Shortly after we got engaged, my now wife and I went to a Christmas party. It was the first time we’d seen many of our friends since the engagement, and so we were congratulated, celebrated, and received several gifts. It was a nice evening.
On the way home, we saw the lights before we hear the siren. As a precaution, we’d pulled over to let the officer pass, when, to our surprise, he pulled right behind us. I looked over at my wife, and saw the panic set in. She sat up straight, got visibly nervous, and truly had no idea what was about to happen. I, knowing we had a sober driver, the requisite - license, registration, and proof of insurance - felt mostly at ease.
Prior to this evening, I’d been pulled over three times, and had four traffic related experiences with police. (You can read about them here.) Each experience was more or less the same. The cop approached in a way that was authoritative, bordering on arrogance, and the matter was resolved fairly quickly. Which made the stop with my wife more jarring. Compared to my prior experience, the officer was much more aggressive, and began with a tone that was accusatory.
Without warning, and before anything else, he demanded both of our ID’s and went back to his car. As we sat waiting, I tried starting a conversation with my wife about why we might have gotten pulled over. She muttered that she had no idea, but was too scared to talk. When the officer came back to the car, he got to his point, in a conversation that went (essentially like) this:
“Why’d you stop back there?” he asked.
“Huh?” I replied. We hadn’t stopped, other than stop signs, since we’d left the party.
“Back there,” he continued, pointing over the top of the car, down the street we’d just come. “I saw you stop and pick her up. I’ve been following you.”
“We didn’t stop though,” I managed, now also fluxed. Two things didn’t add up. The first was that he’d been driving north, but we’d been heading west and were the only car on the road. Logistically for him to have been following us, he’d have to have gone undetected, but somehow also circled a major city block while we went about a hundred yards. The second was that my wife was driving. In the transaction he’d ‘witnessed’, I’d been driving. Thus, I’d have had to drive up, invite her to the car, move to the passenger side, and then proceed on the route. I was starting to get his insinuation.
“We’ve been at a party all night, and haven’t stopped anywhere,” I said, putting the pieces together. “We just got engaged,” I added, pointing to her ring. “We’ve got engagement gifts in the back seat.”
Reading my wife’s emotions, I knew this was no time to fight an impossible battle. Plus, I’d had a few drinks at the party and didn’t know my B.A.L. As a writer, I knew how easy it is to spin a story and that if I said anything even slightly out of line, the officer could cite disorderly conduct and then I’d be screwed. So I kept my mouth shut, except to add, “Why exactly did you pull us over?”
He pointed to the mirror in my wife’s car, where she had a necklace of small shells hanging from her mirror, smaller than an air freshener. “Obstruction,” he replied*.
This was my first experience like this, and it was so violating - and foreign to me - that it’s hard to explain without adding a few important details:
I’m a white man
My wife is a black woman
The neighborhood we were driving through is considered “high crime”
Because we were driving through this “high crime” neighborhood, and because we are of different races, the officer was insinuating I’d solicited a prostitute.
When we got back to my place, the climate was dour. We’d had a fun night where our relationship had congratulated, only to be stopped on the way home and accused of prostitution and soliciting a prostitute.
My wife and I had very different reactions to this event:
I was outraged. “How can this happen?” I asked over and over. “How can a cop just pull us over, accuse you of being a prostitute, and then go on his way?”
If I’ve been profiled, it’s only been positive - like I’ve been let off the hook for something because I seemed innocent enough. In almost every case of “injustice” I’ve been a part of, there’s been an outlet through which I can fight back.
She, on the other hand, said it happens all the time. That to drive while black (a term common among African Americans, said like this, “Why’d you get pulled over?” “Well, you know, D.W.B.) means that getting pulled over is always a risk. When you get pulled over, anything can happen. She then shared that she can’t simply run to the store in sweat pants, because - what if she gets pulled over. Or, she can’t say anything back, because she’ll be accused of resisting an officer.
All true. And nothing of which I had any fear.
We got married six months later. My family (white) is now her family, and her family (black) is now my family - which means that half of my family is now black.
In the 4 years since this incident, I’ve gotten to know my new family members a lot better, and one thing that’s true is that every single one of the females has a story like this. They’ve been pulled over for no reason, had police officers say they’d be let free if they’d perform oral sex, asked their age, asked if there’s a male in the picture, and then offered a sexual-favor-for-release deal.
Not just one. It’s every, single one.
I start the series with this story because it was when my eyes were first opened to the differences in society that stem from race. It didn’t feel good. But still and so, a very fair question to ask is: what’s my point?
My point is this: we’re living in the midst of changing times. This is apparent everywhere, and we can choose to be more open and accepting, or we can double down on ignorance and intolerance. To do the later is take a step backwards. But before we can fully understand, we have to un-learn some things. We have to be open to the fact that society is not the same for all people. And once we admit that, we can think about ways to do something about it.
One thing this means for my white readers: minorities are policed differently than we are. This is undeniable. It extends to many systems and policies. Before experiencing the situation described above, I would have probably shrugged my shoulders and blamed some external situation. But I did experience it, and therefore cannot shrug.
And to minority readers: to be white is not to be ignorant. Blaming white people and/or encouraging reverse discrimination is so beside the point that it is hurtful.
We’re better together.
Also, I do not blame police. I am not one of these people that think all cops are bad. Most are great. They put their lives on the line every day to keep people safe and society running smoothly. They have a very difficult job, and are very important in our society. I’m glad we have them. I think they should be paid a hell of a lot more, and have their health and wellness taken care of. But. To be black should not equate to being suspect. To be a minority should not equate to an assumption of guilt. On this, I hope we can all agree.
This series is about becoming more understanding, more aware of other people, appreciating differences, and becoming a bit more woke by realizing the ways we’re un-woke. And when we become aware of certain things, to take practical steps to make the world better.
*(Full transparency, he mentioned a turn signal at some point that may or may not have been on, which, regardless, he couldn’t have seen from his vantage point).