A few weeks ago, I accidentally locked my keys in my car.
I have AAA, but I knew from experience that it would probably take them about an hour to get to my location. I noticed a police car sitting in the Kroger parking lot where I was marooned, so I waved the officer over and explained the situation.
At one point, I had three officers helping me, even though I wasn’t in any danger. At no point did they ask to see my ID or any proof I owned the car they were breaking into.
Would my experience have been the same if my skin color were different?
I can’t know for sure. But I do know that every black person I have listened to has stories of negative interactions with law enforcement: times they were followed in a store, or treated with suspicion walking in a nice neighborhood, or pulled over in a traffic stop and thought they wouldn’t make it home.
If I were black, would I have even asked for the officer’s help in the first place? Or would a lifetime of seeing faces like mine on TV because they were killed by cops leave me unable to trust law enforcement at all?
It struck me, standing in the hot summer sun that day, that I was likely experiencing white privilege, but I am sure there are thousands of moments in my life where I received some subtle benefit because of my race and had no awareness of it.
The term “white privilege” usually evokes a knee-jerk defensiveness from white people. I know I have been guilty of it. “I didn’t mean it like that,” I want to say. “I didn’t ask to be privileged.” “I’m not racist.”
Sometimes I cringe whenever I hear that phrase. “I’m not racist.” What I think people are really saying is that they’re not a neo-nazi or a member of the KKK. They’ve never dressed in blackface or used the n-word.
It’s good that they’re not those things. They should keep not doing those things. But it’s not enough.
What I’ve learned, through a lot of listening and reading and swallowing humility pills, is that someone can ardently believe that everyone should be treated equally regardless of race, and therefore think of themselves as “not racist,” but still 1) benefit from systemic racism and 2) have implicit bias.
Research has shown that everybody, regardless of race, education or political beliefs, has implicit bias. It’s something instinctual, often unconscious. When your heart rate speeds up when you see a black man in a hoodie at night, or you refer to a doctor with male pronouns without thinking about it, that’s implicit bias.
Implicit racial biases become explicit racist behavior if we don’t learn how to recognize and counteract them. The black man in a hoodie has cops called on him. Someone with an accent gets passed over for a promotion, because we assume they’re less intelligent.
Saying “I’m not racist,” accomplishes nothing. It’s an attempt to absolve ourselves of culpability, when we white folks need to admit we are all, at least a little bit, even if completely unintentionally, part of the problem. Only then can we do better.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, lots of police departments in our coverage area have released statements condemning the officers involved in the death and touting the steps they have taken to prevent similar incidents from happening in their jurisdiction: things like use of force policies, body cameras, and de-escalation training.
It’s good that they’re doing those things. They should keep doing those things. It’s also not enough.
I guarantee that every police department in this country, if it really took time to evaluate its policies, could find a way to do better.
Maybe that means more training and accountability. Maybe it means a bigger shift in the way we think about public safety, investing in mental healthcare and addiction treatment, outside of the framework of crime and punishment.
Centuries of institutional racism can’t be undone overnight or with a hashtag, or with weeks of cross-country protests, or even after decades of fighting for it. So all of us, on the individual and institutional level, must continually look for ways to do better.