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.”

“Thanks!”

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

    • Oh, wow–this is a really great description of how white privilege works, which is really helpful for us white folks to take in. (Thanks, Samuel!) For the other commenters, check out the “yes” hyperlink in answer to your question. It’s a Vox article, “How systemic racism entangles all police officers–even black ones.”

  1. As well as thoroughly enjoying your writing, I had the same question as Chris.
    Is it prejudice to think that all cops think alike, though it has been your experience until now? I’m really glad you had this experience, Samuel, and you “get it,” perhaps in more ways than one.

    • Read the link that is “yes”. Asking that question (without reading the link) means you reacted to the statement, assumed the link wasn’t going to be useful, and had to post your reaction question without reading the explanation/statistical reality at the link.

  2. I can see what you are talking about. The cop doesn’t have to be a racist per se to react not as well if they knew you were a POC. It’s a systemic thing.

  3. Elizabeth
    I loved this account. I could feel the writer’s terror being pulled over and his strategy worked. We all know about strategies when pulled over by a policeman. As a white woman, I want to avoid a ticket, and sometimes I play the privileged me card. “I’m so sorry officer, I was just rushing to pick up my children at their violin lessons.” Black men need a life-saving strategy.

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