I felt compelled to share this experience I’ve been holding on to for the past 18 months. I haven’t talked much about it since it happened, but in this emotional moment in our nation, where so many of us are reminded of our history and tensions, I realized sharing it might add to the complexity of these conversations many of us are having in our private spaces. The following incident reminded me of how complicated my skin color really is in our cultural public space. And as much as we’d like to think we live in post-racial times, my own personal and continual experiences have shown me otherwise.
I don’t know how we “fix” bias and profiling, or “fix” acting violently, skeptically, prejudicially on race, ethnicity, origin, sexual orientation/preference, or perception. But I do know how sharing our narratives is important, how talking about these issues is necessary, how using our vote and our voice is imperative, and that strategic (but nonviolent) action is critical to change.
I’d like to imagine, fantasize, or even make excuses that the following incident was isolated. But I’ve been living in my skin for 37 years and unfortunately my experiences know better. In sharing this story, all that I ask is that we think about how we look at each other, think about there must be more to a person than just our outward or initial perception, think before we speak, before we act carelessly.
Finally, the lasting thing I do remember about the other person in this story was that he was a father. We are both parents. And that common bond, that respect I had for him as another parent was more thought and consideration than he ever gave me.
October 2010—On a beautiful cool autumn day I left work conscious of a recent robbery in the area, conscious of a potential suspect on the loose, and in a hurry to pick up my two young boys from school. I left work approximately around 5:07pm. Walking towards the parking garage I passed a security officer watching the area, and as I approached the garage, I passed several police cars and a barricade. Watching over my shoulders I entered the parking garage and passed yet another police officer. My assumption was they were there to keep us safe. I thought nothing odd about them doing their job. As a matter of fact, I felt comfort in their presence (there was of course a robbery suspect on the loose).
I passed security and several officers in uniform with guns in their holsters, and no one stopped or approached me. I walked four flights of stairs up to the 5th level and got into my vehicle, a four-door BMW SUV. I drove down the first ramp to exit and immediately saw a young man with dark sunglasses turn around and approach me with a large shotgun rifle. My heart was beating, my hands were moist; I subtlety looked around for an escape. There was no one else around, and at this point I had to make some quick decisions, as I had no description of the robbery suspect and no idea the intentions of this man with the rifle. I tried not to panic. I was scared because I had no idea who this guy was, but my mind was fixed on getting out of this situation while my eyes were fixated on the large rifle he had strapped across his chest, resting parallel to his waist. At the time, the gun wasn’t pointed directly at me but it also wasn’t pointed down at the ground. It was a terrifying moment.
As the young man approached, I realized (or was forced to assume) he was a police officer (though he never identified himself as such), and I immediately removed my sunglasses and asked him kindly not to point his weapon at me. I told him it was scary (and I still had no confirmation he was an actual law enforcement officer). He replied sarcastically, “I’m not pointing my gun at you.” I reiterated that the gun scared me and again asked him to consider my position. At this point, he still hadn’t identified himself as an officer. The burden was on me to assume as much. He proceeded to detain me and ask me several questions. He asked to see the shirt I was wearing. He asked me what color it was. I answered the questions but also told him I needed to get my children and that I did nothing wrong. I asked him why he was asking me all of these questions. Ignoring me, he asked my name, he asked where I worked, he asked what my job entailed, and he asked me what I did that day. I told him that I was working that day; that I worked for the university, that I’m an educator, and that I work with children. I reiterated that I was a mother of two children—then he cut me off responding, “so what, I have children too.” I told him I was educated and again reiterated that I was an employee of the university. He responded, “Some of the best criminals are educated.” I told him I wasn’t a criminal and hadn’t done anything wrong.
I felt as though I was pleading with this man to see me for more than just a profile. I wanted this man to see me as a human being. I asked him what he wanted from me and expressed repeatedly that I did nothing wrong. He refused to give me more information on why he was detaining me. He asked for my ID. He asked me my date of birth. By this time, several minutes had elapsed and I told him that I needed to pick up my children. He said that I wasn’t going anywhere and that I fit the description of the robbery suspect. He said, “She was black, had sunglasses, and had on a curly wig.” He said that I fit that description. But after seeing a picture of the suspect later on the news, the only similarity I had with the image and description of that person was that my skin was black. There were no other descriptive qualities that were even remotely similar.
Though the officer kept his sunglasses on, at the beginning of this interaction, as to be totally transparent, I had removed my sunglasses immediately. This simple act of removing my sunglasses was a part of the unspoken rules, “the code”, understood by many people of color, especially males when encountering the police. As a person of color there is this unspoken rule that even if you’re innocent, have done nothing wrong, ensuring your personal safety lies in making sure that a police officer you encounter feels comfortable with your otherness. Often the burden of making police officers or others in authority feel comfortable with your otherness is on that person of color standing there, your word against that officer’s word, your life potentially lying in the balance. And me, as a person of color, black, that unspoken rule filters into many more parts of my life, where the expectation is I assume the role of making others feel comfortable with my otherness, culture, language, hair, etc. This is an act performed daily by thousands of people of color in the public space. It is conscious and exhausting.
I remember telling the officer repeatedly that I worked for the university and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I told him I was scared in this moment as he held his gun before me, as we were face to face in an isolated part of the garage. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about making it out of this situation alive. The officer continued to detain me in this isolated space and verbally harass me, smearing me with questions, jabs of sarcasm, and reminders of his ability to detain me in that isolated space just because he could, and there was the obvious reminder that he had a weapon. I asked him if he wanted to search my car. I asked him if he wanted to search my person. I reminded him I was a mother of young children. He didn’t want me to speak up for myself as he verbally harassed me with cruel comments about how I fit the description of the robbery suspect and that he didn’t know that I wasn’t the actual suspect. I told him I understood that, but unless he had more than just the color of my skin, he had no right to detain me. I reminded him, I had done nothing wrong. I was just coming from work.
But my pleas were ignored. He called in a description of my vehicle (though the suspect got away on foot) and continued to hold me there. The time seemed so slow, minute by minute, all I could think about were my children and them wondering where I was. I pleaded with the officer that I needed to go get my children and I was adamant that I did nothing wrong. He said, typically when someone is talking this much they are trying to distract his attention—implying that I was hiding something. I told him I had nothing to hide and reminded him that he could search my vehicle if he wanted to. He told me not to get out of the vehicle. I told him he was scaring me and I didn’t know what was going on. He replied, “put yourself in my shoes.” I replied to him, “Put yourself in my shoes; you have a gun.”
I told him I understood that he needed to do his job but I expressed to him that he did not have to harass me, or talk to me in a disrespectful way. I asked him if I could call my husband because I needed to get my children. After at least 20 long minutes, he finally “allowed” me to call. I asked him for his name and badge number and shortly after, he said I was free to go.
It was over, but the memories of that day have left scars that remind me I am always walking in my otherness in the public space, especially when encountering law enforcement. And being a married professional woman in her thirties with young children, driving a luxury car, carrying a designer handbag, hair and make-up in place, impeccably dressed, and an articulate tongue did not exempt me from racial profiling, and did not strengthen the perception of my integrity that day.
So as I try to raise my boys in this most recent reminder of present day racial tensions, especially with some law enforcement and others that may only look first at their skin color, I am carefully crafting what to tell my boys as I raise them to be safe in their own skin. If their mother can be racially profiled covered in culture’s status adornments and degrees, and that still didn’t make a difference in perception, these boys as brown males have a heavy burden to bear that as a mother, with tears, prayers, and only the best of intentions, wishes I could carry for them.
I understand our human interactions are complex and it is not always about race. But my experiences have shown me, race or not, it is very much about perception, and I’d like us to look at each other differently, as humans, as complex beings. In this time of fear and skepticism, color and tension; accepting, respecting someone’s humanity seems the very least we can do (for now).
As a footnote, with the support of my employer, I was able to speak face to face with the Chief of Police. He did take this incident seriously and visited me in person at work to listen to my side of the story, and to formally apologize. He was not defensive, and did share with me his plans for corrective action of this officer. My hope is that we work to prevent incidents like this and other such encounters before they lead to careless mistakes and leave permanent scars.