After some time living in Hanoi, Vietnam, I’ve been back in the United States for over a year. But nothing has motivated me to do any personal writing, until the recent protests over the death of George Floyd. Or, I should say, “following” the death of Mr. Floyd, for these protests are about much more than his death. It’s a ‘speak up’ moment and, since I’m a writer, I write…
I’ve been put on the hood of a car, for the color of my skin, by a police officer when I had done nothing wrong. I was walking down an alley in my Black neighborhood in Washington DC, late at night, getting from the subway station home after a catering gig. The officer pulled up and blocked my way, told me to lean onto his car with my hands spread apart. Demanded ID. Peppered me with questions while people looked on.
This sudden drama was unexpected and nerve-wracking, scary, and humiliating.
But I am white. I knew I was going to come out ok. I was in my own neighborhood, where my light-skinned self stuck out like a Christmas tree in July but where I thoroughly belonged. And I knew I would be able to eventually convince the officer that this stop was a mistake. I had talked to his supervisor at a community meeting a few weeks before, for goodness sake.
No gun was drawn. No arrest was made. I don’t think the officer even touched me, and he certainly didn’t use his knee to press my neck into the dirt and concrete of that dark alley.
And yet, I was scared. I felt humiliated at being singled out. Kids I knew from the neighborhood were watching, and though I knew I was in the right here, I felt keenly a need to save face in front of them. And I felt a strong urge to defend myself, to in some way fight back against the perceived injustice of being interrogated while innocent.
Because, while the officer — who, incidentally, was black — told me explicitly that he was stopping me because of my behavior and not because I was white, I sure felt like my skin had something to do with it. I was pretty sure, if my white skin hadn’t made me so conspicuous in those alleys where white people rarely walked — and especially not at night — he would have never paid any attention to me.
And so, I confess, I obfuscated a little with my answers to this officer’s questions. I cracked a wry jest or two. I made a point of asking how a couple of his fellow officers, whom I had met tangentially, were doing: These are things you should generally not do when talking to a police officer who is questioning you while your hands are spread on the hood of his car. These are things that no Black male would dare to do without fear of escalation of the encounter, possible arrest, or worse.
Eventually, I convinced the officer that I was completely innocent of any wrongdoing. I explained that I had grown up in this neighborhood, and that he had simply seen me chatting with some of the guys I knew as I walked through the alleys. Some of those men were, indeed, drug dealers — so I had to give the officer that. But eventually he believed me when I insisted that I had no interest in their product. And I walked home, slightly rattled and a bit aggrieved, but with an interesting story to tell about life in my ‘hood.
This is my only story about being stopped by police for being white.
By contrast, many Black Americans have story after story of being stopped while black, for pretty much no reason, or at least for so little reason that if they were a white person no wrong would have been assumed.
And I believe these stories. White people, if after watching the George Floyd video you don’t already, it’s time to believe the stories. If there’s no other outcome from these protests — and I do literally pray to God that more change than this will come — it should be that every person in this country believes Black accounts of mistreatment at the hands of the police, and at the hands of others with power over them.
Because it isn’t just officers of the law who have held their knees, literally or figuratively, on the necks of Black Americans. It’s also been supervisors, teachers, preachers, doctors, store managers, waiters and waitresses, taxi and Uber drivers, families of girlfriends and boyfriends, government officials, dissertation directors, fellow executives and board members — anyone who can in any way hold power over their heads, whether for a brief moment or for a lifetime.
You should be able to deduce, by now, white America, that what happened to George Floyd has happened over and over and over before — and a thousand million slights less physically injurious, but harmful nonetheless. It just mostly hasn’t been caught on camera before in quite that clear, excruciating, break-your-heart, cold-and-inhumane, everyone-can-see-and-understand kind of way.
The history of Black people in this country is a long tale of violence, mistreatment, and the denial of basic human rights through the dark years of slavery and enforced segregation. I know many white people don’t like to ponder this history, for it does not show us or our country in the best light.
We have been propagandized into an America where, surely, everyone’s lives and rights are protected well enough at present by our fine institutions of government and law. Didn’t we fix all those race issues during the civil rights era? Or at least by having recently elected a Black president?
But no, now we are forced, by video and by protest, by marches and by the phone cameras of ordinary citizens, to see that racism continues, inside and around us. And it’s not just the personal slights that are still endured by people of color in this country. No, Black people in this country face a host of systemic injustices as they seek our supposedly shared American dream under the shadow of societal institutions that disproportionately prevent their successes and censure their missteps.
Because that is my — and your, if you are white and reading this — white privilege: You walk, and drive, and eat, and jog, and sit on your couch in your own skin, and you don’t even think about it. You get pulled over and you’re worried about getting a ticket, not about whether the officer who is walking up to your window has his hand on his gun. You don’t have to think about your skin, and how its color might put you in jeopardy.
It’s time to think about it, then demand change for those in our country who are still suffering for no other reason than the color of the skin in which they live.