NOTE: This post was written in 2016 during the time our nation was reeling over the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I have re-posted it in on Facebook in June 2020 as our country reacts to the death of George Floyd.
A few weeks ago I was stuck behind a slow truck on my way to work. When the truck finally turned off, the road opened up and I accelerated to make up a little time. As I zoomed towards the railroad tracks, I glimpsed a police car out of the corner of my eye. It was too late to slow down. I knew I was busted.
The patrol car’s lights began flashing the moment I whizzed by, and I dutifully pulled over to the shoulder. While the cruiser crept up behind me, I reached for my purse, preparing to pull out my driver’s license. The officer approached my car and I rolled down my window.
The imposing man in blue bent over and said, “Oh, it’s you!”
“Hi,” I said sheepishly, recognizing him, too. I knew the officer from when I had worked for the City several years earlier.
I reached for my driver’s license. “Oh, put that away,” he said casually. We chatted for a while and in what seemed like almost an afterthought, he said “and slow down.”
I drove off without a ticket, realizing I had been shown favor (he had said more than once that if an officer who didn’t know me had made the stop, I probably would have gotten a ticket.)
A few days later I was driving home from work and saw someone else stopped by a police car, not far from where I was pulled over. It was a young black man, and two police officers were sitting in the patrol car behind him.
In light of recent national events, I couldn’t help but wonder—were both the driver and the officers on heightened alert and concerned for their safety?
I reflected on my traffic stop. When I was pulled over, the worst thing I feared was a ticket. It never crossed my mind that I could be unfairly accused or be in physical danger. Likewise, it was obvious the officer didn’t see me as a threat.
It made me realize that even if the black driver got off with a warning, too, he may have experienced a much higher level of stress than me.
Let me be clear – in my small rural community I’ve never heard of any alleged excessive force towards a minority citizen nor about a police officer being injured during a traffic stop. I have a great deal of faith in the integrity of our local law enforcement.
Even so, I know my town is not immune from racial tension. It would be pollyannic of me to think the color of someone’s skin doesn’t trigger bias here, as well. Sometimes it’s overt, and other times, “implicit,” when we don’t even realize it’s happening. Thankfully no violent incidences have occurred locally, but we have been bombarded with news stories reminding us that our nation is in turmoil over the issue.
I’ve rarely thought of myself as “privileged,” but I’m re-thinking that assessment as I listen to real-life stories about black Americans.
An Associated Press article told about Breaion King, an African-American elementary school teacher from Austin, Texas. She was ordered out of her car for speeding 15 miles over the limit, thrown to the ground, and arrested.
Fatima Mann from the Austin Justice Coalition commented, “If that was a white woman, would he have yanked her out … and slammed her on the ground? Most of us could say ‘absolutely not’. But for some reason, for some strange reason, when people look like me, we’re more of a threat, and that means we get treated and thrown around as if we don’t matter.”
This sentiment was echoed in a recent PBS special, “America in Black and Blue.” A mother summarized one of the key differences between how black and white people are viewed. She said, “White people are given the benefit of the doubt.” She described the regrettable task of having to teach her growing boys that they will typically be viewed with suspicion first, even if they have done nothing wrong.
Because of similar feelings, one African-American shared on TV about the “uniform” he requires his kids to wear. He goes to great lengths to minimize the chance that his children could be perceived as “dangerous.” His boys dress “preppy,” with well-fitting khaki pants and button-down shirts—and they are never-ever allowed to wear anything that resembles a “hoodie.”
A college professor in Massachusetts gave a first-hand account about how wearing the “wrong” outfit can get you in trouble. In his blog post, “I fit the description,” Steve Locke described how he was walking to get a burrito before work, dressed in a knit cap and “puffy coat.” He revealed the sheer terror he felt as police officers drew their guns and detained him because he matched the description of a home invasion suspect in the area.
Kevin Jones commented on the blog, stating, “. . .racism creates entirely different experiences for people of color and people of privilege (in other words – white). Racism is at the core of the American experience.”
Until hearing stories like these, I didn’t realize that many people of color live in fear on a daily basis. They have to worry about things I never even think about.
Terrell Jermaine Starr expounds on this in his blog, “10 things black people fear that white people simply don’t.”  The list of anxieties range from losing a job to being harassed or even killed by police.
One of my friends summarized her reaction to national events in a rather shocking statement on Facebook. She said, “I’m so glad I’m not black.”
She wasn’t being racist. She, too, had been struck with the fact that the color of your skin still makes a difference. It was her way of acknowledging that while we are all created equally, we are not all treated equally. Her thoughts turned to her two little children as she wrote, “I can’t begin to fathom the fear. What if my girls were boys?”
After the tragic police shootings in Dallas, Texas, my workplace lowered its flag to half-mast. Two of my white colleagues asked me if I knew why. I shared about the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and about the Dallas sniper who killed several law enforcement officers in retaliation.
“Oh, I haven’t been following the news,” one friend said. “To be honest, I prefer to live in a bubble.”
I get it. Sometimes I want to retreat to my comfort zone and pretend everything is fine. As a white person, I have that option.
It’s easy to become emotionally fatigued by the constant news stream about terrorist attacks, school shootings, and racial tension. Indeed, I have often felt powerless to do anything that could make a difference.
But then I realized there is one very important thing I have control over.
I can change ME.
I can break my white bubble.
Breaking my white bubble means I acknowledge that I am privileged, simply because of the color of my skin. It means I will endeavor to be more alert to the unfair treatment of others, and will strive to see things from their perspective. It means I will offer my prayers, my voice, and my peaceful actions to be part of the solution.
It also means I will stand with those who put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect America. I will acknowledge the risks and fears they face, as well. And even though there are clearly wrong practices and systemic problems that need to be addressed nationwide, I thank and respect each officer who is serving with integrity, courage, and compassion.
Perhaps you, too, live in a white bubble. If so, I challenge you to break it today. And I invite you to pray this simple prayer with me:
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22: 37-39 (NIV, emphasis added)
Dear Jane.. I also will break my white bubble.. Thank you for the truthful powerful words.
Working in a public grade school with some families that struggle with poverty has made me much more aware of my “privileges” as a white person in America. Your sentiments echo what is being taught to our staff. We need to be made aware that not everyone is treated equally, and do what we can in our part of the world to change that fact. Thank you, Jane, for honestly speaking from your heart–again.
Love you, Lorna
Lorna, thank you for your thoughtful comment and for sharing about the positive efforts you are involved with at the school where you serve.