Accidental experiment: Getting the “white” treatment from police as a Black man

Whenever I see a police officer I get a feeling of dread. It’s happened to me as far back as I can remember. Most of my white friends are completely unfamiliar with this feeling. Some of them even feel safe around police. I never understood that, until last week.

But now I get it.

Let me explain…

Last April I bought a brand new vehicle. While there are a lot of choices to consider in making such a purchase, I had the hardest time deciding whether or not to have my windows tinted. While I’d only ever received one traffic ticket, at that point in my life I’d been stopped by the police 38 times. I wasn’t sure if tinting my windows would help or hurt, but in the end, I did it. I figured a cop isn’t going to pull me over for being Black if he can’t even see my face.

Luckily, I was right.

Since its purchase, I’ve driven a lot. Multiple trips to Boston and New York, a tour to West Virginia and back, and not once did I get pulled over! I almost made it a year.

Then, last week I was picking up a friend from work. The plan was to go out for dinner, but first he needed to drop something off at another building. He’s a University of Southern Maine professor and so this errand involved driving around the campus.

Even though I’ve had a lot of involvement with USM over the years, I’ve never really driven around the campus, which, as it turns out, like most colleges, is a goddamned maze.

So, we’re driving all around these little roads and paths until we got as close to the building as possible, at which point my friend hopped out and ran in.

Then a cop car pulled up next to me.

This is the point where I freeze.

I don’t freeze out of fear. I freeze to take everything into account. I try to take all of my environment in. I try to remember the previous five minutes in as much detail as I can. I do this because I need to be as knowledgeable, focused and unflappable as possible in this one moment. And the reason I need such clarity of thought is to follow the one and only rule in dealing with police: Do not scare them. This can be difficult because many are already scared just by the color of my skin, so some are just gonna do what they’re gonna do. But if I can de-escalate a situation before it begins, you bet your ass that’s what I’m gonna do. And no, campus cops are not an exception.

Anyway, so I look over at the cop and he’s still in his car, but he’s motioning for me to roll down my window.

Now, since I have tinted windows and this is all happening at night, I’m certain that he can’t see that I’m Black. The problems could come once I roll down my window. Luckily, with the positioning of the streetlights and the amount of winter gear I was wearing, as long as I took the bass out of my voice and didn’t stick my head out the window, the officer will probably assume I’m white and should be able to remain calm.

So, with the goal of keeping him in his car, I rolled down my tinted window, remained in the shadows and let out a friendly, positive, nasally, “Hi there!”

It worked.

He quickly responded with a very surprising, “Did you just drive down that walking path?”

Now, look. I’m going to be honest with you. My new vehicle? The one with the tinted windows that I was sitting in at that very moment? It’s a Jeep Wrangler and ever since I got it, the line between what is and isn’t a road has blurred a little. There were no pedestrians or street signs, so anything with pavement seemed perfectly drivable. So, I said, “I don’t know. I’ve never driven around here before.”

“Well, you did,” he answered.

“Sorry about that, officer.”

“Don’t do it again.”


“You’re welcome.”

He drove away, I rolled up my window and smiled, basking in my privilege disguise and the knowledge of how fun it can be to get pulled over while not Black!

In all seriousness, was that cop racist? I mean, yes, but was he going to kill me out of fear once he saw the color of my skin? I don’t know, but I do know this: Thirty-eight of the times I’ve been stopped by police it’s felt like playing some kind of negative lottery I can only hope to never win.

But that last time didn’t entirely feel like that. Aside from keeping him thinking I was default-white, it felt kind of good. I kind of liked feeling like this cop was protecting the campus from reckless drivers. It almost made me feel safe. In fact, if it wasn’t for the other 38 times in which it felt like the police were trying to protect white people from me, it probably would have made me feel safe.

But now I get it. I mean, I don’t care; it’s myopically destructive and selfish and xenophobic and racist as a motherfucker, but, you know, now I get it.

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Photo by fsHH on Pixabay

The reality of Blackness in the fiction of Black Panther

The release of Marvel’s Black Panther really spoke to the Black writers here at Black Girl in Maine Media, and this week, we are offering our reflections on the film. Today Samuel James shares his thoughts. 

This is not a review of Black Panther. It started off that way, but then I kept hearing white people talk about how they don’t get why this movie is so important to Black people. So, if one of those white people is you, let me tell you why this movie is so important to this particular Black person.

My father raised me to understand that I was born into a place designed to deny me everything it possibly could. From the smallest pleasure to my actual life, if this world could take it from me, it would. And the reason this place would deny me is because it doesn’t like the color of my skin.

My father also raised me to believe I could be anything, do anything and get anything I wanted in this life. These things seemed contradictory when I was a child, but as I grew older, I realized that they weren’t.

See, my father never told me the problem was the color of my skin. He told me that the problem was how the color of my skin was perceived. This meant that the problem was not and never could be mine. The early lesson in life’s unfairness was that I’d have to figure out ways deal with this problem (a lot), even though it was not my own.

Since then, every single day, in one way or another, I have been told that my problem is my Blackness. That it is on me to fix this problem. I know that is not true. I know I cannot be wrong simply for existing even though the world around me is convinced otherwise. I am often thought of and treated as arrogant and stubborn and stupid for not agreeing. I am often made to answer for other people’s ignorance, their words and actions. The navigation of these things is the common Black American experience.

I grew up watching my father listen to Duke Ellington and Sade, read Langston Hughes and Octavia Butler, watch Sidney Poitier and Phylicia Rashad. Black excellence existed all around me as far back as I can remember, and so it was reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

But, whenever the idea of “race” was brought up around or by white people, it was usually negative. It was a view only through a white lens. I saw that white people were naturally adversarial in their appreciation of Black art. Nothing done by Black people was good on its own. Duke, Sade, Langston, Octavia, Sidney and Phylicia were good at what they did, you know, for those people.

This meant all discussions of race we were forced to start from a point of competition. Once I realized this, I discovered that the rules were established, the teams were made and the fix was in a long time before I even knew I was playing.

Now, you should also know, even though this is my reality and I write about it the way I do, in no way do I live my life as though I am burdened. I am a legitimately happy, optimistic and joyous person. I celebrate and fully enjoy what I have every single day and I laugh a whole hell of a lot more than I cry.

I tell you all of this to give you a sense of my reality as I walked into the theatre last week to see Black Panther.

So, Black Panther

It’s easily the Blackest blockbuster ever. And it’s such a work of genius, I consider myself incredibly lucky to live in a time in which it could be made. I’m not gonna lie to you, I’ve seen it twice and cried like a baby throughout both viewings. The thing is, it celebrates Blackness on a scale that I’ve never seen.

First off, the women. There are no weak Black women in this movie. There are no sexualized Black women in this movie. There are no stereotypical Black women in this movie. All of the Black women in this movie are fully developed characters with their own power and intentions and individuality independent of the male characters. In other words, Black Panther celebrates Black women as people!

Secondly, Wakanda. If you’re not familiar, the fictional land of Wakanda is an African country that has such advanced technology that it can actually hide itself and its wealth from the rest of the colonizing/colonized world. What Wakanda shows itself to be is a fantastic and futuristic microcosm of Africa itself: a vast land of immense diversity not only in people, but in ideas and cultures as well.

And thirdly, the characters. Because the story is being told by a Black person, the characters reflect a Black person’s understanding of Black people. Art imitates life, and more specifically, the artist’s particular view of life. For example, since whiteness isn’t so much a race or culture as it is a designation of power, white art often allows white people to be the center of everything, even things that couldn’t possibly involve them.

This being the norm, Black Panther shows Black characters in an unusual way. In the movie, not only are we not drug dealers and pimps and rapists, we are intellectuals and leaders and heroes—but not only are we intellectuals and leaders and heroes, we multifaceted and complicated. We are human. Black Panther celebrates the humanity of Blackness. And while this movie is certainly about Blackness, in no way is it about “race.”

Even in the best of cinematic scenarios, Blackness is usually about race. Of course, there are wonderful exceptions, but usually a lead Black character means there is either a racist person or system or both that takes up the entirety of the Black hero’s journey. Now, that is not a bad story, but it’s not the only story. Obviously, a Black protagonist overcoming racism is a story that needs to be told until it’s irrelevant, but our struggle is not all that we are. We are beautiful and strong and complete all on our own. It is not necessary to compare or victimize us, fictionally or otherwise, in order to see us, and that’s why this movie is so important.

Until now, there hasn’t been a movie of this scale to show Black people on our own, in all of our diversity and beauty and strength and humanity. And this movie is important to me because there hasn’t been a movie of this scale that has shown everyone what I saw in my home as a child:

Black excellence is reality—not Black reality. Just reality.

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Racism roadmap, or Let’s talk about it

I’ve been online a lot recently. Too much, really. I’m not gonna lie, this means I’ve been losing my temper a lot. We got a racist governor up here in Maine, we got the “president” and his whole klan. Oh, and until recently we had a Nazi as the town manager of Jackman, Maine. He was fired, so at least there’s that.

Still, when I start to think about how often the morally weakest among us are activating each other, my face gets hot. I’m gonna try to keep cool on this because I like to write concisely, but, you know, my face is hot.

Here we go.

Racism isn’t measured. It’s not even defined, nationally. When an attempt is made, it’s often by those who can’t actually experience it. Race itself is designed only to designate power. White on top, everyone else in a big pile on the very distant the bottom. This makes racism an incredibly complex system that includes us as individuals as well as our institutions. And since we as Americans are not great at learning from our history, it only gets more complex over time. 

As a Black person, I wince when I hear someone call me “colored.” It’s not that the person is racist, necessarily. It’s that the use of that word shows that the person’s understanding of race is so out of date, the amount of work needed to understand the current complexity of the issue is unlikely to get done. And, honestly, there’s probably a reason the work wasn’t done in the first place.

Understanding of race is like a map. It needs to be up to date. A map of your town from the 1800s would not help you find a thing today. Everything would be unrecognizable. Sure, the map is valuable in that it’s important to learn about where the roads were back then. They’re the basis for the roads we have now, but that old map would still leave you lost as hell the second you stepped out your door. And it wouldn’t matter how much you loved the map or the good ol’ days from whence it came. We all gotta live right now.

Now, more or less, we operate under the presumption that we all want to be on the right path. Even though we live that way, we know it’s not true. We know that some people want the path to themselves, or just don’t care where they’re going at all, but we carry out our day-to-day as though we all agree.

The problems come when we’re all in the car together and we start to get the feeling the driver isn’t really looking at the GPS.

Yeah, we can ask him if he’s lost, but if he says no, that’s kinda where the conversation ends.  

Luckily, our understanding of the situation is not reliant on his admission. Like, if you’re on hour-three of a trip that only was supposed to last 10 minutes, you don’t really have to ask to know the truth.

The driver should to pull over and ask for directions. He needs to find someone familiar with the area and ask what to do. In other words, he needs to find someone who’s been down this road before. In other words, he needs to defer to someone with experience that he does not have…I think you see where I’m going here.

Unfortunately, in a moment like this, the driver probably doesn’t really care about being on the right path. The important thing for the driver is to never admit that he’s a racist—um, I mean lost. The driver must never admit that he’s lost. He may not even know he’s lost, even if everyone else around him knows. But it doesn’t really matter if he knows or not. Everyone else is trying to get on the right path, so he’s either gotta get in the back and let someone else drive or get the right directions! Ain’t no one got time to wait for some damn fool to figure out how to use his moral compass!

In fact, no! You ain’t gonna get in the back! You gonna get out of the car and figure out your shit all by yourself. If and when you do figure out how not to be lost, you can catch a ride with the next car going this way. They pass by all the time.

OK. While those of us who have been down this racist-ass road before can easily recognize just how lost you are, maybe you aren’t sure. Maybe you really don’t know whether or not you are lost. If that’s the case, please consult the list below. Do you use any or all of the following phrases?

1: I’m not a racist, but…

2: You’re too sensitive.

3: You’re probably hearing/seeing/feeling/understanding it wrong.

4: I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that.

5: Black people are racist, too.

6: I have a Black friend.

7: You call each other that word.

8: I’ve been called honky.

9: That’s not real racism.

10: I’ve been pulled over, too.

11: All you have to do is obey the law.

12: You destroy your own neighborhoods.

13: I agree with you in theory.

14: That’s not how you get your point across.

15: Black-on-Black violence.

16: Slavery was a long time ago.

17: The Irish were slaves, too.

18: I never owned a slave.

19: Stop complaining.

20: I don’t know why there’s no white history month.

If so, you’re as lost as this motherfucker right here and you need a map. Luckily, many are available. Here, here and here are great places to begin your quest.

Good luck finding the place. We’ll leave the light on for you.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.