So far this week, one of my favorite comedians, Amber Ruffin, has recorded three stories on YouTube about her run-ins with the police. Amber is a black woman who writes for “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” and you better not call her middle-aged (but she is definitely not a millennial and her aunts, if she has any, probably still pinch her cheeks). You can watch her stories here, here, and here. You “can” watch the stories, but you actually “should” watch them.
In these stories, Amber recounts how she was doing literally nothing to arouse suspicion from any sentient creature, but she ends of being threatened by white police officers. She had a gun pointed at her and the threat of having a gun pulled on her.
After you have watched these stories, let me take you back to my own run-in with the cops to illustrate white privilege.
I am an old white man now, but I was a white teenager in the mid-1970’s, living in a real-life Spielbergian version of suburban California. One Saturday night, I found myself driving my father’s Oldsmobile filled with white teenaged boys and girls through Palo Alto (which is where Stanford University is located, and which had de facto segregated public high schools). We had been together all evening and had just attended a dance. How cute, right?
And then, a police cruiser pulled me over. Lights flashing and everything. A police helicopter had spotted the Oldsmobile. It turns out, the police were looking for a rape suspect who was driving a car similar to the one I was piloting. A. Rape. Suspect. Someone who had committed a bad, bad crime and who one could reasonably be deemed dangerous. The police suspected me of being a rapist. The police officer walked up to my father’s car, looked in to see the faces of six white teenagers staring back at him, and promptly apologized for the mistake. I don’t believe that I even had to hand over my driver’s license.
I drove off and, about five minutes later, another police officer pulled me over on the same suspicion. The police helicopter had spotted the Oldsmobile again. Once again, the police suspected me of being a rapist. Guess what happened? He looked in the car, saw all those white faces staring back at him, apologized for the mistake, and drove off.
We were not pulled over again that evening. I do hope the police found and arrested the actual rape suspect.
But the story is not over.
Ask me if I was sweating while being pulled over, if my heart was racing, or if I feared that one wrong move could end my life or hurt my friends. The answer would be “no.” Not because I was innocent, but because I had been raised to understand and believe that the rules worked for me, that the police were protecting me. True, I was innocent. I believed that as soon as those officers saw me, the misunderstanding would be cleared up. I believed with every fiber of my being that nothing bad was going to happen to me or my friends in our interactions with the police that night.
As an older white man, I now understand the police behavior towards me that night decades ago may have had nothing to do with my innocence.
Now, imagine if that had been a car filled with black or brown teenagers. You don’t have to try too hard to envision what could have happened. Tragically, too many times those stories don’t have the kind of ending where everyone chuckles over a mistake.
That’s my white privilege. What’s yours?