A few years ago on my way home from work, I encountered a routine traffic stop in Williamsburg. I rolled down my window and the officer kindly said, “Good evening, license and registration please.”
My music was too loud to comfortably talk, so I reached forward and turned it down, mumbling a “Sorry.”
“No problem. Just give me your license and registration, please.”
My license was three months expired and I had no idea what the penalty for this was. I’m an anxious person and started shaking. I did not want to go to jail. Sure, my husband would come get me, but still, it sounded awful. Cops didn’t really take people to jail over expired licenses, though, right? This would most likely end in an annoying citation, nothing worse.
I decided to get the registration first, as if the date on my license would magically change during the minute this would take. I opened my glove compartment and grabbed the thick black book filled with all of our important car-related papers, but fumbled and dropped it onto the passenger seat. Shaking worse, I brought it to my lap and flipped through it, pulling out my insurance card.
This is not what he had asked for. “Do you need this?” I asked lamely.
He shook his head no. My music still seemed too loud, but I was already taking so much time to find my papers and was worried about adjusting the volume again. I flipped back through the book but couldn’t find any registration information. My heart was racing, stomach clenching. I was usually on top of this kind of thing. The expired license was uncharacteristic of me, but to also not have proof of registration? That couldn’t be right; this must be one of those times in which my anxiety was keeping me from seeing straight. I started to feel annoyed on top of being flustered, mostly at myself but also at the fact that this traffic stop even existed. I was just trying to get home at the end of a long work day, and instead of cruising along to my tunes, here I was in a situation, and I couldn’t manage to get my mind or my body to work properly enough to figure it out.
“I love your music,” the officer said.
I froze. Then, “What?”
“Your music, it’s great. Nobody listens to this stuff anymore. I remember it from back in the nineties. What’s this band again?”
“Uh, I’m not sure. It’s my husband’s CD. But yeah, I mean, it’s great.”
“Techno nowadays is god awful.”
“I totally agree.” I was a little dazed. I was expecting a comment on the fact that I had yet to show him any of the documentation he’d asked for, and it was taking a moment for his actual comments to sink in.
Then, get this: he started dancing.
Obviously this was not as big of a situation as I’d originally thought. My bodily functions returned to half-normal. “I’m sorry, but I don’t seem to have it in here. Can you just look at this sticker?” I said as I leaned forward, pointing at the New York State vehicle registration info taped to the bottom corner of my windshield.
“Sure, that’s fine.” The officer craned his neck, briefly scanned it, then turned back to me. “License?”
Someone behind me honked and I jumped.
“Just ignore them,” the officer said.
“Yeah, okay.” I turned to the passenger seat, rummaged through my backpack and found my wallet. All of the anxiety symptoms rushed through me again. I could literally see the expired license shaking up and down in my fingers as I handed it over. The officer looked at it for all of two seconds, handed it back to me with a smile and said, “You have a nice day, and enjoy that music.”
I couldn’t believe it. “You too, thanks.” I rolled my window back up, turned the music to max volume, and cruised home, imagining my husband’s reaction to my hilarious story of being let off without even a citation after basically acting like a freak, all because the officer liked the Propellerheads.
“You would make a terrible con artist,” I said to my smiling reflection in the rear view mirror.
Now, in light of the horrible recent news about the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, not to mention the long list of other black lives that have been needlessly ended by police violence, this story of mine is nowhere near funny. Now, this story is heartbreaking. The truth is, this interaction went down the way it did not because of my music but because of my skin color. If I were a black woman rolling down her window at this traffic stop, the worst-case scenario I would have envisioned would not have been calling my husband from jail. Rather, it would have been reasonable to have feared for my life. And if I somehow weren’t murdered in my car when I reached for the volume knob, fumbled with the black book, flipped idiotically through its contents, pointed at the registration sticker on my windshield, or riffled through my backpack, the lack of proper documentation and the expired license would have ended in me thrown to the ground and handcuffed, kicked a few times, tossed into the back of a police van, banged around so hard that a few bones would have broken, then left alone in a jail cell without my phone call.
To all of my white readers out there: the onus of our country’s current crisis is on us. People of color cannot fix the racist society we live in. It is our job to do this. We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, at our thoughts and our actions, and be honest with what we see. No one thinks they’re a racist. But in reality, we all harbor racism, and the only way we can do anything about it is to fucking own up. It is not okay to think black men are more dangerous than other men. It is not okay to see a dark-skinned person with his hands in his pockets and assume he’s got a gun. It is not okay to associate a do-rag with violent gang activity. It is not okay to see teenage boys (boys!!) in hoodies and sagging jeans and instantly assume they are up to no good.
Let me tell you another story. When my son was about ten-months-old, he was just discovering his love of balls. I took him to a nearby playground, but he did not want to swing or climb on the structure; he only had eyes for the basketball game happening on the adjacent court. I walked over and sat on a bench near the goal. The other benches around us were packed with black teenagers. Some of them sat quietly, watching the game or braiding each other’s hair or talking in hushed tones. Others were aimlessly dancing. Others were loud and screaming curse words as they challenged each other to various competitions, trying to out-cool everyone in that normal way all teenagers do. Most of the boys were wearing the “up to no good” outfit, and most of the girls were wearing tight pants and revealing shirts. You know, mimicking their favorite celebrities in that normal way all teenagers do.
Being white and in my thirties with an infant on my lap, I stuck out so much you could have spotted me from a helicopter. But those kids didn’t care. In fact, one boy near us pointed at Lew and said, “Yo, look at him, he gonna play ball one day!” His friends turned, saw Lew’s delighted face as he bounced on my lap, and started laughing. More comments ensued. “You wanna throw with us, baby?” “Aw, look at him, he thinks he’s big enough to play!” “Damn son, you can tell he gonna be good.”
One of the loud, cursing girls came over and made a very sweet effort to divert his attention from the game to her, but no luck. “Shit, he really is gonna be a ball player!” she exclaimed. I laughed heartily and told them I hoped Lew would be as good as they are one day. Before we left, I thanked them for being kind to the baby, and they looked at me like I was a nut job, like being kind to a baby is just what you do and is in no way worthy of a thank you.
I tell you this story not because it’s heartwarming – though it is, and god knows we need some heart warming right now – but because it defied all stereotypes I once held about black teenagers, stereotypes that many of you might find you currently hold. Now I’m not getting all high and mighty, pretending like I’m better than you because I used the phrase “once held.” The only reason I can use that phrase is because three and a half years ago, when I moved to a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood and began teaching Developmental English and ESL at Kingsborough Community College, a CUNY school with a large African-American and international population, I was forced to take that long, hard look at myself. I probably wouldn’t have taken this look if I’d remained in my mostly white neighborhood working with white children. But my circumstances changed, and I discovered that despite my fancy degree from Tufts University, my years living amongst the diversity of Brooklyn, my open mind and liberal sensibilities and my big ol’ heart, I was a racist. I discovered that I felt a stronger rush of fear when I passed a black man late at night than when I passed a white man. I discovered that I made negative assumptions about black teenage boys in their hoodies. I discovered that I was more nervous about working with black students from government housing complexes than I was about working with white students from the same housing projects.
Instead of ignoring these discoveries or pretending like thoughts aren’t important or that my other good deeds outweighed these thoughts, I worked on it. I smiled at black men more often. I approached my black students after class and asked them questions about their lives. I became aware of what my body did when one of these racist thoughts entered my mind, and I realized that my racism didn’t stop with the thought but that my neck and shoulders became tenser, my face tighter and eyes narrower (do not pretend for a second that your thoughts don’t affect your actions, the energy and vibe you give off, or the way other people see and interpret you). Now that I’ve made these changes and have worked on recognizing and removing these racist thoughts from my mind, while continuing to recognize that I have more work to do, my basketball story is nowhere near an isolated event. I am now part of a vibrant, friendly community filled with black men and women who talk to me on the sidewalk and ask about my son’s latest milestones. I’ve grown so much as a teacher and get to soak in pride when I run into my students of color and listen to them tell me about their latest semester in credited classes. And I can honestly feel my heart expanding when I watch my boy wave at everyone, white or black, Muslim or atheist, and see their faces light up as they wave back. We are not born with fear and hatred of one another; our children are living proof that we are not inherently racist, but that we learn these things over time. And I am living proof that we can unlearn them if we are willing.
So please, white people, force yourself to take that hard look, to identify your own racism and to change it. Force yourself to become aware of how white privilege affects you every day. Be grateful that you don’t worry about your son’s life as he walks to the playground with a water gun in his pocket. Be grateful that you don’t fear routine traffic stops. Be grateful that when you pass a cop on the sidewalk, he nods at you or simply just ignores you. And try to empathize with black people who can’t be grateful about these things. Be enraged on their behalf. Listen to their stories, ask them questions, take their advice. Try to better understand their experiences and hear what they have to say. We are living in a crisis and it is up to us as white people to take action. Maybe we as individuals can’t change the way our police are trained or won’t be able to put these murdering cops in jail where they belong, but we can, and we must, change ourselves.