By JENNIFER STEUER
Each time I see a car pulled over and police lights flashing, I slow down and look. I used to do this out of sheer curiosity. Now I slow down and wonder if I should stop completely. I wonder if the person being pulled over really committed an offense worthy of being pulled over. I wonder if this traffic stop is going to result in a battered driver, a passenger with bruises, or will it end with a fatality? Will this traffic stop be what puts Albany on the map with other cities that have had an officer-involved death?
On my way home from grocery shopping recently, there was a car pulled over by a New York State Trooper. I slowed down a little and looked; rubber-necked like most of the other cars on the road. I’m grateful that I am not the one pulled over. I’m grateful that I am not the one trying to gauge the officer’s mood. I am wondering how the Black driver feels reaching for his insurance, license and registration. I am looking at the driver of the car wondering if he is as scared as everyone else who gets pulled over, or is he more afraid because of the color of his skin.
I noticed a look of desperation driving past the two stopped cars. The driver looked like he was afraid. The police officer was afraid. Neither wants to become the next story to fly across our country (possibly the world) faster than a California wildfire in July. I saw for a few seconds, that these two men were sizing up one another. Each man was tired of being the bad guy. Were they tired of wondering if this traffic stop was going to be the last for both of them? Uncertainty was palpable in those few moments.
I drove by and felt something that, I think, is my white privilege. My middle-aged, white woman privilege is not an absolute power, but it certainly could help me. I saw a young man sitting in the driver’s seat and wondered what he may have done to catch the attention of the state trooper. I wondered if this man has run a red light, was he speeding or possibly was he driving a stolen car. Was I thinking this way because he is Black? Was I thinking this way because I am white, like the trooper? Was all my white privilege oozing out of the minivan as I drove by? Judging the driver and cop took maybe all of five seconds. Judging my actions and reactions is taking me so much longer and is so much scarier.
I am trying to identify what I felt seeing this traffic stop. I’m trying to unpack all the feelings I have about this because I want to believe that I am not racist. I am saying “want to believe” because as much as I am sure I am not racist, maybe there are parts of me that don’t see the light of day. Am I guilty of micro-aggressions? The pent up emotions start to come forward and I wonder if I have white-washed my memories. What part of me could I pull out and really study to see if my life was any comparison to a Black person? I had nothing. My memories are white-washed because I am white. I am part of the problem.
Those five seconds I was able to see the two cars on the side of the busy road on the hottest and longest day of the year. I thought of something but didn’t act on it: Should I stop? Why would I stop, this is none of my business? My brain whispered: This is your business. I wasn’t sure how to help. Would I make the situation worse? Would I be putting the kids in danger? I drove on.
Why would I stop? Again with a whisper: Use your privilege. I have no idea what the whispering part of my mind thinks I could do. I am one person with no idea how to change this world. My middle-aged, white woman privilege is slowing me down because I wanted to bear witness for this young man. I wanted to pull over and start recording the interaction between the state trooper and driver. I wanted to be a witness in case something went wrong. I thought that if I could record what was happening I might be able to help that young man. Was he pulled over for a serious infraction or simply “driving while Black?” Would I have been helping him or would I be making it worse? Back and forth in my mind … this moment lasted all of five seconds … but this uncertainty of my reactions and my behavior keeps overwhelming me.
I chose the coward’s way. I chose to spare my kids from seeing what might happen. I chose to keep them away from bullets that might fly. I chose to keep my family out of harm’s way. This is white privilege. The fact that I had a CHOICE whether or not I would stop is white privilege.
For the next few days I looked in the newspaper and watched the local news to see if there were any reports of a traffic stop gone wrong. I didn’t see anything but that doesn’t mean no one was hurt. It could mean that nothing was reported. Wait and see, maybe it will get better, maybe next year, maybe in the next decade … maybe never. I want to believe that the times are changing, but it is taking too long.
The desire to help Black Lives Matter shouldn’t mean we march around about yelling “No justice. No peace” for a few days and then go about our busy lives … until the next time. And we all know that there will be a next time. The very fact that Black children, Black men and Black women are being shot in their homes, beaten on the street or having their life squeezed out by a choke hold or knee is unacceptable. A pervasive fear of violence by the very people who are supposed to be protecting society must be terrifying. The call to arms for Black Lives Matter should not make the white men, women and children afraid. Black Lives Matter should empower all of us with the realization we continue to need to push for equal rights because the rights of Blacks and whites are NOT equal.
“We the people” in the U.S. Constitution is for ALL of us or it is for none of us. When a Black man, woman or child makes the assertions that our society has held them to alternate standards, those in power lay out all that has been done to make our country equal. Our country is not equal. We do not protect all the people. Too often, blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of Black citizens. Every fatality is analyzed and the victim is blamed in some fashion.
When Barack Obama was elected as the 44th president in the United States the world was alive with the possibilities! We thought we were so enlightened and so progressive. We were wrong. For eight years there were challenges about where he was born and roadblock after roadblock was tossed in President Obama’s path. He met each of them with style and pushed them all away.
My white privilege encompasses every part of my life. My white privilege follows me when I go to the mall or grocery store. When I lay my head at night, I rest in a cocoon of white privilege. When I put my children to bed for the night, I can bet that no one will enter my home and spray bullets. I can bet that my home will not be on the receiving end of a no-knock warrant. My family goes to bed with no idea that across town, a family is sleeping on the floor so that stray bullets don’t find them. Mothers, fathers, wives and husbands are burying their loved ones because of the color of their skin.
Black Lives Matter. Olivia, Benjamin and Rebecca are being raised the same way Harlan and I were raised: Everyone is equal. Black Lives Matter is not just a moment or a movement; it is reality that some folks just don’t understand. We must stand shoulder to shoulder (but 6 feet apart with a mask on!) and fight for equality. We must examine our white privilege and choose how to use it: for the good of the people or to keep oppressing. I choose to keep examining my life, use what I learn to do better and be better.
Jennifer Steuer is an Albany mom whose busy household includes her husband, Harlan, and 12-year-old triplets Olivia, Benjamin and Rebecca. Follow her on Instagram: jennifersteuer.