My White Privilege

I have too much experience being pulled over by police. 

I received a letter from the governor of Texas back in 1997. George W. Bush wrote to say my drivers license had been revoked. I’d been ticketed for speeding thirteen times from my sophomore year in high school through my senior year of college.

(Thankfully, Tennessee still granted me a license because Tennessee will apparently give a license to anybody.)

I have too much experience being pulled over by police. Mine is a very different experience from that of many Americans though.

This was made obvious by a viral video country artist Coffee Anderson posted on Facebook recently. In it he advised black motorists on how to conduct themselves when stopped by police.

Coffee Anderson PSA

Coffee told drivers to get their wallet out of their back pocket, remove their license and place it on the dashboard – all before the officer approaches their vehicle. The driver is then to keep both hands on the wheel with fingers extended forward, not wrapped around it. He’s to ask permission to move before reaching for his registration.

All of this is to ensure the officer’s safety and reduce the driver’s chances of being shot.

If I were a police officer I’d want every motorist to follow Coffee’s advice. If I could always see a motorist’s hands I’d have a lot less to fear. If drivers always had their license and registration ready for me we’d both be on our way a lot faster too. So why wasn’t I ever taught to behave this way during a traffic stop?

My driving instructors at school never taught me this. Neither did my parents. And it’s not just me – the dozen friends and relatives I’ve polled were never instructed to go to the lengths Coffee suggests either.

Not once during my thirteen traffic stops did I place my license on the dashboard before the police officer reached my car. I never kept my hands on the wheel with fingers extended toward the windshield. Not once.

And yet not once did I get the impression an officer was threatened by me.

Not once did I take steps to increase my chances of survival.

Not once did I think the officer might shoot.

Not once.

But that’s not everyone’s experience.

The greatest privilege I gain from being a white man in America is that I never think about race. Mine or yours. 

I never think about how race shapes other people’s experiences at work, in the classroom, at restaurants, or when they’re pulled over by police.

But I’ve lost that privilege now. I can’t stop thinking about race: My son’s.

My youngest boy was born in India with beautiful dark brown skin. If his straight hair is covered by a hat he might look like Philando Castille to a police officer some day.

Because of his race I’m asking questions I’ve never asked before: Will he be treated like me when he’s pulled over? Or will he die reaching for his wallet? What should I do or say to help him?

These are things I have to think about now.

Sambhaji Beach