trading places

Every day something prods me to consider my fortune, whether it be stories of cities, states or nations experiencing water crises, refugees fleeing war-torn countries, or images of starving children.

On my way to the doctor the other day, having just thrown on a hat, rubber boots and a grubby coat over my "yoga" pants, a cop pulled me over for doing a California stop. It had been years since I'd seen flashing lights in my rearview mirror. While calling my doctor to say I'd be late, I got distracted, so when I saw the large officer standing at my door, I flinched. When I rolled down the window he asked me for my license, insurance and registration. In the cold, I fumbled with my wallet and dropped my license near my left foot. Reaching down to retrieve it, I suddenly imagined what might happen to me if my skin were Black, especially if I were male and—perhaps—in a different part of the state or country. I've seen too many videos of Black men—one or two licensed to carry, though most not armed at all—being shot dead for less. And though I've imagined the scenario before and am cognizant of the double standard, at that moment I viscerally experienced but a sliver of my White privilege.

It may seem odd to some that, while I have spent most of my adult life as an autodidact of the struggles of others, raising Calvin has expanded my mind further on the subject of racial injustice. I find it interesting, and lamentable, how many folks I grew up with and others I encounter deny racism exists, deny their implicit bigotry, continue to stand their ground, blame the victim, shame the kneeling player, change the debate when speaking about police violence against Blacks, institutional racism, or the righteous Black Lives Matter movement. Yesterday, I read an important piece by Tim Wise explaining the history of this kind of behavior called, White Denial is an American Tradition: It's Time to Bury It. I highly recommend you read it and get up to speed.

Because so many Whites bristle when speaking about racism, and because it needs to be discussed and explored before it can be solved, sometimes I frame discrimination, oppression and it's history differently and in a way I think some might begin to relate. I say:

What if Calvin were your child and he were sequestered to a special school for disabled children only, a school which lacked the funding to provide his basic needs, much less help him succeed? What if he were physically barred from buses, restaurants, restrooms, beaches, shops, pools? What if society were taught to fear, mistrust and hate him because of his difference? What if he and others like him who might be more able routinely grew up and struggled to get the job, the raise, the apartment, the loan they hoped and worked so hard for? What if he couldn't achieve these things because society saw him as bad or strange and instead—as a minority—he was ripe for neglect, oppression, exploitation?

I wager most everyone these days would say that those scenarios are morally wrong; I'd agree, though some of them exist to this day. I also wager most folks—at least publicly—would think it okay for me and Calvin to protest such unjust treatment. So, I ask, why is it okay for African Americans to endure the same injustices? And why are so many White folks compelled to mistrust Black narratives, deny those inequities, dismiss their truths, condemn their peaceful protests no matter the platform, squelch their free speech, curb their right to vote? I can only begin to believe it's rooted in ignorance and the fear of trading places, of being the minority. But doesn't that in itself prove the point?

After the cop ran my license he returned to give me a warning instead of a ticket, even though I'd clearly run the stop sign in a school zone at first bell, no less. When I'd seen his flashing blue lights and scrambled to make the call, my heart was pounding nervously, and not because of my infraction. I had imagined trading places, had tried to envision how I'd be feeling in that moment if my skin were dark and my hair were somehow different.

Postscript: While I am on the subject of trading places, I can't recommend this article enough either, about affirmative action and the myth of reverse racism.

Photo by Roger


  1. Guilt! Good topic. I am thinking "Cute blonde privilege" may be at work here too with that cop. Only a Warning?

    Out West it is still "Outtathevehiclenow!" if you dare ask "As a white male sovereign, did you know the Constitution allows me insult your mommy if I want to so..." I digress.

    Go Calvin!

    1. hi tim,

      no guilt. just ownership. and i'm not blonde. yes, you digress, but i'm getting used to that.