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

13 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.

  2.  In this article Dr. Childs discusses White Privilege in America, how it works, and what its implications are. Dr. Childs gives a personal example about a case of “driving while black” that he has experienced, which mirrors other stories I have heard people of color recount on different occasions.  Childs makes the point that white privilege does not necessarily mean that all white people in America are rich and without any struggles whatsoever, but that the system and society around us are predominantly structured for those of European descent. It is important for all of us as a society to constantly examine and address any inequalities that may disadvantage minority groups as we work toward a more just culture. 

  3. This article gave me chills. I love how you further explained what “white privilege” truly means. This education needs to be more widespread, as I have seen much misinformation being spread about what these two words mean.

  4. I just learned this year the explained fully idea of white privilege, I think before i thought it meant when a white person thought they were better than someone else because of their color. Or that they could get a job opportunity/other opportunity easier than someone of color. Then I learned its we have no idea how it feels to be discriminated against because we are black. Powerful story.

  5. The notion of white privilege discussed here is exactly what the phrase is meant to stand for. I appreciate that time is given in the article so that readers can understand the distinction between privilege and white privilege, as the two are certainly different. Both terms are often used incorrectly or used such that their meaning is not comprehended. Having personally been connected to lower-class white families, it’s natural that the notion of ‘privilege’ in general is immediately disliked by them, as by the traditional definition, they have never had it or worked hard to achieve any. This is a great piece that can established what exactly it means to have white skin and therefore not have to worry about certain aspects of life that those of other skin color must.

  6. Growing up in a rural area that is predominantly white, I have heard time and time again that the idea of White Privilege is fake. When I have discussions with people from my hometown about this subject, they often feel that this notion somehow discredits all the hard work they have done. Overall this is a very enlightening story and I hope to share this story with others.

  7. “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.” This line reminds me of the case of Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy with a toy gun who was racially profiled in a 911 call and that call cost him his life when the officer raced his car into the park and gunned him down. You discuss how critical race theory encourages people to tell their stories in order to name their own reality and you also mention the lack of Black representation in salons, toys, etc. I think public figures like Tyler Perry have recently raised critical awareness of the reality of Black people in America in their work. I went to the theatre last winter to watch a movie with a friend and relax. Shortly into watching, there was a scene where Perry’s character Brian and his family were pulled over by the police. The cops were fidgety and very tense until they ran his plate and realized Brian was a well-known attorney and their demeanor changed. While Perry cracked a few jokes and tried to project a serious situation in a more light-hearted way to his audience, I know the weight that the situation carries in reality.

  8. In this article Dr. Childs describes an experience that he had while searching for a new car. While test driving a new car he was looking at he, and his new friend decided to drive to the next dealership. In the middle of their ride they were interrupted by a policeman who was searching for a criminal. Using the description he had been given he pulled Dr. Childs and his friend off of the road to investigate. However, once they presented their licenses so the officer could determine that they were in fact, not the people he was looking for, they were sent on their way. Without the intention to offend anyone, Dr. Childs uses this experience to explain how this ties into white privilege and how there are so many things that we take for granted as a mostly white nation. We have no problem finding the hair products that we need or toys that represent our race, and these are just a few. These are things we take for granted because in our country it is considered what is “normal”. No hate or resentment necessarily went into how this has become normal but regardless, it has happened and it has reached so many areas of our everyday life. This is known as White Privilege.

  9. It’s really sad, but stories like this doesn’t seem to take me by surprise anymore. It is so common now, and I am upset that African Americans just need to kind of “deal with it.” However, I’m glad that we are starting to see change. It might not be much right now, but in 10 to 20 years from now, it may be a lot better. I remember in high school, when my best friend, who is black, newly got her drivers license. We were on the highway and her mom called. She didn’t want to answer the phone while driving since she was a new driver, so she pulled over to answer. A few seconds later, there were lights behind us, and my friend instantly started crying because she was scared. And I knew exactly why. When we saw that the officer was also black, we felt so much better, and it was luckily just to tell her she was too far out. But it’s so sad that our minds went to where it went.
    I get why some white folks automatically get offended when they hear the phrase “white privilege.” It could feel like an attack, or a misunderstanding saying that they’re only successful because they’re white when they actually worked hard to get where they are. But really it means that the color of their skin didn’t hold them back from being successful. But some people don’t take the time to understand the meaning. They interpret it how they want to which is disappointing.

  10. First, I want to say that I’m so sorry you have to go through things like this. I’m sickened by the fact that our country is still perceiving skin color as a way to define and/or discriminate. A few semesters I took a class called race and sexism in the educational industry and had the privilege of reading “the invisible knapsack”. It opened my eyes to so many things that I had never even thought about; like the make-up and trying to find someone who could do your hair. As a mother myself, one of the struggles that really stuck with me was a mother having to teach her young black son how to act if approached by a police officer so he wouldn’t get shot and having to worry about that constantly. I myself began to understand what white privilege actually means and began to educate the people around me about it’s true meaning; as I hope to continue to do as an educator.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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