One of the reasons why racism persists is because well meaning white people kind of think we (people of color) exaggerate our experiences. Mind you, most of us are excellent storytellers because it is our heritage. Our ancestors were killed for learning to read and write even after slavery, soooo oral traditions are a THING with black people for sure. That’s how come we love hiphop: storytelling.
But I digress.
White people really do think we make situations bigger than they are. And when they do see racist acts of violence going on (Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, et.al), they compartmentalize it: an isolated event; only down south; a “lone” or “rogue” white person. They have a hard time connecting those acts of aggression to, say, the young Black man who works at Panera or the pretty Muslim coworker with whom one shares office space.
But guess what, my dear white friends, coworkers, and random people who read my words: Racism is a real thing that I and people who look like me deal with. We may not regale you with all of our horror stories but trust me! We have a-plenty. I would like to share one of mine with you.
As a grad student, I worked for a professor preparing, administering, and logging data from her study. The bulk of my job involved me being at her offices transferring survey responses into the statistical software used to make the fancy tables and graphs you see in educational and scientific journals. The other bulk was preparing the materials for each new data collecting expedition. I had no set shift; I just went in and did it when I needed to.
During finals week, my supervisor got a call from a school who had previously said no to her doing the study there. The board had changed their minds, but she had to come that week while nothing was going on (Christmas break was on the horizon). She emailed us to see if we could prep the materials that night for the next day. Since I was already on campus studying for a final, I volunteered. Extra hours never hurt, right? So around 11:00 pm, I drove over to the offices from the library. I went in. I did my job. 2 hours later, I left.
And this is where it got ugly for me.
As I got in my car, I saw a campus police cruiser slowly drive by–just like you see drug dealers do in the movies.
Now, for a young white person, this would not be a big deal. They are just doing their job, right? A black person does not think this way. A smart black person becomes slightly concerned. When I got in my car, I thought to myself, “If they follow me off campus, I am screwed.” I started my car, pulled off towards home (only about a 1/2 mile away).
They followed me off campus. No lights or sirens, just following. Slowly. Every turn I took, they took.
So now, I am afraid because I know cops. My dad is a retired state trooper. I know the drill. I have heard the stories. I remembered his warnings to me:
Go to a lighted, hopefully populated area before you pull over. Do not move. Only answer their questions. Do not move. Call someone you know.
So instead of going home (which was straight across the street from campus), I turned right toward town. This is when the lights and sirens came on. I kept driving until I reached the gas station and burger joint, both packed because people were coming out of the clubs and bars. I pulled over, and put my hands on the steering wheel in plain sight.
When the two officers got out of the cruiser, they immediately pulled their weapons and pointed them at me as they approached–one to the driver’s side, the other to the passenger side.
The officer to my left tapped the window and asked me to let it down. I very slowly moved my hand and let both windows down. He asked me for my license. I told him that it was in my purse to my right. The female officer reached in and grabbed my purse.
Both my hands gripped the steering wheel. I wanted to scream.
The female officer asked me what I was doing on campus (mind you, she had my still fresh campus ID in her hand along with my driver’s license). I very carefully and respectfully explained to her that I had finals in the morning but that I also worked for Professor A and was completing a task for her experiment in the morning. The officer took my IDs with her and came around to the other side of the car with her partner.
I asked, “Why am I being stopped, please?” I got no response. She handed me my purse. I very gently placed it on the seat again. Very slowly. And returned my hands to the steering wheel. Because his gun was still drawn.
I asked again, “Excuse me. Could you please tell me why I am being stopped?” Again, no answer. I was panicking on the inside, certain the only thing keeping me alive were the dozens of people buying food and cigarettes and gas and beer…and also watching this all unfold. The officers stopped commiserating for a moment, and asked me if I had any drugs.
I kid you not. They asked me if I had drugs. Now, I am no saint–I like adult beverages. I have been a cigarette smoker. But drugs? I have always been smooth on all that. But even if I DID do drugs, nothing about me would have suggested that I was on them, had some with me, or dealt them to other people.
Except that I was black. On campus. In the middle of the night. I mean, what black people do you know go study for graduate school finals on a Thursday night? I MUST be selling drugs, right?
That was sarcasm.
Anyways, I am not done. It got worse. But this post is already too long. Part 2 to come.