Driving While Black: Musings on White Privilege

Traffic Stop (ACLU Iowa) https://www.aclu-ia.org/en/news/lets-stop-racist-pretextual-traffic-stops


Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

A Tale of Two Black Men
As I entered into the used car dealership I was already experiencing fatigue having gone into several other establishments in search of the perfect car for the perfect price. There was one more dealership I wanted to try before I called it a day. I had just gotten off of work and had on business attire. When I walked in I saw friendly faces but was even more pleased when the salesman that was helping me was an African American like myself, probably about ten years my senior. He seemed like a great guy. He seemed genuine. Furthermore, he was quite accomplished, had a great family and was even an ordained minister. He liked sales because he was a people person and liked the daily interactions. We instantly hit it off. He even knew some of the same people that I knew. So this put me at ease.

It was not long before I selected a car that I liked and he urged me to test drive it. It was a relatively new car, only a few years old. He suggested that we drive to another of their lots in a nearby city about fifteen minutes away to check out their other inventory of cars. I thought this was a great idea. About a third of the way into the trip -while in a residential area, a police officer pulled in behind us and began to follow us. It was not long before he turned on his flashing lights. My new friend and I exchanged glances as we saw the flashing lights behind us. The non-verbals between us went something like “Here we go again” and “I cannot believe this is happening again.” I looked down at my speed-o-meter and I was not speeding. I thought back to the less than fifteen minutes of driving I had done. I had not run any red lights or stop signs and I had used all of my proper signaling. After we pulled over, the officer walked up to the car and was very candid. “The reason I am pulling you over is that this is an area where frequent drug deals take place and you guys fit the description.” So think about this. Two black men in a new car, both dressed in suits and ties, a professor and a clergyman and still all the officer saw was two drug dealers. Well my new friend and I relaxed ourselves (Because this was not our first rodeo) and I spoke to the officer calmly. After he took our licenses and ran our names through the system he let us go.

The Notion of White Privilege is Misunderstood
The reason I wanted to share my story and be so transparent is to help readers understand the euphemism “driving while black.” Yes, white folks get pulled over for unjust causes. And they too are pulled over for arbitrary reasons. But never are they pulled over for the color of their skin. Driving while black also points to the notion of “White privilege.” One privilege White folks have  -of many, is that they do not have to ever worry about getting pulled over or killed by the police in the United States because of the color of their skin.        

When many people hear the phrase “White privilege” they are immediately offended and say things such as “I have never been privileged” and “I worked for everything I have ever gotten.” Another common phrase is “No one ever handed me anything in life.” But these common phrases in reaction to the notion of White privilege miss the point entirely. White privilege is not about being privileged in the conventional sense. That is, it is not speaking of privilege in the sense of saying all White folks are wealthy and do not have anything to worry about, or that they are born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouth. If that is the sense of privilege folks are thinking about, then it is understandable why they would be so upset. To be a human in and of itself is a struggle. But, there seems to be a critical mass of working class whites that are resentful of the notion of privilege because they are viewing it in the traditional sense.

However, when scholars and educators discuss the notion of White privilege they mean certain advantages Whites have in the United States of America by the simple fact that they are White. There was nothing my friend and I could have done to change the outcome of our run-in with the officer. We simply were existing and going about our daily lives and were targeted. White folks have the privilege of not having to go through that because they happen to be of a lighter hue. In this way, privilege has nothing to do with “how hard someone works” or whether or not someone “handed something to them.” We have to own the fact that there are some advantages afforded to folks in the US by virtue of simply having less melanin in their skin. This is based on the historical legacy of slavery, racism and White supremacy in this country. The Teaching Tolerance website describes it in this way, “White privilege is—perhaps most notably in this era of uncivil discourse—a concept that has fallen victim to its own connotations. The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback. 1) The word White creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And 2) the word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.” 

Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking essay describes White privilege as “an invisible knapsack… of unearned assets that” White people “can count on cashing in each day, but about which one was “meant” to remain oblivious to.” She goes on to say that there are a whole host of things White people do not have to worry about simply because they are White. On the other hand, African Americans have difficulty finding the proper hair products for their hair texture, finding a barber or hairdresser, locating band-aids that match their skin tone or purchasing dolls or children’s books that reflect their background, all because much of the world is designed for White people. Other more costly challenges for Black people include not being able to secure home loans, apartments or jobs due to the color of their skin. On top of all of that, African Americans have to worry about being racially profiled (like I was) with the added pressure of knowing that profiling could cost them their very life. 

So What?
The sad commentary of this situation is that the story I shared is just one of a lifetime of discriminatory experiences I have had. In fact, this was one of the lighter instances where I made it through relatively unscathed. I am just one individual, there are Black Americans that experience this regularly as well all over the country.

The philosophical tradition of critical race theory encourages people to tell their stories in order to “name one’s own reality” and “illuminate and explore experiences of racial oppression.” In this way, stories like mine and others can help people be more empathic and identify with African Americans on a human level. In the K-12 and university setting educators should take heed to their own biases in classrooms. White educators can also own their privilege and use it to empower their students and other people in their world. Here are a few resources that teachers can use to broach the tough subject of white privilege.   

Toolkit for “What Is White Privilege, Really?”
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack By Peggy McIntosh
Confronting White Privilege
Lesson Plan: Examining White Privilege
White Privilege Glasses Discussion Guide
A Lesson in White Privilege
How Well-Intentioned White Families Can Perpetuate Racism
A Privilege Lesson Plan
How Should I Talk about Race in My Mostly White Classroom?
How Legos helped build a classroom lesson on white privilege
White Privilege Resource Guide

3 Comments

  1. A very powerful article. One that humbles me. Thank you for making me think outside the box and making me search deep within.

    • Extremely illuminating. ‘The power of normal’, ‘The power of the benefit of the doubt’, these subconscious social realisms now have a name for me. Explaining what white-privilege is ‘not’, great pathway to embrace in order to stay on track. Phenomenal article thank you kindly.

    • Extremely illuminating. ‘The power of normal’, ‘The power of the benefit of the doubt’, these subconscious social realisms now have a name for me. Explaining what white-privilege is ‘not’, great pathway to embrace in order to stay on track. Phenomenal article thank you kindly. NT-

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