a taxi to the airport.
It was 3:30 in the morning on a Thursday in November. It was my first real job, and I was wearing a brand-new suit. I was very young and excited to go on one of my first-ever business trips, even if I was half asleep. Despite the earliness of the hour, I met the cab at the door. I bounded down the stairs, greeted the driver, put my laptop in the back seat, set my raincoat on top of it in neat folds, and we were off.
The driver and I chatted briefly about the weather (cold and wet). He mentioned that he was from Eritrea, had been in the USA a little over three years, and that he liked it here. I settled back into the back seat, enjoying watching the patterns street lights made against the dark puddles.
As we tooled down one of the major in-city highways, red and blue lights appeared in the rearview mirror and the familiar wail of a police siren cut through the air.
The driver cursed softly and found a place to pull over.
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As the cab rumbled to a halt, minor annoyance surged through me. I consoled myself that if I missed my flight, I could probably take the next one. These flights were rarely full and I’d allotted plenty of time. I didn’t quite understand why the driver’s hands clenched on the steering wheel, as the police officer got out of his cruiser, walked slowly towards the cab, flashlight in hand.
“You were going fifty-seven in a forty-five zone. Did you know how fast you were going? Why were you in such a hurry?”
The tone of the officer’s voice startled me, so much so that I actually flinched. It was one of utter dismissive contempt, the tone you use with the privileged high-school senior who has just gotten drunk and wrecked his new Cadillac for the third time this year. Not a tone for an utter stranger.
The driver stammered a response, his hands opening and closing on the steering wheel.
I sat bolt upright in the back seat, eyes riveted on the two men in front of me. The driver fumbled for his documents, handing them over with shaking hands. The officer took them with an impatient snap of his hand, walking slowly back to his cruiser.
I sat quietly, aware that my mouth had gone dry, that, despite the coolness of the morning, that sweat was trickling down the back of my neck. I had heard of police brutality, had seen pictures, usually from the comfort and safety of a classroom, library or coffee shop. With friends and fellow students, teachers and leaders, we had discussed and listened, empathized and theorized.
Not at all the same as in a cab at 3:30 on a weekday morning, with the driver a living, breathing being, a mere two feet away from me.
That was safe, intellectual, theoretical. This was real.
What would I do?
If the officer demanded that the cab driver leave the non-existent security of his cab, what would I do?
If he had harm in mind, how could I stop him? It wasn’t as if I could call the police. What might I say, that would deter him? My mind spun crazily about, a jumble of images flashing through my head, people I might enlist, media I might call, connections who could help.
At the time, all I could do was sit there and wait – and hope that my presence was enough of a deterrent – if one was even needed.
Several minutes passed. Another police car drove up. We heard the officers laughing and chatting together in a completely different tone of voice. Their combined blue and red lights sent eerie patterns flickering against the trees. We waited in silence.
The heavy tread of the officer’s feet crunched against the gravel. I caught my breath at his approach, but all he did was hand the driver the citation and the driver’s documents. He informed him the next steps, again, in that edged tone of voice. A few minutes later, and we were free to go.
He hadn’t acknowledged my presence, but I knew that he knew I was there. As we pulled away, my entire being was flooded with relief.
Not so the driver. Rage and terror poured off of him, in almost palpable waves. He muttered and cursed under his breath, the entire way to the airport. As we passed under a street light, I could see that his whole body shook from emotion. I asked if he was okay, if he needed to pull over, but he silenced me with an impatient gesture.
I fell silent again.
At the time, I wondered what the conditions were like in his home country that engendered such terror? Now, I wonder – what had he learned about the conditions in ours?
I had read about such things, heard about them, studied them in school. My privileged education had included such things as Jim Crow, the women’s movement, the Japanese internment camps during World War 2. Prolonged discussions about the evils of racism, classism, and sexism were a daily thing.
Now, here they were. Less than a mile from my home. Just another everyday occurrence. A woman taking a cab to the airport.
Before, I had learned, listened, empathized – or tried to. Now, I saw.
I wondered, that day and every day since: how much did my presence change things – the presence of a young, privileged white woman in her brand-new suit?
Maybe completely – or not at all – or somewhere in between?
I will never know.
But I did realize one thing.
That driver and I don’t live in the same world. I will never know – I cannot know – what his reality is like.
When police officers interact with me, they are polite. I am a petite, well-dressed, educated Caucasian woman. I will likely never hear that tone of voice from a police officer directed at me.
I have the right to pretty much go where I want. I can dress how I want. When I walk back from my community garden plot, clutching bags of vegetables, no one assumes that I have stolen them or that I am up to no good, even when I am wearing grubby gardening sweats.
When I enter a high-end clothes store, a high-end jewelry store, no one assumes that I am there to steal anything. I am met with polite deference, smiles, a “how can I help you?” Even if I can’t afford their wares, I am never treated as anything less than welcome.
No one is surprised by my lack of criminal history, or describes me as “well-spoken” with a faint intonation of surprise, as if that’s something unusual.
Those are just a few examples of how being who and what I am confers benefits, benefits that I did nothing to earn. Oh, I have had problems – being raised by two non-European parents and being the granddaughter of immigrants has sometimes meant that I didn’t always “get the memo” of how to fit in. It may have cost me promotions or friendships or caused other professional difficulties.
My ancestors had it far, far worse. They struggled. They fled. Some survived. Most died.
Any challenges I face are paltry when stacked up against the reality of sabers and starvation; camps and crematoria.
Now, we are seeing the same thing unfolding, over and over again, out of a violent past, a suppressed, ignored present. A toxic, unspoken reality unfolds. Lines are drawn. Rage engulfs. Gulfs are widened.
A death is mourned.
It is too early to speak of any good that can come of this, rising Phoenix-like from the ashes. The grief is still too raw, the rage is still unfurling. And, as a non-European white person, I am not sure it’s even my place to try.
All I can do is hold the tension, and silently wait. Offer help and empathy when possible.
And witness to the pain.