I have always been white. There was never a time when I went out into the sun without first slathering on a layer of vaguely coconut flavored suntan lotion. When I was heading to the beach I remembered the delicacy of my pale skin. It was the only time I actively thought about the color of my skin and made preparations because of it. Otherwise, it never occurs to me to remember that I am white before I leave the house.
I can remember the 1992 LA riots after the Rodney King incident. My (white) friends and I all agreed it was terrible. Racism was awful, rioting was awful but we “didn’t have that problem here” in New England. Of course police were always fair here and no one was racist, right? We never saw it. The only thing needed to protect us from the world was SPF 30. You have to watch out for the dreaded scalp or foot burn.
I recently watched the Michael Che Netflix special. One story revolves around how white women can “do anything.” He followed this with the example of seeing a white woman in a club wearing a police officer’s cap. Who else would be so bold as to take one? I laughed because this was true, literally, for me.
In my 20s my friends and I would go to downtown clubs and “borrow” hats from strangers. We would lead them, giggling, onto the dance floor to retrieve the caps. I did indeed “borrow” the hat of a good-natured Officer one night. He was working outside the club. He laughingly followed me inside and found me dancing with his hat jauntily placed atop my head. He took it back and advised me and my group of friends to have a good night and stay safe.
When I married my husband I began to see things I never thought existed. Wrapped in my cloak of privilege it had never occurred to me that police would treat people with anything other than good natured smiles. I was so ignorant.
When we were first married I was a fast driver. I was young and I loved speeding down the highway. My husband was always cautious, never fast. I got pulled over sometimes but I didn’t get tickets. Officers pulling Luke over were never convinced he owned our shared car. They stopped him with their guns drawn for a taillight out. My Hispanic husband was used to being taken out of the car and frisked while the car was searched for weapons. It wasn’t uncommon at all. But maybe that was only in the city we lived in. I reasoned it would change when we bought a house in the country.
It is embarrassing to me how shocked I was. I’ve always said my Luke looks like a Hispanic Clark Kent. His black rimmed glasses are a throwback to the 60s. He’s clean cut with button down shirts and pocket protectors. Luke irons everything, including his undershirts. I always felt silly in my flowing maxi dresses next to his freshly pressed black slacks. The hippy and the executive is what I saw in the mirror. Who could ever be afraid of him? I began to realize that what I saw was not what others saw.
I wish I could say that these experiences only occurred 10 years ago and not today. Eventually we did move out to the country. My husband went on to get his EMT and then Paramedic certification. Today he is a marketing manager by profession but he still volunteers in our town’s EMS. He is a duty officer, in charge of major ambulance calls. He does this for our town completely to give back to our community. Luke is proud to be a first responder and show our children why giving back is important.
Our little town has always reminded me very much of the fictional “Stars Hollow” from the television show “Gilmore Girls.” Everyone knows everyone else. My husband works side by side with police here and they share a mutual respect. Officers in our town have helped our family more times than I can count. Ems, town fire and town police dropped off case after case of bottled water for Luke after his kidney transplant.
It’s not all perfect. Sometimes people in the community don’t want emergency medical treatment from a Hispanic man. Luke will wait patiently until they are unconscious to save their lives. He is the only paramedic here. No one else can do it.
Sometimes he’ll bring an overdose patient back to life after they are clinically dead. I wonder at those who’d rather die than have the help of a brown skinned man. Luke shrugs it off most of the time. He says he’s used to it. The only way to change someone’s option is by showing them something else. He believes that by being himself and showing kindness others will change their minds about what a Hispanic man is.
Last month he was pulled over in the next town. This is nothing new. It happens a lot. He was pulled over because he “fit a description.” My son saw his father taken out of the vehicle and searched. He was manhandled like a criminal in a way I have never in my lifetime experienced personally. My children have to grow up seeing this. Someday it might happen to them.
Luke spoke to the officer with respect just like we teach the kids. “Yes sir, no sir” to every comment. Luke explained he would was a first responder and gestured at the EMS stickers plastering the car as well as the town-issued flashing light attachment in the front. He spent 30 minutes being questioned and searched while the officer did not believe Luke could be a first responder.
Volunteering side-by-side with police didn’t shelter him from brutal treatment. The EMS stickers didn’t help him. The politeness and complicity with his treatment did not help him. Paperwork proving the car was not stolen didn’t help him. A person of color needs more than sunscreen to protect them out in the world.
In the end I figure the cop had other things to do than harass a Hispanic man out of a white suburban town. This incident was only one of many. As a white woman I feel so helpless raising children of color. I don’t know how to do it. My own ignorance trips me up and I am wrong so many times. What do I teach them with moments like this?
Having my husband manhandled brings up a fiery rage from deep in my belly. It’s like having a hard ball of hate pressing my against my ribs. I think about all the way white people make things harder for my own children. Sometimes, it’s hard to look at myself in the mirror for all the hot burning sense of injustice. Who am I that I did not see this before?
After the murder of George Floyd I spiraled further into anger. I couldn’t believe people felt like this was an isolated incident. That heavy lump in my ribs grew hotter than I could handle. I furiously typed away on social media until my fingertips became sore. It felt like I was choking on my own fury while ashes coated my mouth. I unfriended people like I alone could bring down some hammer of justice. I wanted to lash out and scream, “Dracarys” as it all burned down. I wanted the world to match the fire burning inside of me.
Luke was calm, as always. He says we are lucky because things are so much worse for black Americans. He’s right, of course. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be for others. I only know our own experiences. All I have ever known are the experiences right in front of me. It’s time to know more.
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t believe all police are evil. However, it only takes one or two to perpetuate this cycle. I do know this: we need to acknowledge that the cycle exists. We need to try and understand the experiences of others. I am guilty of being blind to so much.
Know that I am George Floyd. You are George Floyd. America is George Floyd and WE cannot breathe. It will take more than sunscreen to protect the children of this nation.
**Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.