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A Road Trip and a Lesson in White Privilege


White Privilege is a Real Thing

My Road Trip With Paul

I grew up in South Texas and back in the 80's attended a small state university whose student population was largely Latino. I often spoke "Spanglish" with many of my friends, a unique blend of Spanish and English that is used along the border. With my college friends I went to Saturday night dances at the local veteran's hall, where country music and Tejano were often played in equal measure. While I had many Latino friends, I'd never had a black friend before, that is, until I met Paul. In my second year of college I was in need of a roommate and one of my newest fraternity brothers, Paul, needed a place to stay as well.

Paul had been a "walk on" player for our college football team and had spent his first year staying in the athletes dorm, until he suffered a terrible knee injury and was forced to quit the team. Like many football players he was studying psychology, and went on to earn his doctorate and become a high school psychologist after we graduated.

Just before graduation we decided to take a road trip. We mapped out a route that would take us through West Texas to New Mexico, Arizona, California, on up to Washington and then back down through the Dakotas and the Midwest, then through part of the deep south. After we were handed our diplomas we packed all that we thought we needed into my old 1969 Mustang and hit the road. First we traveled west, stopping at Big Bend National Park to camp before heading north to Fort Stockton to see "The Worlds Largest Roadrunner" statue. I always had a bit of a lead foot and just outside of Fort Stockton I saw a police car gaining on us in the rear view mirror, ablaze with red flashing lights.

My friend Paul became visibly nervous, but I was only irritated. I knew that even though I was driving well over the speed limit (75 in a 55), I'd probably just have to pay a fine. The trooper approached our car, and asked for my license and registration. Upon seeing Paul, he asked us to exit the car. Paying almost no attention to me, he had my friend place his hands on the hood while he thoroughly patted down his 6'4 frame, searching for weapons. Satisfied that my black friend was no threat, he issued me a hefty speeding ticket and offered a final, courteous "have a nice day".

Why the officer did not pat me down and only focused on my friend did not fully register with me at that point. I was young and had never encountered anything but "nice" police officers before. We made our way through New Mexico without incident, seeing all of the "tourist trap" attractions that we could fit into our schedule and finally we reached the Arizona line, where I decided to let Paul drive my pride and joy. A short while later, as we were driving down Interstate Highway 10, an Arizona state trooper pulled us over. Again, my friend became visibly nervous, his outstretched hand shaking as I handed him my insurance and registration papers from the glove compartment to pass to the officer.

"Do you know why I am pulling you over?" the officer asked Paul. "No sir, I don't think I was speeding", was Paul's response. The officer began to berate my friend, asking him how he could not be sure and only "thought" he wasn't speeding. "Well that's what you get for thinking" was part of the officer's response, and he proceeded to chastise my friend for his ignorance of Arizona traffic laws and pointing to the car's speedometer and saying "that's what that thing is for".

Paul had been going a whopping 57 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone. That was the speed limit back then. The trooper finally let us go, and my friend now had his own "souvenir", a ticket to pay as well. We were still determined to pursue our road trip and agreed to be more careful. Taking turns driving seemed only fair, yet over the course of the next few weeks Paul was pulled over 5 more times in California, Utah and again in Arizona. He received two more citations, both for only a couple miles over the limit. He enjoyed driving the Mustang and I appreciated the help. Paul just chalked it up to "bad luck" and still offered to help with the driving.

Lake Catherine State Park, Arkansas.

Lake Catherine State Park, Arkansas.

Going to See Catherine

When we finally reached the part of our road trip that would take us down through Arkansas, on the homeward bound leg of our journey, I pulled over near the state line so Paul could take his turn driving. "Are you sure? You know my luck." was his response, but I insisted and he went ahead and got behind the wheel.

My friend was a really good driver. I always felt comfortable enough with my him at the wheel and often fell asleep when he was driving. About an hour after we swapped over, I was awakened by a short burst of a police car's siren. My first thought was "here we go again, another ticket", but this time would end up being worse. Paul was pulled over for failing to use his turn signal near Hot Springs Arkansas, just as we were turning into the entrance to Lake Catherine State Park, where we were going to try and camp for the night. I looked back to see a big, muscular looking trooper with Ray Ban sunglasses walking up towards us.

I'd begun to notice a pattern when we were pulled over. If Paul was behind the wheel the officer would often keep his hand on his unstrapped sidearm as he approached. On the occasions when I'd been pulled over I hadn't noticed this, only seeing the troopers hands on his ticket book. The officer asked the usual questions and my friend answered courteously. He seemed surprised and concerned that Paul was driving and asked why this was the case. He asked how we knew each other, along with what purpose we had being in Arkansas, and if my friend was driving because I was drunk. Finally satisfied that I wasn't under the influence of anything, the officer resumed questioning Paul about our destination.

When Paul responded to the officer he was unable to remember the full name of the park and replied "we're going to see Catherine" and pointed to the park sign. This simple error of speech was taken by the officer as sarcasm. My shy friend hadn't intended to be sarcastic, and was only trying to explain that we were there to see Catherine State Park, yet this, for some reason seemed to enrage the trooper who accused him of "back talking". The more that my friend tried to explain, the worse it got for him, until the handcuffs came out and he was charged with "failing to comply with an officer's request".

Ultimately Paul got to spend the night in the Hot Springs jail, which is far less luxurious than the name might suggest. My friend's experience was quite unpleasant to say the least, as he was forced to spend the night with several people in a single jail cell. I spent the night outside the courthouse in my car and Paul went before the judge just after noon the next day, who dismissed the charges, with the understanding that my friend would apologize to the officer, which he did.

For the rest of the trip I decided to do all the driving, reflecting all the way home on how differently I had been treated compared to my friend.

Walking A Mile

They say you can never understand a person until you "walk a mile in their shoes", which is a nice sounding, albeit unrealistic idiom. We can learn from our friends though, and listen to people who are different from us, even if some of the things they are saying make us feel uncomfortable. My friend and I talked a lot on our trip back then and I learned a lot from those conversations. Each of those experiences with law enforcement had served to open my eyes to the fact that he was often treated in a different manner than I was. Before our trip I really had no idea, as naive as that may sound.

I realize that our country is in the midst of a culture war, and the very words "white privilege" may enrage some people, especially if they are white and feel that nothing in their own lives has come easy. Others may even be overly apologetic for it, to the point of being ridiculous.

One of my friends, who is white, recently asked my spouse, who is a person of color, if she thought it was "white privilege" that she had just inherited some money from her late grandmother. "Should I give it away or donate it to a good cause, because of my white privilege?" she asked. My wife replied that the very notion that only white people were able pass on an inheritance to their heirs was possibly in itself a bit "racist" and to keep the money. I personally believe that white privilege exists. I also believe that each of us should recognize our own privilege and work to fix our clearly broken system without resorting to such ridiculous extremes of thinking as my friend, who began to see everything around her as an issue instead of focusing on real issues of racism.

I still think back to that road trip that Paul and I took way back then, especially when I'm traveling with my own family. We still keep in touch and joke about that trip. As funny as much of it seems to us now, I know that I'm lucky. I know that I'm much less likely to die from the use of deadly force following a traffic stop than my friend Paul, even now, more than thirty years after that fateful road trip. All these years after our adventure, many things are still the same as they were back then and that's simply unacceptable. We still have a lot of work to do as a nation to ensure that all Americans are being treated fairly, regardless of what their skin color may be.

In case anyone is wondering why the URL of this article references an experience with a former boss, that's the article that I originally started writing before I decided to switch gears and tell this story of our road trip. Unfortunately I can't change it now but here is the link to that other article: Sweet Revenge on a Racist Boss

© 2021 Nolen Hart


Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 25, 2021:

Interesting reading.

Mr. Happy from Toronto, Canada on February 25, 2021:

Yup: many people know DWB (Driving while black) can often get tricky. I have thanked the Gods many times that I'm white, when dealing with police officers. Been handcuffed, in the back of cruisers, arrested, multiple times ... never convicted of anything, never spent a night in jail, always just walked away. I gave up some weed here and there, that's true but there was always more where that came from so, it never bothered me much.

Ya, there's white privilege for sure. Sometimes, it goes unspoken. Sometimes, it is spoken of - depends on the circumstances.

Thanks for the article - all the best!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 25, 2021:

I do believe racism is alive and well in our country, and that is a sad thing. Our country was founded with better intentions of equality for all. We have a long way to go to achieve those goals. Thanks for sharing your road trip experience and what happened with your buddy.

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