Around 2003, during my sophomore year of college, my bestie Z and I were on our way from Georgia to South Carolina to visit another friend at the College of Charleston. We were driving my red ’92 Jeep Cherokee, but Z was behind the wheel because I had gotten my eyes dilated or something that morning. I had some medical reason why it was safer for him to drive, but we had to take my car for cheaper gas mileage reasons.
It was around 9:00pm, dark, and we got pulled over on the interstate outside of Columbia because Z was speeding (nothing major, around 10 over). We pulled over, groaning, and got ready to do the whole getting-a-ticket thing, and it was so dumb from the beginning. Like a Three Stooges sketch, one thing after another went wrong, making us look guiltier than we were.
Right out the gate, Z struggled to get the driver’s side window rolled down. The cop stood there waiting while Z fumbled in the dark with my unfamiliar switches, until finally I had to reach over him and roll it down myself. So we looked drunk immediately, which we weren’t, and then one look at Z’s long hair and our hippie-ish thrift store outfits combined with my Led Zeppelin sticker on the back window, and our cop assumed we also had weed in the car.
Z had to walk the line and touch his nose and all that, and when he passed the sobriety tests, the cop moved on to searching him. Here’s where another Three Stooges moment happens: Z had a pack of rolling papers in his pocket. They were (unbelievably, I know!) actually a pack that our College of Charleston friend used for cigarettes, not weed, and Z threw them in his pocket last-minute before getting in the car because he figured we could return them.
“Where’s the weed at?” the cop asked Z, holding up the contraband he had fished out of Z’s shorts pocket.
“Sir, you’re not going to believe this, but we really don’t have any.” Z was almost laughing as he said this; the whole thing was so ridiculous.
I was still sitting inside the car for all of this, watching as Z balanced on one foot and then leaned with both hands against the Jeep for the search, but I wasn’t worried because I knew we were sober and didn’t have anything illegal in the car. So when the cop came back to the window and asked me to step out as well, I was shocked.
“I found drug paraphernalia on your friend, so we have to search the car. I’ve radioed for a female officer to come search you as well.”
Those damn rolling papers! I thought. They’d been floating around our apartment for weeks, and now they were screwing us. Why hadn’t we just thrown them away? What do they cost, fifty cents?
So I waited with Z while my car was searched top to bottom. It was kind of satisfying to watch the newly-arrived drug enforcement cop grow more frantic as he searched through our overnight bags only to find textbooks and toothbrushes. There wasn’t a damn thing in our car that shouldn’t be there, and you could tell it flew all over him that he couldn’t find anything to bust us on. I was searched by the female cop when she showed up and all I had on me were Hoover flags by the time she was done.
We were finally set free to go on our way. I don’t think the dejected cop even wrote the speeding ticket Z totally deserved. Zooming off down the road toward our weekend of partying in Charleston, we cackled about how bummed out the cops were to find us clean and cursed the rolling papers for getting us into the ordeal in the first place.
Why am I telling you this story? Because it’s a classic story of white privilege. At no point in the traffic stop did I fear for my life. Our worst problem that came out the encounter was rolling into town later than planned. Well, the lining had been ripped out of my favorite vintage purse in the search, but again, that’s nothing.
Now, was this traffic stop completely fair? There’s an argument to made that no, it wasn’t really. Yes, Zac was speeding, but I do believe that we were profiled as hippies (and thus druggies) from our clothes and my Led Zeppelin sticker on the back of the car. But luckily for us, druggies or not, we were still white, so the worst thing we expected in our wildest dreams was exactly what happened: a mild inconvenience and a funny story to tell everyone later about how mad the cop was about not finding anything.
We never feared for our lives. Not for one second. In recent years I’ve thought back to this incident countless times, remembering how secure I felt, how clueless I was at the time of how my whiteness was protecting me from harm. I think back to the couple of other traffic stops I’ve experienced and, again, I never felt anything more than impatience. Annoyance about getting caught at something that I was actually guilty of.
There was even the time when I was pulled over under extremely sketchy conditions: leaving my friend’s house very late at night, a cop began following me through the neighborhood. I wasn’t speeding, I was sober, and my lights were all on and functioning, but I was a little weirded out by him tailing me. It got even weirder when, as I approached the darkened rural main road, away from all the cookie-cutter houses, the cop finally switched his lights on and pulled me over. I’m still not sure what the deal was, but he asked me a lot of inappropriate questions about who I was with, what was my friend’s name, what I was doing, why I was leaving so late, could I call my friend on my cell phone so I could prove that I was telling the truth. I actually couldn’t call my friend; out there in the middle of nowhere, I had jack shit cell phone service, which was doubly alarming as I was starting to think I might need some sort of assistance if the cop didn’t stop asking intrusive questions and let me go. I was a single woman, alone in my car, with no cell phone service, and I had been intentionally stopped in an isolated, poorly lit area after the cop had had ample opportunity to pull me over in the neighborhood, among homes and street lights. After about 15 minutes he finally let me go and I drove off, heart pounding, sick to my stomach, confused and frightened.
But even in that fucked-up scenario, I never feared for my life. I was scared, to be sure, really damn scared, but my fear was vaguely rape-related at worst. I never thought I would be shot, I never thought I wouldn’t come away from it alive. Even though I was pulled over alone and harassed under suspicious circumstances.
To quote Courtney Ahn (@courtneyahndesign on Instagram): White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it means your skin tone isn’t one of the things making it harder. Having white privilege doesn’t mean you’ve never struggled or been unfairly treated. I should never have been harassed by that cop in the middle of nowhere, but I know that being white has been an advantage in that and other interactions I’ve had with cops.
My [also-white] husband and I are avid birders and hikers, and our whiteness allows us to enjoy those nature activities freely and without interference from law enforcement or other folks enjoying outdoor spaces. We have white skin and white names and white families and all of this has protected us throughout our lives.
We also grew up without a lot of money, so we’ve experienced socioeconomic limitations. I’m a woman, so I’ve experienced sex-based harassment and stereotyping. Most of us have some type of marginalization(s) working against us, and recognizing one’s privilege doesn’t mean that those things haven’t hurt. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t had a hard time. It only means that you’re willing to admit where you’ve had a leg up because of your whiteness. It means you understand that despite everything else, you still benefit from your whiteness.
After recognizing your white privilege, the next step is to use your privilege for good! There are so many things you can do: make calls to your legislators regarding issues that affect people of color, speak up when others (especially friends and family) make racist comments or jokes, show up at protests, amplify the voices of people of color, step back and center the experiences of people of color, learn/read/do research about white supremacy and anti-racism, sign petitions to demand accountability when people of color are wronged by those in power — these are just a few off the top of my head.
You can’t help having white privilege, but you can choose what you do with it. Choose to help. Choose to listen. Choose to be uncomfortable. Choose to affect change.