A couple of weeks ago, I was driving away from dropping my kids off at school. I looked in my rearview mirror and was surprised to see police lights. I scanned my brain for possible wrongdoings. I was driving the speed limit, didn’t blow a stop sign, used my blinker, it was a mystery. The police officer, a 40ish year-old white male, approached my window.
“Ma’am, do you know why I’m pulling you over?”
“Your registration expired back in March and it’s the end of September,” he said with a smirk.
“Hmm…sure didn’t have that on my radar,” I said sheepishly (or perhaps coyly?).
“License, registration and proof of insurance, please,” he asked.
“Well, you see, I was dropping my kids off at school and I don’t have my wallet so I don’t have my license.” I checked nervously in my glove compartment for my registration and proof of insurance. Didn’t have that either. “I also don’t seem to have my registration or proof of insurance, oopsie daisy,” I said as I looked up at him with an apologetic smile on my face.
“Okay, ma’am. Let me go do a quick scan on your license plate and I’ll be back,” he said with a look of amusement on his face.
He returned a couple minutes later with his business card letting me know that he was letting me off with a warning and letting me know – with the energy of a dad or overprotective husband – to get my registration updated as soon as possible.
I drove away feeling relieved and pretty proud of myself for getting away with that one. I thought back to all the times in my life that I was able to talk/act/charm my way out of trouble. The more I thought about it, the more my feelings of euphoria shifted to feelings of disgust. I started to think about the opposite end of the spectrum, the yin to my good fortune yang. As I drove away with my warning, I thought about what would have happened if I was a black man. Or a transgender person. Or someone who was undocumented. I wondered if he/she would have been arrested on the spot. If he/she would have had their car impounded. I thought about how easily a stop like that could have escalated into violence if I didn’t have the appearance that I did.
And then I started hating myself for the way I acted. I thought of Newton’s third law, which states, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Because I was let off the hook, did that mean that someone else would be treated unfairly and receive a more severe sentence than they deserve?
I wondered what I should have done differently. What if I had spoken up and said that I didn’t deserve a warning in that case and that he should issue me a ticket. What if I asked the police officer if he would have been willing to let me off with a warning if I wasn’t white? Would it make a difference for him moving forward? Could I have impacted him in a way that made it safer for non-white drivers out on the road?
I will never know, truly, but I do know that it’s my responsibility to use my privilege to make a difference for those who do not have it. That was an opportunity for me to do so and I failed.