The last time I was stopped for speeding was in 2002. I was on a New Hampshire state highway, heading home from Concord, where my two thirteen-year old passengers had just auditioned for a summer ballet program. I was driving my husband’s 1998 black Isuzu pickup with an extended cab.
There was no traffic, the afternoon was overcast, and I was doing sixty-five in a fifty mile-an-hour zone when I saw the police car waiting at the bottom of the hill. He pulled a U-turn and I pulled over.
The officer registered surprise when I rolled down the window. I think he expected to see a teenaged male at the wheel of this rig, not a middle-aged mom with two teens in the cab. He asked to see my license and registration.
“I need my glasses for this.” I sighed and pulled the readers from my collar.
“Oh, I know how that goes,” the officer said. He had a gray moustache. “Aging.”
“Yeah,” I said, summoning as much sympathy as I could and handed him my documents.
After running my papers through the computer, he returned to the truck and nodded at the sleepy girls. “Picking them up from school?”
Saying “yes” was easier than explaining we’d actually only been at “school” for a couple of hours, for the audition. Earlier that day, we’d packed up from a week-long ski vacation in northern Vermont.
“I’m letting you off with a warning,” he said, handing me the pink slip. “Slow down. Get home safely.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the paper from him. “I will.”
Until recently, I told this story as one about middle age, and how needing my reading glasses resonated with the middle-aged cop. Now that I’ve been learning about how I benefit simply because I’m white in a racist society, I realize this is a story of how I benefit from implicit bias.
The traffic stop would have been different if I’d been a brown-skinned mother, and different again if I’d been a brown-skinned male.
One of my brothers who’s been stopped for speeding more than a couple of times told me what to do to put the police at ease if I’m stopped:
- Turn your tires toward the curb to indicate you’re not going to try to speed off;
- Place your hands on top of the steering wheel, so the officer sees you are unarmed; and
- Ask, “Is it okay for me to open my purse for my license and the glove box for my registration and insurance?” This is to reassure the officer that you’re not reaching for a gun.
I haven’t had to use any of these techniques because:
- I make an effort not to speed, and I’m white;
- I keep my car inspected and in good working order, and I’m white; and
- I’m white.
Being white makes a difference, even in liberal-leaning Vermont. A 2017 study of policing in Vermont shows that Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than White drivers to be stopped and searched by state and local police, and less likely to be found with contraband. This is the flip side of implicit bias.
What We Can Do
- If you’re white, there are some actions you can take to become more aware of implicit bias in your life. Awareness is the first step toward change. Tell a story about a time you benefited from being white. Share it in the comments section, below, if you like; and
- Read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a beautifully written memoir that helped me better understand how Black Americans are in danger all the time, even in the North, even in 2020.
- If you don’t believe how Black Americans are in danger all the time, even in the North, watch this one-minute video of a white woman calling the police because a Black bird-watcher in Central Park asked her to leash her dog. They were in a part of the park where dogs are required to be leashed. This happened last month.