I originally posted this piece on Medium. I was initially a bit nervous about pushback later from potential employers. I now think that was silly. I doubt an employer I’d like to work for would have an issue with my sharing this story.
I’ve decided to re-publish the piece here, slightly expanded and edited. If you had read this before, and enjoyed it, please share it or recommend it on Medium. If you disagreed, or find something I’ve said offensive, by all means share and add your opinion.
The day before Michael Brown was murdered by his hometown’s police, I was celebrating my last night (before another year out-of-state at college) in my own hometown with a close friend. We are young adults, and still have the luxury of irresponsibility, so this involved inebriants — specifically, weed and beer. I’d picked up a gram of diesel earlier in the night, and we drove to a grocery store for a six pack. I’m underage, but I decided to try something I hadn’t before. “Sorry, I can’t find my ID.” Turned out, a smile and an assurance that I was 21 and “not with the TABC” was enough. “Sweet,” I thought. “Should’ve tried that earlier.” We went back to her car.
As we were leaving the grocery, we spotted a cop car and started shit-talking like only white kids who think they’ve got nothing to fear can. We hadn’t driven a quarter mile before a different cop tailed us and flagged us down. I hurriedly stuffed the gram in my back pocket and, without time to properly hide the six pack, pushed it to the far front of the passenger side, where it would at least be somewhat out of sight. I’d stupidly left my weed grinder and one-hitter (a small, but obvious, marijuana pipe) in the side door tray. (I should say, neither of us were drunk or high in the car. I’m just that dumb.) We waited in disbelief. I sat silently, trying to ride out my panicked wave of adrenaline. She quietly muttered to herself. “This can’t be happening, this hasn’t happened to me before, this can’t be happening, this is happening…”
The first white cop exited the squad car and came over. My friend’s registration was expired. She smartly played the cute dumb girl: “I’m sorry officer, here’s my license, I don’t know how that happened, won’t happen again.” I was terrified, and she was too. The second white cop got out of the car with a flashlight and came to the passenger side.
He shined the light around the inside of the car, passing over the dash, the door, the beer, everything. It’s possible he didn’t see the drug paraphernalia literally under his nose, but it seems unlikely. If he didn’t, it’s only because he wasn’t looking for it — because nothing about us put him on alert. And there is no way he didn’t see the beer. He turned the flashlight off, and I waited for the other shoe to drop.
He said nothing about the grinder, pipe or alcohol, all of which were in plain view. We made very awkward small talk about what college I went to, and I lied unconvincingly about my graduating year.
My friend got a ticket. I wasn’t even asked my name or age, much less for my ID. Neither of us were made to leave the car.
Both me and this friend have one Hispanic parent and one white parent. We both have light skin. We both grew up speaking English, not Spanish, and although I can understand a bit, I’m far from fluent. At home we ate mostly American food. Sometimes grandma Cristina would visit and suddenly the house would be filled with tacos and fideo and gossip in Spanish, but for the most part, I grew up like any other white kid in my mostly-white neighborhood.
The day after we were stopped, my friend texted me a picture of the ticket the cop printed at the scene. Under the RACE box, the cop had printed “WHITE”. Depending on how you think of race, this could be true for us. Some in the US would consider it a mistake. I have to say that I agree with the cop. I don’t love boundaries, and have a hard time identifying as any single thing (racially, sexually, culturally). But if I had to reduce myself to a single checkbox — if I couldn’t explain my Mexicana grandma and Kentucky grandpa, if I couldn’t talk about my Spanish-speaking border-town mom and my Louisiana-raised white dad, if the gradient had to be simplified to strict colored stripes — I would check “white”. I think my friend might do the same.
But her history didn’t matter to the cop as he punched my friend’s race into the APD database. What mattered was her color.
My mother had a white father, and she “looks white,” with light skin. Her half-sister, who had a Mexican father as well as mother (my grandmother) “looks Mexican,” with dark skin and black hair. My friend’s Hispanic parent is the same—dark skin, black hair. We’d been saved, essentially, by chance. Brown skin in our families that didn’t make it to us. Some part of those tense minutes in the car hinged on a genetic fluke — hers in her conception, and mine in my mother’s — that blessed both of us with the “right” looks.
Now, I don’t know all the circumstances of our exoneration. Maybe the cops were inattentive. Maybe this sort of thing isn’t common. Maybe we were just extraordinarily lucky.
Even if those things are true, I cannot believe that little box had nothing to do with it.
When I got the photo of that ticket from my friend, I sat down. I thought about how that night might have turned out if we had gotten the darker skin of one side of the family instead of the lighter skin of the other. How much worse that could have been. I thought about how things might have gone if one or both of us was black, and how much worse than worse it all could have been. And I briefly cried.
I still don’t know quite how to feel about what happened to us that night. Relieved that we got off? Grateful that we’re white? Or ashamed? Disgusted at my own privilege? I feel all. Those cops could have screwed us over, and somehow we got a pass. How fucked up, we got a pass. Oh thank god we got a pass. I don’t think I could feel one way or the other. I don’t think I really should. To reject either would be disingenuous.
I suppose I choke up often. There are songs that reliably put a lump in my throat, and pull a tear or two from my eyes, even after hundreds of listens. A few movies, some books, and even a couple of artworks will do the same. Still, I don’t cry much. And I’ve cried over Michael Brown’s death, and the ensuing #Ferguson clusterfuck, more than once. It’s unspeakably unjust. Every headline that comes up in conversation or on the news or in Digg makes me think of that night. I think of how lucky we were, and how unlucky others (not just Brown) were — are — and the stark contrast just kills me.
How justice is served in this country is so unfair, tragic, infuriating, embarrassing, shameful, and wrong that I don’t know what else to do at the moment but shed tears. #Ferguson has confused and saddened me more. I hope good comes from all this bad, but the bad still happened, and it will stain our history. It stains us. There is no erasing or backpedaling; we can only move forward. The stain has set, and it will never fade completely.
I’m worried that we’ll forget this stain in the coming weeks and months. After all, you don’t notice the old stains on the carpet you live with, though you can still see the outlines and discoloration. They’re evident, but you normalize them. You stop noticing, at least until you spill something else and bend down to clean it up, and realize just how filthy the very ground you walk on really is.
I’ve seen a lot of media chatter about the “militarization” of our police, about chains of command and who takes responsibility for police actions, about journalists being shut down and abused, about unlawful curfews and martial law imposed on American citizens. Police with mine-resistant vehicles and assault rifles are a scary, very real problem, as is freedom of the press, as is the accountability of our public servants. I don’t want to dismiss these problems. They are important, and the events of #Ferguson have brought all of them into sharp focus. But these are not the problems that led to the tragedy of Michael Brown’s murder.
The year we re-elected our first black president, American police killed a person of color every 28 hours. Race, even if it is not the only reason, cannot be dismissed as a reason for these killings. It is difficult to say with certainty whether the white cop who killed Mike Brown is personally hateful of black people. I don’t want to believe he was looking for a reason to murder a black man, and I don’t. But that cop didn’t need to be “a racist” to feed into this racist phenomenon. When white cops pulled me and my friend over, they had reason to ask questions. I believe we were let go unquestioned because when those white cops looked into our white faces, they saw “good kids.” They saw themselves. It’s this kind of in-the-moment empathy that black and brown men and women, more often than not, don’t get.
These moments — the moment Brown and his friend were stopped in the road by white cops, the moment(s) he was shot (six times); the moment me and my friend were pulled over by different white cops, the moment we were let go — those moments are critical. They change the course, and far too often the length, of American lives.
Today, these moments pivot disproportionately in one direction for people who look like me, and in another, disastrous direction for people who look like Michael Brown. We have got to start being honest about why if we are going to stop staining our country with innocents’ blood.