Thursday, December 4, 2014

Innocent While White is More Privileged than Criming That Way

I've been sort of contemplating how to put a real explanation to my own understanding of privilege as I experience it, and today during a conversation with a friend, this memory came up:

During college, I worked in a gas station, and there had been some isolated robberies of local stations.  One night, due to an electrical malfunction, the silent alarm went off.  I found out about it because my district manager called to see if I was Ok, and then the 911 operator called.  She asked me if I'd pressed the silent alarm.  I said, "Oh, I just got off the phone with my district manager about that; he said the alarm company called him.  No, I didn't push the button.  I'm not sure what happened.  No one's robbing the store."  She said, "Just yes or no, is there someone there in the store with a weapon?"  I said no.  She said, "Is anyone listening to you?  Is anyone at all there?  Are you being coerced?"  I said, "No, nothing like that.  I haven't had a customer for ten or fifteen minutes, even.  It's pretty slow tonight."  She said they'd send police.  I said, "Sure, if you want."  There was also a discussion about how I couldn't come out the 'front door' because there were doors on opposite sides of the store, but I would come to the east door.

Somehow this got communicated to the responding officer as 'suspected robbery in progress, employee may be hostage.'

Over the next ten or fifteen minutes, I continued stocking the cigarettes (pulling cartons out of the cupboard and stacking them up), dropped money because the alarm call had reminded me to check the drawer (opened the register, took out money, counted it, put it down behind the counter out of sight), and did the nightly liquor count (crouched down behind the counter out of sight, occasionally popping back up with a bottle in hand).  Meanwhile, a member of the police department arrived on scene and watched me do all these things, through a western window that didn't allow him to see any of the rest of the store.  I was not wearing a uniform, a company shirt, a nametag, or anything else to mark me as an employee.  Flannel shirt, baggy pants, combat boots, concert tee.

I eventually noticed the police car in the lot, and went over to the western door to wave at him and tell him it was OK.  There was no one in the driver's seat, so I stepped out to look around.  A hissing noise to my right caught my attention, where I found a cop, with his gun drawn, motioning me over to him.  He kept hissing, "Ma'am, are you all right?  Who's in the store?"  I told him, "I'm fine, there's no one in the store."

He had no reason to believe that the person who'd been pulling out cigarettes and liquor, and cash from the cash register, worked there.  But when I told him I was fine and there was no one else there, he got back in his car and drove away.  Didn't go in.  Didn't look around.  Didn't ask for any proof that I worked there.  Didn't call my boss and ask him to confirm my identity.  Didn't even ask my name or to see my ID.

At the time, I thought the overreacting cop with his gun out was just funny.  But in recent years, looking back at that experience, i understand just how differently that situation might have gone down if I hadn't been white.  How the fact that he was standing there with his gun drawn wasn't scary because it never occurred to me that he might shoot *me*.  How I didn't immediately think, "I should put on my company shirt so they don't think I'm a robber."  How it just plain never occurred to me to consider that 'not being a criminal' is not always a shield.  How easily I assumed that no one would ever think I might rob a convenience store by looking at me.  How somewhere, in the back of my own head, the perception of 'who robs a convenience store' was fueled by TV images of black gangbangers with their guns held sideways, and no one could possibly think that was me, so I felt safe.

Whether that particular cop would have reacted differently isn't the issue; the full set of experiences I had that dictated my expectations in my relationship with law enforcement is.  The words 'unjustly accused' or 'police brutality' belonged in tidy one-hour chunks of Law & Order or NYPD Blue, because those were a fiction I'd never seen personally.  In my world cops had mostly been, if not strictly helpful, at least benign.

There's a thing floating around that is 'criming while white', people talking about getting away with various crimes because of their white privilege.  I think that's probably less effective than understanding that inequality in justice and enforcement is not about whether I can get away with petty theft or assault without police treating me like a criminal, it's about how I can 'get away' with the daily experiences of my life that way.

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