“Uh Oh, They’re Following Us” The Fear of Driving While Black in America

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

Black History month is a time of the year to uncover and highlight some of the of the history that has been hidden or lost in the annals of time. It is also a time to shed light on some of the racial injustice that has gone on all to long in the US. This Black history month we will offer a series of articles that highlights little known Black history and culture, and at times expose injustice and also offer resources and materials for teachers and for those that want to explore history further. For this first article in the series we will republish an article that sheds some light on a great injustice in our country.

Originally published July 17, 2020 as “Driving While Black: Musings on White Privilege”

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.

By Esau McCaulley Covenant Living.Org

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.  

By UCF Today (University of Florida) 2020

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.” 

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  1. I find this true event very shocking. I think the world forgets how White people have it easier than Black people just because of the color of our skin. I found it interesting when the article talked about White privilege and how it means we are privileged just by the color of our skin. I often forget how privileged I am and how easy I have it, which is sad.

  2. The story about the 2 men being pulled over truly had me speechless. I have no understanding of how it feels to be pulled over for the color of my skin or “fitting the description”. It is very disheartening that people of color are scared to do every day tasks such as driving or even going to work. I have always heard of the term “white privilege” but have never been very knowledgeable about it. What is meant by this, is that privilege does not mean we are handed everything or wealth, it means that white people have a privilege of not having to go through certain hardships solely based on the color of our skin.

    • Thank you for reading this. This is my story. One of the men `was me. I am glad you got something from the story. Keep up the good work.

  3. I can hear stories like this a hundred times and still feel like I won’t understand how often it occurs. I have understood the general idea of white privilege for a long time but in putting it under scrutiny lately I’ve seen how many things I don’t realize are included. As someone who spent some years of his life doing things and driving in places that should get the cops attention, I can tell you I always tried to look as pallatable as I could. I “fit the description” of someone who came to these areas for the wrong reasons and I was never hassled. There have obviously been serious incidents involving police and people of color since this article was written and they underscore the point that even when I was trying to avoid cops I never worried about my life being in danger. We have seen over and over that African Americans in this country do not have that privilege. The article also does a good job explaining why the terminology seems offensive to some. The way it is portayed by the media and by politicians that oppose the idea is not a genuine representation of what it means. Unfortunately, that is a battle that can seem as important as the issue itself.

  4. Hearing that someone else has gone through the same situation not once but many times is so disheartening. When I was 17 my dad got pulled over by the police and I thought that that was the day that he was going to die. My heart sank to my toes and I started silently crying in the backseat. He wasn’t speeding or doing anything wrong but d.w.b in a gated neighborhood where we were visiting my friend. The first thing the officer asked when he got to the window was if my dad was armed while one hand rested on a gun and the other had a flashlight in hand. Nothing physically bad happened, but my whole family is mentally scarred and it just adds to the sadly normalized black experience in America. Its sad that from a young age we have to be taught how to conduct ourself during a traffic stop so that we don’t die.

  5. I think the second part of your story is a crazy scenario and unfortunately, I think it’s becoming more common. I hear a lot with my co-workers randomly getting pulled over for nothing, besides the color of their skin is what they conclude. It’s sad to think we still live in a society where this is something people still have to go through. I think the explanation of white privilege here helps people understand the meaning behind it. Many people do get very offended when this phrase is said, but this was a great way to describe it so people actually understand what is being said.

  6. Wow, what a sad story to hear. It should never happen that someone be pulled over or stereotyped as a “drug dealer” because of the color of their skin. This is definitely an aspect of the “white privilege” that is mentioned later in the article. Which is also awful to hear how many people get offended when they are coined with the term “white privilege” because they do not realize that they are not being stereotyped in every thing they do, or every place they go. So sad to think that people cannot go a day without thinking of what might happen to them just because of the color of their skin.

  7. I totally understand why “white privilege” might be offensive to white people, but it is a privilege they enjoy when they believe it or not. As a black person, you are always a suspect and even when they are not coming for you, you get defensive because you’ve surviving in that way for a while so that because the normal. When a cop is behind, I feel intimidated because they even approach me because I know things can turn out badly in a second. I didn’t choose my skin color so why do I have to be on the edge at the sight of them? Being doesn’t make me a criminal or I’m related to one, there are criminal and I bet they are not generalized.

  8. I totally understand why “white privilege” might be offensive to white people but it is a privilege they enjoy when they believe it or not. As a black person, you are always a suspect and even when they are not coming for you, you get defensive because you’ve surviving in that way for a while so that because the normal. When I cop behind, I feel intimidated because they even approach me because I know things can turn out badly in a second.

  9. I found this article very eye-opening. As a white female, I have heard the term “white privilege” many times, but I never understood how deep the meaning behind that word goes. I also knew that white privilege was not being wealthy, and rather it is not having to worry about things that those of a different race have to worry about. However, I have never even thought of the fact that just by driving while black, you can be classified as something you are not. From now on, I will keep this in mind while diving because it has giving me a higher level of respect for other races.

  10. The story of the two men of color getting pulled over due to “fitting the description” really helped put white privilege into perspective. Not only did it momentarily place me into their shoes, but it made me worry for them as I have heard so many stories regarding run-ins with people of color and cops. I was relieved when I read that they were able to leave that experience safely. I understand that I have white privilege, and unfortunately there are many people out there that refuse to acknowledge theirs. The description of white privilege from the Teaching Tolerance I found especially powerful, saying, “The word White creates discomfort among those that are not used to being defined or described by their race.” That is such an interesting perspective that I didn’t see until now! This seems very true in my experience, having discussed this issue on several occasions.

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