A few weeks ago I had an encounter with a police officer. I was driving down a Cambridge street and drove through a crosswalk just as a pedestrian was nearing the far sidewalk. Seemed like a totally reasonable thing to do, no danger to anyone, but as I was stopped at the traffic light just past the crosswalk, a police officer walked over to me and said politely, “In Massachusetts, the law is that you need to stop whenever someone is anywhere in the crosswalk.” “Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said and he said, “Have a nice day,” and I drove away thinking, “what if I had been black? What if, instead of being an old white woman, I were a young black man?”
In fact, a young black man I know, a delightful poet who has done tremendous good in our community, had a similar small traffic incident recently and it did not end with the officer saying, “Have a nice day.”
So, as I am thinking, like many of you, of Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, and the long line of injustice and tragedy that shows no sign of ending, I am also thinking of how I am wrapped in the protection of my skin color.
There have been so many times I might have had a similar incident--the taillight I didn’t realize was out, the misjudged yellow light--the thousand and one little things that might have gotten me into trouble but didn’t. I’m thinking of the many times I’ve wandered through a store “just looking, thanks,” without being followed, or how I walk down the street without worrying that someone might decide to question my freedom to do that. There was a Saturday when Dr. D. and I ate a Formaggio barbecue lunch on a picnic bench in front of a nearby school: the school was closed, but there was a “no trespassing” sign, and we were aware of the privilege we felt in our white skin to do this small, harmless thing.
When my crosswalk incident took place, Michael Brown was alive and well, spending summer evenings with friends and getting ready to start college. In the weeks since then, and especially now in the days since Michael Brown’s death, I find myself in daily interactions wondering if I would be treated the same way if I were black. A stupid question, I know, insensitive, societally tone-deaf.
I’ve decided to do a very small thing. I bought some white ribbon and black ribbon and pinned a snip of each on my shirt. It’s an outward sign of my sadness, not unlike the torn black ribbon Jewish mourners wear when a family member has died. It is also, I hope, an invitation to a conversation. I hope I will be asked about it, so I can say I’m wearing it because I am heartbroken over what took place in Ferguson and because I realize I have the unearned protection of white privilege and that I hope the people I meet during my day who treat me with courtesy and respect would do the same if I were black.
It’s a tiny thing, subtle and maybe totally inconsequential, and, I hope, not presumptuous. I am wearing it today for the first time, and I feel a little nervous, a little self-conscious, a little uneasy about whether anyone will react and how I will respond. I’m going to wear it for 100 days. It’s a personal response, but if you see me, I’ll have ribbon with me in case you want some, too.
Labels: Ferguson, Michael Brown