The Unbearable Lightness of Being White
Once in the late 1970s, I was returning home on foot from a night of as much debauchery as I, a poor college student, could then afford, when I was stopped — it was about 8 a.m. — by a representative of the law. He waved me over to his patrol car to ask me for directions to Grand Avenue.
A very strange question, for, you see, Grand Avenue is a main street in Sherman, Texas. My college and the house from whence I came were on it, and as far as I knew it hadn’t gone anywhere. I’d last seen it only a few minutes before.
But thinking it always best to cooperate with the law, I gave the officer the directions he asked for. He thanked me and went on his way. I thought it peculiar, since the law usually knows the main drags, but being in a good mood, I didn’t dwell on it. Hindsight being 20-20, I probably should’ve.
A few minutes later, I was on my front porch when two Sherman police cars and two Grayson County sheriff cars converged in front of my house with their tires squealing and rear ends fishtailing, just like on TV. My life flashed before my eyes as about a half-dozen law enforcement professionals leapt out of their vehicles and began a mad dash with their pistols drawn straight toward yours truly.
To get the proper picture, understand that, back then, I was about 150 pounds sopping wet with long hair and a scraggly beard. The law-enforcement professionals were clean-cut, stout, meat-eating types, and they were speeding up my sidewalk, coming for me as if I were the most vicious desperado this side of Clyde Barrow.
Being young and dumb, if that’s not redundant, I stood there and shouted, “What the hell is going on?”
I was informed that I was suspected of being a con who just that day had had the temerity to escape from the Grayson County Jail. Again, being less brave than foolish, I told them that was the biggest piece of horse manure I’d ever heard, and moreover, I could prove it. So I stomped back to my bedroom to return with a pile of photo IDs that stopped those lawmen in their tracks.
After that, the representatives of the law turned a mite sheepish, though they still insisted that I was a dead ringer for that dirty, rotten S.O.B. who’d escaped. Then they left in as much of a hurry as they’d come.
Today, many question the very idea that white privilege exists, insisting that racism ended on some vague, never-named date in the past, and any more talk is just “playing the race card.” But given the African-American men killed lately by law enforcement — Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Missouri, to name only two — I offer this true story of a young white man’s encounter with the law to show that just maybe there’s something to the idea of white privilege.
If I’d been a young African-American man, would I have been allowed to smart off the way I did? Would they have let me, without permission, turn around, re-enter my house, and go to my bedroom to get my ID? Possibly. More likely, I would’ve ended up with more holes in my body than a slice of Swiss cheese.
That same day, the law recaptured my doppel-gänger. But to add insult to injury, when I spotted his photo on the front page of The Sherman Democrat the next day, I saw that the desperado I’d been mistaken for was one ugly dude — skinny with a scraggly beard and a kind of dumb, blank look on his face. I for one saw no resemblance.
Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue, an essayist, poet, and short story writer from Fort Worth, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.