Does White Privilege Exist?
A white police officer’s split-second decision to trust me raises questions.
I’m not really comfortable with the term “white privilege,” even though I know that – in some form – it exists throughout American society. To me, it’s just too simplistic. Like most generalizations, it falls short of accurately describing the complex reality of the world. A Caucasian man, for example, might lose his job to a Latina woman and ask himself, “Where is the white privilege for me?”
Well, it’s there. Even when bad things happen to white people.
White privilege doesn’t mean white people get everything they want all the time. They don’t. It doesn’t mean white people don’t get fired from jobs or refused loans from banks. They do. It doesn’t mean there aren’t ultra-successful minorities. There are.
It happens in boardrooms, restaurants, museums and retail stores. A casual dismissal. A rude interruption. The clutch of a purse. A seat in the back. The cold, continuous stare of a security guard. It happens. All the time. But most white people don’t notice these slights – even if we’re the ones making them – because, again, they happen in a matter of seconds. And they aren’t happening to us.
But we notice them when they arise in law enforcement. Because, when it comes to police-citizen interactions, those split-second decisions are the difference between trust and distrust, question and accusation, freedom and incarceration – even life and death.
Here’s an example. A few years ago, we were with some family friends at a house in Washington Highlands in Wauwatosa. All of us had (and still have) young children, who were playing in the backyard on one of those large, inflatable bouncy-houses. One of the boys somehow knocked his head and passed out. We called 911 and took all of the other kids inside. And we prayed. A lot.
If you’ve been to the Highlands neighborhood, you know the driveways are frequently long and narrow into the backyard, and that was the case with this home. A Tosa squad car arrived on the scene and pulled all the way into the backyard. As the police officer stepped out of the vehicle to assist us, I spoke up:
“Excuse me, officer. We’re glad you’re here, but we really need an ambulance to help this young boy. I think you should move your squad car out of the driveway, so the ambulance has access.”
The officer looked at me and made a judgment call in about one second.
“You’re right,” the officer said. “Here, take my keys and move the car to the street. I’ll check on the boy.”
I took the keys, ran over and got in a typical, dark-hued, red-and-white-striped Wauwatosa Police squad car. The dispatch radio blared. A dashboard computer buzzed. I’m pretty sure there was some sort of firearm in between the seats. But without thinking too much, I put the key in the ignition, threw the car in reverse, backed out of the driveway and parked it on the street – just as an ambulance pulled into the backyard and attended to the child.
When I got back to the yard, I handed the keys to the police officer who whispered, “Don’t tell anyone.” (Too late.)
If I had been an African-American man, would that officer have handed me the keys to the squad car? Maybe, but no one can tell me that would make no difference at all. That’s just being dishonest. As human beings, we are constantly making evaluations about other people, and everything comes into play.
If I had been black, Latino or Asian, it would have affected how the police officer perceived me. (Maybe not to extent that the officer would distrust me, but it would be there.) In the case of black men, the media often reinforces a negative stereotype – one often found within police departments – so it’s not beyond the pale (literally) to assume the split-second impression could be negative.
It happens all the time.
In the same way, what we wear and how we speak inform a police officer’s judgment. If I had been wearing a tie-dyed shirt, a hemp necklace and giant earlobe discs, I might not have been trusted with the car keys – right or wrong. Or if I had been wearing a puffy coat with a baseball cap cocked to one side. Or a limegreen trench coat. Or a bathrobe. Or a giant clown costume.
Everything about one’s appearance plays into the split-second decisions that police officers have to make, day-in and day-out. The fact that I was a white man in a polo shirt and khakis, surrounded by other similarly dressed Caucasian parents in Washington Highlands, absolutely had an impact on that cop’s decision to trust me so implicitly.
That’s white privilege. That’s the difference between being patted down, antagonized or even cuffed and being handed the keys to a cop car. All in a matter of seconds.
And the sooner we recognize it exists, the sooner we can start having some real conversations about how to get rid of it.