I had never been pulled over before. I try, generally, to follow traffic rules and drive safely, but I’m probably not that much better at driving than most people. I refuse to text and drive but I’m definitely guilty of speeding to get where I’m going because I hate wasting time. I used be a timid, conservative driver, but then I moved to Atlanta and it was all downhill. In Atlanta, I’ve learned how to honk and throw my hands up exasperatedly. Somehow, though, I’ve managed to avoid getting pulled over, and I have my white skin to thank, at least in part. White people don’t get pulled over by police for “looking suspicious.” Partially, I’m lucky to have avoided traffic cameras at red lights and overzealous cops, but also, I’m white in a society that favors white people.
However, this past weekend, as I returned from a writing retreat in North Carolina (blog post coming soon!), I found myself completely zoned out, unaware of the speed limit and gliding absentmindedly through the mountains of North Georgia. I looked in my rearview mirror to find a cop tailing me, and I panicked a bit, wondering how long he’d been following me. I slowed down a bit and got into the right lane. A minute later though, he put on his lights and merged behind me. I sighed, said a few choice words, and slowed to the shoulder.
I always thought I would cry when I got pulled over. I hate breaking the rules, but I hate getting in trouble for breaking the rules even more. Maybe it’s a tribute to my five years of weekly therapy, but I found myself relatively calm upon being pulled over for the first time. As I waited for the police officer to come to the window of my car, though, the faces of all the black men who have been shot in similar traffic stops flashed through my mind. Next to me, I had a backpack, full of books and my computer from my retreat. I rifled through it to find my wallet, thinking that, if I were a black man, this would be an incredibly dangerous action, my hands and the contents of my bag hidden.
It was a strange moment, anxiously thinking of all the ways black people are unsafe around police while also knowing those things wouldn’t happen to me. When the officer asked for my proof of insurance, I had to open my center console to find it. Again, I thought, what suspicions would this rouse in this police officer’s mind if I were black? Is this the moment when I would be shot, just for trying to comply and find my insurance card?
The police officer took my license and returned to his car to run it. I sat comforted, knowing that I had no prior traffic violations and no pending criminal or civil issues. If I were black, though, I might have found myself panicking, remembering a matter for which I had been unjustly or disproportionately charged. As a white middle-upper class woman, I am highly unlikely to be arrested. I’ve been to protests. I’ve yelled in the street, blocking traffic and demanding human rights. I’ve trespassed, stolen street signs, hung out in parks after dark, and other adolescent debauchery. But even if I had been caught by a police officer in any of those moments, I most likely would’ve been free to go with a slap on the wrist. And that’s exactly what happened in this traffic stop.
The officer returned my license to me, and, as he did so, he asked, “When was your last race?” It took me a minute to realize what he meant, but as I remembered my 26.2 and 13.1 bumper stickers, I told him I had run a half marathon in November. “Well, that’s farther than I can run!” he joked. I probably came off entirely aloof because of how shocked I was at his attempt at comradery. I knew this would never happen to a black person. After our awkward exchange, he simply told me to keep my speed under control and drive carefully. That was it. No ticket, no nothing. I felt a mixture of relief and guilt that it had been that easy. All I had to do was be a cute white girl willing to make small talk, and I was home free.
As I continued south down US-23, my mind reeled. The faces of Tamir Rice, Freddie Grey, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile swirled around in my head. I was no better than these men, but here I was, alive and well, driving away from a routine traffic stop without consequence.