In 2009, my fiancé and I had dinner at my parent’s house. We had each had a glass of wine with dinner and had switched to tea with dessert so by the time we left 2 hours later, everyone was sober. On our way home, flashing lights are seen in the rearview. “Great” he muttered. “We’re getting pulled. I wonder why.”
“License and registration sir.”
My fiancé reached into the glove box for the paperwork.
“Here you go. Why was I pulled?”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Well, only with dinner with her parents but after that we switched to hot tea. It’s been two hours since I had any alcohol so I know you didn’t pull me for that so why did you?”
“You’re telling me that you drank tea with her parents for two hours?”
“Are you saying I’m lying? Why was I pulled over?”
“Sir, your passenger side taillight is out. That’s why I pulled you over.”
“Give me your flashlight. I want to see.”
My fiancé opened the car door and held out his hand while demanding the flashlight so he could verify the police officer’s claim that there was a busted taillight. My husband is an imposing man. He is direct and likes things to be short and to the point. He is also frequently described as intimidating. The officer didn’t reach for his gun and he didn’t ask my fiancé to calm down or get back in the car. He just handed over his flashlight and walked around back.
“You’re right. It’s out. I’ll fix it tomorrow. Anything else?”
We were let go with a verbal warning and a reminder to fix the light soon. That was the entire encounter. At no point was I in fear for my life – not when my fiancé was being short with the cop, not when the cop’s integrity was being questioned, not when my fiancé was getting out of the car and demanding that the cop do what he want. If there was an assumption that Sandra Bland could use a cigarette butt to burn a cop, there should also be an assumption that we could have used that flashlight to hit the cop over the head. That was never a concern of his. He just handed it over and walked around the car.
My now-husband and I have talked about that encounter a few times over the last several days. That situation is what people mean by white privilege. Not saying ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir’ to the officer didn’t make us any less safe. Not staying in the car didn’t either. We had a traffic stop that was a mild annoyance and is now just a story. It’s a blip in our lives. The cop may not have looked at us and thought ‘oh, white people. I’m safe.’ However, the fact that we were made some part of his brain, conscious or otherwise, feel safer. When the glove box was being opened, he didn’t know that there wasn’t a gun in it. When he handed over the flashlight, he didn’t know that he wouldn’t get hit over the head. He did, however, assume that both of those situations were safe for him.
I can’t imagine that if we were a black couple it would have happened the same. Even if no shots were fired, the cop wouldn’t have been as cooperative as he was. I am shielded by my skin-tone and that isn’t how it should be. I can’t help feeling guilty that a busted light for us meant a stern statement and nothing else, and for Philandro Castile the end of his life. I see flashing lights and think I’ll get home 10 minutes late, not that I’ll never get home again. As a Caucasian ally, I’m sorry that this is reality for so many of you. We stand with you. We’re here to listen and understand and let you lead the discussion. We can, we must, do better.