The Night I Realized How Much I Benefit from White Privilege
Posted by Caitlyn Martin
March 9, 2016
Trigger warnings: police brutality, racism, violence
I have a 20-year-old hand-me-down car that I absolutely love. Its name is Flacco, after my NFL team’s quarterback, and it’s a ’95 purple Ford Thunderbird with a V8 engine that I might get a little carried away with on long, empty roads sometimes. Like any older car, it requires a bit of extra maintenance. Shortly before my grandparents gave it to me, they had a new engine put in. Fairly recently, I replaced the battery.
Even more recently, one of my headlights went out. Unaware of this fact, I drove to the gas station about a mile down the road one night. On the way back, I saw the lights start flashing and heard the siren and for the first—and so far, the only—time in my life, I was pulled over.
The speed limit on that stretch of road is 50 miles per hour and I was 99% sure I wasn’t speeding, so I had no idea what was going on. I rolled down my window, already starting to panic. As things unfolded and the officer told me my left headlight was out and that he would have to write me a ticket, I burst into tears. I knew someone who’d gotten a ticket for one of her headlights being out and it was $168. $168 for one headlight.
“I can’t afford that!” I cried before rambling on about my various expenses. “I have to buy groceries and feed my cat and I have to pay rent and power because those are due soon and now I have to pay to have my headlight replaced. I can’t, I can’t do it.” My anxiety was taking over completely and I was sure the cop would just write me off as a teary-eyed girl trying to cry her way out of a ticket.
To my surprise, he backtracked almost immediately. He said that since this was my first offense, he would let me off with a warning as long as I promised to get my headlight fixed. He handed back my license, told me to drive safely the rest of the way home, and that was the end of our interaction.
Not only was that my first time getting pulled over, it was also my first time truly realizing how much I benefit from white privilege. I’ve known for years that I benefit from it, but I had never really been struck by it until that night.
Here is a comprehensive list of unarmed black people killed by police in 2015 alone. One that jumped out to me was number 37: “Stewart was in the passenger seat when the car who rode in was stopped by police for a broken headlight. Authorities said he was placed in the back of a patrol car, unhandcuffed, while officers ran his name.” Darrius Stewart was shot and killed during this traffic stop because police thought he was someone else, someone who had multiple outstanding warrants.
My reaction to this was not that could have been me or I guess I just got lucky, because those thoughts wouldn’t have been true in the slightest. Yes, our situations seem similar on the surface—we were both pulled over for a headlight not working—but they are entirely different. As a white woman, an officer wouldn’t think twice about my presence in a car with a broken headlight; he never would have generalized my appearance to fit the description of a convicted felon. I was at little to no risk of being asked or forced out of my car. There was absolutely no reason to have Darrius get out of his car, let alone put him in the police car, simply for being a young, black male who- to the arresting officer- could have easily been a criminal. It couldn’t have been me because it wouldn’t have been me and I didn’t get lucky because, due to my skin color, I was never in danger.
Racial justice is reproductive justice. Knowing your child is safe, no matter how old or far away they are, is an important aspect of reproductive justice. My parents will never have to worry about my safety at the hands of the police because I am white, and police brutality isn’t even on my parents’ list of Caitlyn-related concerns. I hope to see a day where this is true for parents of all races.