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

6 Comments

  1. I was deeply saddened reading the personal experience of Dr. Child’s and his salesman friend. However, I believe I have learned more about privilege from reading the story and reviewing the resources. As a white woman, I am privileged in many aspects of my day to day life that sometimes I do not even realize; this is not fair or just. As a future teacher, reading this article inspires me to want to teach about privilege in my classroom. The resource listed called “A Privilege Lesson Plan,” features a lesson plan that may be taught to children and adults. It includes a wonderful activity where each student must crumple up a piece of paper and throw it into a waste bin. However, the bin is placed at the front of the class and each student must shoot from their seat, so students sitting closer to the bin will have a  greater chance to be successful at throwing the paper into the bin. I think this is a great activity to help people, especially children, understand white privilege.

  2. This story opened my eyes. I have never thought of white privilege as the lack of being stopped for driving while black. I think we need to keep talking about the tough subjects in this country. We cannot keep sweeping it under the rug.

  3. While as a white female I have never personally faced this, my fiancé who is black was pulled over outside of our house one night as he was coming home from work for no reason either. This was an awful experience for him, the officer questioned him and did not appear to initially believe him that he lived there until he showed him his license with his address. This event made me much more aware of my white privilege, I knew that this wasn’t something that I would ever have to worry about experiencing. The discussion about race and white privilege is one that make many people uncomfortable but I think it is so important to have the conversation with everything going on in today’s society. I will never know what it feels like to profiled based on nothing other then my skin color but I understand that many will and I will stand beside them while their voices are heard.

  4. As a white woman I cannot personally speak to the inequality people of color have to face in this country. I hear about it, see it even, but it doesn’t happen to me. It’s because of this that I don’t believe it’s fair for me or any other white person to tell any person of color that white privilege isn’t a thing. It absolutely is. The fact that we don’t understand what it’s like to be profiled for the color of our skin, to be unfairly stopped because of the way we look, to fearing for our lives because of the race we were born is all the reasoning that is needed to prove that white privilege is a thing. It’s a shield of sorts; one that I’m ashamed isn’t spread to fit everyone.

  5. This article just gave me so much information that I was never aware of. This country is so divided and it’s so real and something I never really stopped to think about or consider how I am considered of white privilege. I see myself and all other people of color the same, but not everyone else sees it that way. I understand and see why this is such a huge problem and as a future teacher, I need to make my students aware of the sadness in our country and make the change. I need to teach students that everyone is the same, no matter what color skin we have and we all deserve to be treated equally.

  6. This article brought so much knowledge to me that I did not fully understand. The term white privilege that you talk about is part of that knowledge. Before reading this article, I understood that white privilege isn’t just about white people thinking they are better than others, however, I don’t think I ever fully knew what it actually did mean. This article in itself allowed me to understand exactly what I was missing. I think this is something that needs to be taught about and understood by everyone, no matter their age. As future teachers, we are the ones that will make a big impact on other adults kids, and teaching them about white privilege is one of those things will make a big, positive, lasting impact on them.

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