By J Lee Hugar
On a cool sun-filled day sixteen years ago, I casually drove my work van through a bluster of city streets with the windows rolled down and Eminem blasting through the speakers. I’m not entirely sure why I rolled through that stop sign on Nottingham Terrace, and I am sure that I’d probably rolled through a hundred others before. This time though, a cop car trailed behind me.
I didn’t even see him.
Now, let me be clear. I’m white.
This is significant, because what happened next is a patent example of how white privilege works in America.
Like any number of twenty-somethings in the early 2000s, I enjoyed the occasional joint from time to time. Also like many twenty-somethings of any era, I wasn’t very bright. As the police officer stepped out of his vehicle and walked to my door, I remembered the tightly rolled joint resting against my insurance and registration in the glove box.
I started to sweat.
My heart pounded.
My knuckles turned white on the wheel.
The cop said something, but I couldn’t hear him. My thoughts raced with scenario after scenario that always ended with me losing my job, my apartment, my cozy little carefree life. Mom and Dad weren’t gonna be happy when I showed up back home with a pile of clothes and crappy furniture.
‘What the hell is happening?’ I thought.
Roaring white noise played ping-pong between my ears, ending in a rush when the officer tapped me on the shoulder. I blinked in his direction to let him know I didn’t hear him.
“I said, do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Uh yeah. I rolled through that stop sign,” I replied, while trying to steady my voice.
“Do you have your license? Insurance, registration?”
I did my best to calm down, but my brain focused on the fact that two of the three requested items were being propped up by an EZ Wider stuffed with weed. When I handed him my license, I hoped he’d forget about the registration and insurance card.
“Do you have your insurance and registration?”
“Um yeah, I think so. I’m not sure.”
What happened next, I’ll never forget. At some point during my initial panic attack, two other officers pulled up and walked to the other side of my van. When I reached for the glove compartment, everyone started screaming.
“PUT YOUR HANDS ON THE WHEEL!” “DON’T REACH!” “PUT YOUR HANDS ON THE WHEEL!” “DON’T MOVE!” “STOP!” “DON’T MOVE!” “PUT YOUR HANDS ON THE WHEEL!”
I can’t completely explain what came over me in that moment, but I’ll try.
The sudden outburst and conflicting commands, caused a rush of adrenaline to send every hair on its end. That part of your brain that reminds you, you want to live a long, full life shut down completely. While the police closed in on my vehicle from all sides with their guns drawn, my hand kept moving towards the glove compartment. Some mysterious force convinced my hand that it knew better than my survival instinct.
Three guns aimed at my chest, and for some reason, I couldn’t stop.
Just before I grabbed the handle, something clicked, and I put my hands back on the wheel, but not before I came within a second of being shot.
With my brain functioning normally again, I manufactured a lie about leaving my registration and insurance at the office. They could call my employer for the information, but it wasn’t in the van. He directed his colleagues to call it in while he engaged me in polite conversation. Nobody attempted to search my vehicle, or even bothered to ask what I was reaching for.
“Yeah. You should never reach for anything. Not good,” he said, smiling.
“So is this what you want to do with your life? Are you in school?”
After a brief motivational speech about my future, the police left me sweating on the side of the road with a simple warning. There is not a doubt in my mind that the reason I’m still alive today has everything to do with the color of my skin.
I’m reminded of this event every time I see a young black man gunned down in the street at the hands of the police. You see, for these young black men, there are no second chances, no motivational speeches, no understanding of the circumstances that may cause them to make the stupid mistakes young people make. For many of them, their only mistake was living in America and being black.
There is not a doubt in my mind that the reason my life wasn’t significantly altered by that event has everything to do with the color of my skin. I kept my job, because I’m white. I kept my apartment, because I’m white.
I didn’t go to jail that day, because I’m white. Any other person of a different color would have been pulled from the car, questioned, frisked, and thrown into a cell, undoubtedly forever changing the arc of their existence.
It’s a sad reality and it needs to stop.
This is how whites can come to an understanding about white privilege. White privilege isn’t about apologizing for the color of your skin, or feeling guilty for having advantages in a society that favors white people. White privilege doesn’t mean that whites don’t struggle, face challenges, or are sometimes the victims of discrimination.
Understanding white privilege is recognizing how much more those struggles, challenges and discrimination would affect your life if you weren’t white. Understanding white privilege is, at a minimum, acknowledging it exists and recognizing its pervasive nature in every aspect of our lives. In reality, white privilege encompasses so much more than this nifty little anecdote, from employment, to education, housing, quality of life, and so on. In Flint, Michigan they know exactly how white privilege works and how its effects can cross generations.
Maybe if we can admit our advantages, if we can recognize our privilege through our experiences, we can come together with African-Americans rather than remaining defensive against the charges of benefitting from a racist society. Our current crisis of race-relations implores us to do better. We’ve come so far in this country, and yet, still have so far to go. Racism isn’t just a black problem that whites can dismiss as outdated. It’s an American problem that exists whether we want to admit it or not.