Friday, December 5, 2014

My experience with racial profiling

There has been a lot of talk recently about the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement. Growing up, this was never something that crossed my mind. I trusted the police. I knew that when something was wrong, you were supposed to call them and they would help you. I, being a white female, grew up in a town nicknamed "White Islip". It's 98.6% white. I graduated with with 450 white, Catholic, Italian or Irish kids. I'm pretty sure we had one Asian kid and one guy who had a black dad and white mom and a few half-Jews. But that was about it.

We lived a very sheltered life. I remember sitting in Mr. Chizik's world history class. He was the first person to ever tell us that our lives were the exception, not the rule. We were shocked to learn that Catholicism was not the number one religion in the country. He also told us that unless we inherited our homes from our parents, there was a pretty slim chance we'd be able to afford to buy a house in that town one day.

All of my thoughts changed when I moved to Washington, DC to go to American University. I know the exact moment that I got it. Sophomore year I was getting ready with my girlfriends to go to party off campus. We texted our friend JB who was offering sober rides to the party. JB is probably the nicest sweetest guy you could possibly imagine. He'd do anything for you. JB also happens to be a big black guy. JB was studying criminal justice with intentions to go to law school. He took his academics very seriously and studied hard. He was the president of his (all white) fraternity and he was everybody's friend. But tonight, JB was just hanging out. He had on his slick flat brimmed hat and oversized shirt. He pulled up in his BMW to the front of our dorm while 6 girls stood there in our cute little outfits.

We knew he couldn't fit all of us at once, but jokingly, we opening the back door and started piling in laying flat on top of each other with our legs hanging outside the door. JB laughed and told us to get out and he'd make two trips. Just then, campus security came running up to the car yelling. JB immediately took the keys out of the ignition and put them on the dash. "That was weird", I thought. I said "Officer, relax, we were kidding." He told all of the girls to get out of the car and sit on the sidewalk in silence. "What the heck? We didn't do anything wrong!" JB looked at me to be quiet.

For the next fifteen minutes the officer berated JB about where he was going, why he had all of these girls in his car, and where he lived. He wanted to search the car. He asked for both JB's drivers license and his student ID. JB gave him all the information he needed and was overly polite, way nicer than I would have been. I was fuming because I thought it was totally ridiculous. JB said to the security officer, "Sir, what have we done wrong?" The officer said, "You can't drive with that many people in the car!" JB calmly replied, "Sir, that's a moving violation. We were parked with the doors still open. So again, I ask, what crime have I committed?" The officer said "Oh, we'll think of something."

Just then, he called backup to "deal" with our "situation". When backup arrived, a white guy driving an SUV pulled up right in front of us. They opened the back hatch to the car and about 9 sorority girls jumped in. JB said "Sir, aren't you going to do anything about that?" The officer replied "Oh, we have our hands full with you right now!" JB asked for the officers badge number. He said "That's none of your business!" JB replied "Actually sir, I'm studying criminal justice and interning with the Justice Department. I know what my rights are and you have to provide me with your badge number."

Eventually the campus security officer let us go and let JB take four of us. All four white girls sitting in that car were silent. We all knew why that happened. None of us had ever seen that happen before. We didn't know what to do or what to say. Do we apologize to JB? Do we ask if he's OK? Do we ask if this has happened before? I felt like crying. I had lived my whole life with a privilege I never knew I had until that moment. JB broke the silence. He said, "Girls, it's ok. Go have fun at the party. I'm going to drop you off and I'm going to go back there and file a report with the head of public safety." We begged him to let us go with him, but he wanted to go alone.

I think about that day a lot. It has given me a new perspective on my own white privilege. I joke about how I've been pulled over 8 or 9 times and I've only received 2 tickets, but I know I'm the exception, not the rule. You can see thousands of examples of this if you follow #CrimingWhileWhite on Twitter. I don't think things can change until each of us "gets it".