A Moment of Privilege

There’s a story I’ve been telling for years. It goes something like this.

During college I went on a road trip with some friends. We decided to head to the Southwest, planning to visit Taos, NM, Boulder, CO and a few other spots. The trip lasted a bit over a week, during which we mostly camped with a couple stops in hotels to refresh.

Through it all we were driving the SUV of the parents of one of our number, taking turns through different legs of the trip. At the end we were all pretty much done, wiped out and ready to be home. Our last stop had been to Taos and the decision was made to just drive through the night, stopping for food and coffee but that’s about it.

It was the middle of the night and I was behind the wheel, driving east through the panhandle of Texas. The darkness made it easy for me to notice when the police car lights came on behind us.

As we waited for the officer to come talk to us, we all went through various stages of panic. We were unsure why we’d been pulled over, but we worried about the reaction of our parents to getting a ticket in Texas, what the actual problem was, and whether the strong smell of patchouli – purchased by a couple of us in Taos – would make the officer suspicious of what else we might have in the car.

I rolled down the window and the officer couldn’t have been nicer. He explained one of our taillights was out and asked where we were from, mentioning the IL plates on the back. I explained we were from the Chicago suburbs and were on our way home after a road trip, promising to get the light fixed as soon as possible.

The officer seemed to consider it when the light from the flashlight he was holding fell on my watch. He looked at me and said, “An Alfred E. Neuman watch? I ain’t seen one of them in a coon’s age.” With that he said we could go but that we should be sure to get the taillight fixed as soon as possible. He returned to his cruiser and we went on our way, returning safely home early the next evening.

I’ve been telling that story for over 20 years, usually as an amusing anecdote when I’m with a bunch of people and we’re trading crazy experiences.

Lately I’ve come to view that story a bit differently and am somewhat ashamed it took me this long to do so.

If we weren’t all white, I realize, that encounter could have gone very differently. One or more of us could have been arrested and thrown in jail. One or more of us could have been shot on the side of the highway.

Our – my – privilege undoubtedly saved my life that night. We were white, I had a funny watch on that the officer could relate to, and was believed when I said we would rectify the situation.

In the last several years there have been countless stories about men not so different myself that have had far more tragic outcomes. Pulled over for traffic violations, black women have died in prison. Black men have been shot for doing little more than jaywalking. They’ve been escorted from restaurants and arrested simply because they lingered longer than someone cared for.

Meanwhile, my friends and I got an amusing story to tell for 20+ years.

Anyone in the situation I was in shouldn’t feel fear for their lives. I didn’t because of who I am and how I’m treated as a result. So many who don’t have my privilege are treated so much worse, assumed to be violent criminals because of the color of their skin, the kind of car they’re driving or the neighborhood they happen to be in.

This will be the last time I tell the story above. I’m done pulling it out for amusement’s sake, at least until the day when everyone can feel as safe and protected as I did then, and continue to now.