Losing My White Privilege Blinders

Broken glass
Broken glass

I am a white woman. I am a white woman who grew up in a white middle-class Midwestern town. I am a white woman who worked for over four years at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). I am a white woman who is married to a black man. I am a white woman who is the mother of a young black son. I am a white woman who still has the binoculars viewing the world through white privilege that Michael Eric Dyson so eloquently discusses in his article Death in Black and White. However, I am a white woman who has had those binoculars knocked off and fractured on more than one occasion.

I liked, well loved, the NBA while growing up. I was called a nigger lover. I went to work at UNCF. I was called a nigger lover. I dated a black man. I was called a nigger lover. I looked at the people who called me that name as ignorant, uninformed, small-minded, but never dangerous. Their beliefs made me angry; they made me sad for many of the individuals who held those beliefs, who vocalized those beliefs were people with whom I was close. Their beliefs never made me scared, never invoked fear. I compartmentalized their racism -- I remained friends with many of them. I could do so, their hatred was not directed at me, at who I am, at who God made me to be. Their ignorance and hatred existed on the fringe of my life.

When I was 24 years old and began working for the UNCF I started to pay a little bit more attention to the hatred that was spewed my way and the impact that this type of hatred has on people, but again, the hate was not directed at me. It was not directed at who I am; it was directed at my actions. It was separate from me.

I began hearing stories about the realities of being black. A young woman who I was friends with was pulled over one night for switching lanes without a signal. She and her three friends were pulled out their car, frisked and detained. I remember being surprised when I heard this, but clearly this was isolated. Clearly this was an errant asshole of a cop.

When preparing for my first business trip with UNCF I was told to rent a car after flying into Greenville, South Carolina. I offered to take a shuttle to save money since I was to be there for over a week. The words that came from my then-boss will stay with me forever. He said, with a chuckle, "Oh no, it is the policy of this Department that everyone rents a car in case anything happens." I was puzzled. Later, a colleague and friend explained that when going to the South people are more comfortable with having a way to leave, a way that they as individuals could have some control over should they need to flee. I remember laughing, thinking that this was kind of funny. Perhaps it was because of the matter-of-factness with which it was share with me, perhaps it was the good humor with which everyone seemed to deal with such a tragic reality. Perhaps it was because I didn't really understand what it felt like to have to prepare to get out of a place because I feared for my safety simply because of the way I looked.

Of course, I have some relationship with this -- as a woman, I don't walk down a dark street alone. As a recent college graduate, I understood taking precautions in certain locales due to dangers that present themselves -- but I didn't know what it felt like to have an inherent fear about going to an entire area of a country in broad daylight and not just be afraid of some drunk frat boy, but of the citizenry and the police force.

I started to understand it, as best any white person could I suppose, after I began my relationship with my husband. My husband is a 6'1 black man. He is also a renowned jazz musician who has traveled the world performing with top orchestras and Broadway plays, he is the son of two scientists who hold PhDs, he is a man that holds a Masters degree and who has traveled the country lecturing about the history of black music, and he is a filmmaker and playwright -- none of which matter when it comes to interaction with the police.

The first encounter I witnessed happened almost 20 years ago. Long before Black Lives Matter started, long before Facebook existed and long before CNN paid any attention to a black man being shot by the police. My husband, then boyfriend was wrestled to the ground by five officers, one of whom held a gun directly on his chest. I stood there silently, terrified, afraid if I said one word the situation would escalate and he would be gone in the flash of a bullet.

The next encounter happened on New Year's Eve many years later. It was pouring rain; my husband had his hand on my shoulder as we were discussing which club to go to. We were in Virginia, directly across the river from the nation's capitol. Suddenly, a police car pulled up with flashing lights. A young officer got out of his car with his hand on his gun and acted panicked; he asked me if I was okay. I, stunned, told him that I was fine and that the man I was with was my husband. Things escalated from there -- the other police officer got out of the car. They began yelling at me that many women tell them they are fine but have blood running down their face after their husband beat them. I got angry, screaming and cursing at them -- you see, I had no blood on me, I was not crying and my husband has never hit me. My husband, shaking his head, remained eerily calm. I cursed at the police, I waved my arms in disgust and anger, I approached them and I informed them -- in colorful language -- that I would have their badges. My husband remained silent.

Another car pulled up, an officer jumped out, frisked my husband and handcuffed him. They then demanded his ID which he obviously could not produce with handcuffed hands. The entire time, two officers held their hands over the holsters, looking as if they were ready to draw their gun at any moment.

I demanded to know what was happening. The officer who had just arrived told me that my husband had been threatening to the other officers. I just about lost my mind; I had never been in the midst of such an absolutely ludicrous situation. But I was fearless. Still. I yelled, I cursed, I demanded badge numbers. It never occurred to me once that my life was in danger, because my life was not in danger. But suddenly, I realized that my husband's life was.

Perhaps not his physical safety but I was listening as charges and reasons for imprisonment were literally being made up on the spot. I calmed down. My husband talked respectfully to the police and an officer who had been standing silently aside calmed the situation down. That night, after we tried to celebrate New Year's, I went to the police station to make a complaint. No one ever contacted me and nothing ever happened.

There have been other incidents, including incidents in front of my children. I won't forget them, I won't forget New Year's Eve, and I won't forget the day that a gun was drawn to my husband's chest. Nor will I ever again ride or walk down the street with my husband without being terrified when a cop pulls behind us or walks beside us. Any of these incidents could have ended in a much different way. None of those incidents would have even happened if my husband were white.

I still have the privilege of walking through my life with binoculars, but my lens are no longer rose-colored and I have fear, real fear, that something could happen to my husband, or my son when he is older. I have real fear that not enough white people have ever even glimpsed into the life of a black person and simply cannot believe that this is reality, and thus we cannot have an honest conversation as a society. This lack of conversation, this lack of understanding is dangerous for everyone in the country. I know how it feels. I snickered in the past, I thought the stories I heard were isolated cases, or tongue-in-cheek exaggerations. But, there are no exaggerations here, this is real life. For black men.