[This article is abridged from a longer one, published online at https://westernfriend.org/media/privilege-and-other-unabridged.]
I recently attended a group dialogue on radical inclusivity, hosted on Zoom. It began with each participant editing their screen name by typing either “POC” (person of color) or “WP” (White person) before their name. I was immediately uncomfortable, extremely so. Am I a person of color? Not with this complexion, nor this shock of red hair. But do I identify as a White person? No, not particularly. Not given the history of oppression my family and others like me have suffered at the hands of the dominant Anglo, Christian, and heterosexual/heteronormative society we live in.
I pass for White, despite all the other implied descriptors I note above. Along with others like me, we know that we are safe in the largely White, Anglo, Christian, heterosexual/heteronormative society of the United States – as long as we keep hidden the hallmarks that brand us as Other. We are in the room, codeswitching for safety, when anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, anti-Native, homo-phobic, bi-phobic, trans-phobic, and anti-feminist comments are made – sometimes said to bait us, but often said by persons who simply don’t realize that we’re there. Our closets, while safe in some ways, remain places of quiet oppression, places where self-hatred is rife.
I pass. I’ve been the fly on the wall when someone felt safe to let their anti-Semitic flag fly or expressed their personal homophobia. Have I pushed back? Often, but far from always. A more important question: Have I pushed back when the comment was clearly racist, misogynistic, or against some minority group I am clearly not a member of? Again, often but not always, and for that I’m ashamed.
White privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, Christian privilege, cisgender privilege, educational privilege, class privilege . . . the list goes on, and these different power dynamics are all interrelated. Privilege can seem subtle to those who experience it as the norm. Rare is the White person who got “the talk” from a parent or grandparent on how to behave when stopped by the police, so as to survive the interaction. (My own grandfather taught, “The Jew who is not paranoid is a fool.” Even so, I cannot say his teachings fully qualified as “the talk.”) When pulled over by the police, White drivers have to worry about the ticket they’re about to get, not the risk of getting shot while reaching for the insurance card or registration in the glove box.
I’m Caucasian and I fear the police, in my case, a learned response. Shortly after the Rodney King beating thirty years ago, I was stopped by the police while driving home. Someone had called 911 to report a man driving a red pickup while brandishing a shotgun out his window. I was driving a maroon pickup, which was close enough in the police’s eyes to warrant a stop. With klieg lights and guns pointed at me, I ended up on my knees on the pavement, my arms tightly handcuffed behind my back, which injured my shoulder in the process. I lost a month’s work after that, due to the injury.
The difference between me and Rodney King? I believe my injury was unintentional. Once I was cuffed, the police made no further move to hurt me. Their demeanor remained gruff and demanding, but a deputy did help me to my feet. Once they had searched the cab of my truck and found no weapons, they holstered their guns. But the real change happened when they ran my ID and realized they had stopped a local physician. Their demeanor and treatment of me abruptly changed. They gently uncuffed me and apologized profusely for stopping me.
Ultimately, I drove off, albeit injured and shaken, but I did drive off. In the years since, I’ve often wondered: How they would have treated me if I had been a physician who was Black or brown? Would I still have driven home from that encounter?
A flashing lightbar in my rearview mirror still gives me chills – and this, after a single encounter thirty years ago. My heart still pounds any time I get stopped. I must make a conscious effort to squelch the adrenaline and my fight-or-flight response, so that I can respond calmly and cogently. The police made their message permanently clear when they drew their guns on me decades ago: “We are to be feared. We can hurt you.”
Twenty years later, a predawn phone call from the lab alerted me to a critical result on a patient. Mr. X, a tall and muscular man of color, was on blood thinners because of a previous pulmonary embolus. This lab result, assuming it wasn’t in error, was high enough to put him at risk for a sudden hemorrhage. I dialed my patient’s home number, intending to instruct him to head to the lab as soon as they opened, but there was no answer. Same result when I called his mobile.
Worried that he might be on the floor, bleeding, I started to dial 911; then I thought better of it and hung up. In a sane world, my call to 911 to ask for a “wellness check” for a patient would prompt an EMT, a social worker, or mental health worker to respond. In our real world, it’s armed police who come instead.
Mr. X was living in one of our community’s poorer neighborhoods. I wondered whether the police might perceive him as a potential threat. How would Mr. X react to a stranger pounding on his door in the wee hours of the morning? If he were as severely anticoagulated as the lab result suggested, then being tackled by a police officer could prove as fatal as a gunshot. I got dressed and drove to Mr. X’s apartment myself.
A plethora of people of color have died at the hands of police in the decade since Mr. X’s lab result. This leaves me confident my decision not to call the police that night was sound. No matter the reason for a 911 call, the arrival of armed officers at the homes of people of color all too often ends badly.
Not long after my drive to Mr. X’s apartment, a thirteen-year-old Latinx child was fatally shot by one of our county sheriffs, less than a minute after they encountered him, and less than a mile from Mr. X’s home. The boy was carrying what appeared to be an AK-47, but turned out to be a replica air rifle. The child was also high on cannabis, which likely contributed to his relatively slow response to the sheriff’s demand for him to drop the weapon. However, remembering my own panic and “deer-in-the-headlights” reaction to the police aiming their guns at me, the police barking orders at me, I know that my reactions were also slow, even though I was perfectly sober. My actions were slow and deliberate because, in my own moment of personal terror, I was struggling to process the authorities’ commands and execute them. I was an adult and sober, not a child and under the influence. What chance did that boy have?
The officer who shot the boy was a sharpshooter, a man who had served two tours of duty in Iraq. He had been trained – for his very survival during wartime – to immediately ID and classify the level of threat that any Other posed. I still wonder what factors led this former military man to behave in Northern California as if he were still in a war zone and needed to respond accordingly. Conditioned to respond to the Other with deadly force, he seemed to view that poverty-stricken neighborhood as a place where the Other must be controlled, subdued, and if necessary, vanquished.
As Friends, we are called to live our lives so as to take away the occasion of war. If we are to do so, we need to start right here at home, both by helping our communities rethink their policing practices and by rethinking the ways that we ourselves, in our daily interactions, treat other people as Other.
I for one need to spend more time re-examining my own life experiences and identifying the privileges I take for granted. I can’t with integrity challenge others to confront the inequities caused by White privilege unless I do that self-examination. As the parable cautions, I must pull the plank from my own eye before I can tend to the speck in my neighbor’s. If I am faithful to a testimony of universal equality, to a testimony of finding and respecting the divine in everyone, I have no choice but to do this work. It is both right and just. ~~~
David-James (DJ) Bloom is a retired family and community medicine physician. He lives with his husband of forty years and three canines in the redwoods of Sonoma County. He is Clerk of Apple Seed Friends Meeting in Cotati, CA (PacYM).