I woke up on the weekend and read pieces about Sandra Bland, the well-founded fear friends have about something as simple as driving, because driving while black changes everything, and the anger raised in many white people who are having a difficult time with the concept of white privilege.
I may be a Canadian living in Canada ruminating on American news, but the United States is not the only place where people are stopped for being the wrong colour. Canada is not so different as we pretend it is from the United States, as though we are some kind of better educated and more compassionate cousin. We're not.
I looked out a bedroom window at my parents-in-law's house and reflected — both physically and mentally, as that's my arm hovering in the top photo — on the relatively high level of comfort and safety I am afforded because I am white. I can get in my car and drive anywhere. It is rare that I will be stopped, and, when I am, the police will usually just look at my license, ask me how my day is going, and wish me well. I assume this kind of easy interaction with police officers as my norm, because that is how I and most people I know are treated by them.
I also know that this isn't everyone's norm.
In high school, I was out with some friends, a group of First Nations boys from a nearby town. They were kind to me, and they laughed easily. We played cards and drank beer in Joe's tiny apartment a few blocks from my school. Joe dated a friend of mine, but he shared his poetry with me sometimes if we were left alone for long enough.
One evening, I was bored and looking for something to do, so I asked if I could tag along when I saw them getting into a car. They said it probably wasn't a good idea, but no one would say why, so I got into the car anyway. They looked hesitant and warned me that I should just be quiet and stand still if anything happened with the police. I didn't understand what they were talking about — why would police bother us if we were just going out for a drive? — but I promised I'd be cool if anything happened.
It felt so like clockwork it may as well have been planned. We were stopped by the police about half an hour later. The officers asked all of us to get out of the car. While one of them patted down my friends, the other took me aside to ask if I felt safe. He told me I shouldn't be friends with "these kinds of people". He asked me what my father would think and if he knew I was out with these boys. I lied and said my father would be fine with it.
The officers went over the entire car inch by inch. They emptied the trunk, took out the spare tire, and ripped out the trunk's carpeted lining. They pulled all the seat covers off the front and back seats. They stood up close to our backs and went through our pockets, not satisfied with the pat-down, their breath hot on our necks. They shone lights in our eyes. They accused my friends of being high. They weren't.
By the time the officers were done with their roadside harassment, everything not physically attached to the car's body was scattered out in a blast pattern around us on the dirt road. Everything in the glove compartment had been tossed out into the dark, lost in the overgrown ditch grass.
I stood off to the side and smoked a cigarette to keep myself occupied while I shook out my fear. The whole ordeal had taken maybe 20 minutes, but it felt like hours had passed. My friends were so quiet now. I had never seen them look like this. They looked down and away from me with their shoulders slouched forward into their chests. I offered to help put the car back together, but they wouldn't let me help. Instead, each of them mumbled soft apologies for what had happened.
"But it's not your fault," I said. "You didn't do anything." I felt guilty. I was sure my white face in a car full of brown faces is what got us pulled over.
"No. We knew it could happen," Joe said.
"But why'd they stop you?"
"They do it once a week," Joe said. "Sometimes more. They don't like us in town. They'll do it twice in the same night if they see us again."
There was a palpable shame pooled around us in the dark. We swam in it, and I felt sick. We were suddenly on two sides now, by friendship and by colour, and I couldn't lift my eyes to look back at them, either. The police had drawn a clear and heavy border around me and around them. We were separate things from each other.
Slumped into the shallow breathing of guarded animals, we rode in silence until they dropped me off at home. I stayed outside until late, laid out in the grass while I watched my cigarette cherry burn bright against the stars.
I'd seen pride pulled from young men I loved, and I was this foolish, ignorant kid. I could do what I wanted with the knowledge that I would be kept relatively safe. I could ride in any car, and no one would aggressively define the unwritten limits of my freedom by going through my vehicle every week. I was a good, white girl. They were bad, brown Indians. This was small-town Saskatchewan in the 1980s.
I saw Joe and the others rarely after that. They told me they felt like our friendship would cause trouble, both for me and for them, and now it's been over 25 years since I have seen any of those boys, now men. I have never known what to do with our friendship and eventual estrangement. The racism I still hear and see all these years later from relatives, news organizations, the Canadian government, and others tells me that it is unlikely much has changed.
I wonder if they're still stopped every week, if they're patted down in the isolation of dark country roads where no one else is there to witness what it can be like to drive while brown. Judging by the racism I see coming from the government, police, and the Canadian and American governments, I doubt much has changed. If you go by the numbers, it's worse than you might think.
I have been angry about it, and I have been sad. I have worried about how I might have contributed to the seeming comfort those cops felt with such routine harassment. I wonder what I do to contribute to that system now.
What this incident has amounted to for me personally, though, is just this: an uncomfortable interaction with the police that happened 25 years ago. It was a one-time deal I haven't told anyone about, because it felt so terrible, so brutal, to see this kind of racist harassment perpetrated against people I loved in person. There are thousands and millions of people who experience this kind of thing every day, but I was new to it, and I felt complicit somehow, guilty by association. Those cops looked like my uncles.
I am older now, though, and I am smarter. It's not about me being scared or feeling guilty or not knowing how to talk about racism, because, frankly, fuck my discomfort. Fuck white discomfort.
My friends revisited this incident every week before, and likely continued to every week after, I knew them. For Joe and company, this was a typical Tuesday because they chose to drive down a country road even though their skin permanently branded them as the wrong kind of men. As a white girl from the right kind of place, I have had a single story about an uncomfortable car search and a few lost teenage friendships.
Now I get to ruminate on the relative safety of whiteness while I look out a sunny window. I move freely without even thinking about how I am not a perpetual suspect. I don't have police officers questioning me about what my white daddy thinks anymore. I was literally born to inherit a higher level of comfort and safety in a culture whose very existence relies on the fact that it denies whole subsets of the population that same privilege.
I don't know what comes next. I don't know how to make sure we are all protected equally under the law in Canada and the United States, let alone truly be seen as equal citizens. I do know that talking about it is a start, though. Document racism, spread the word, educate those who aren't aware, and listen to the people who live this particular madness every day:
- "Say Something" by Karen Walrond at Chookooloonks
- "On the Death of Sandra Bland and Our Vulnerable Bodies" by Roxane Gay at The New York Times
- "The Long Way Home: On the death of Sandra Bland and driving while black" by Heather Barmore at Medium
- "Manning: Sarah Lee Circle Bear Died While in Police Custody; Family Seeks Justice" by Sarah Sunshine Manning at Indian Country Today Media Network
- "Letter To My Mother After Charleston" by Carvell Wallace at The Toast
- "Sandra Bland Committed the Crime of Arrogance" by Lezlie Bishop at The Broad Side
- "As a Black Mom Raising a Brown Boy, I’m Bracing For the ‘N-word’" by Mary Mack at Ms. Mary Mack
- "Black Lives Matter, Cecil the Lion, & Selective Outrage" by Ijeoma Oluo at Storify
- Driving While Brown at Collective Opposed to Police Brutality (This website is in French. I used Google Translate to read it.)
I got to walk away 25 years ago, and I get the privilege of walking away every time I am not stopped and questioned for driving while brown now. Joe didn't, and likely still doesn't, get to walk away. Sandra Bland didn't get to drive to her new job after the attending officers waved her on after a traffic stop. Heather can't feel like a protected citizen in her own country.
I don't know what comes next, but talking about it is a start, even if, and sometimes especially if, you're white.