The White Privilege of Not Fearing the Police

Heather M. Edwards
Nov 11, 2018 · 7 min read
United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, USO Tour, 2012.

When I wrote about the 7 White Privileges I Didn’t Realize I Was Enjoying I acknowledged that there are probably more than seven that I’m still not aware of. It made me realize that one of the most intrinsic characteristics of privilege is not realizing you’re privileged. That doesn’t automatically mean that you’re racist. But it does mean you could be benefitting from your skin color without realizing it.

Which brings me to our boys in blue.

If you’re white, chances are seeing a police officer fills you with one of two things: relief or gratitude. If you see them coming and you’re in distress you probably enjoy the privilege of immediate relief. If you are not in distress and see them coming you probably give them one slow nod of gratitude or a smiling greeting. Or if you’re my (white) friend Pamela, ask if you can buy them coffee. It never occurred to me that anyone would feel anything but admiration for their rigorous training, long hours, the requisite danger and risk and the time away from their families. Because I have only had positive experiences with law enforcement. And I respect their commitment to protecting us while risking their own safety.

My friend, psychologist Dr. Monica Froman-Reid is as sharp as she is compassionate.

“People often struggle with empathy when it is not something they or their family members have had to experience. Check out the Helms White Identity Model for more insight into those who identify as “color blind”. Additionally many folks adhere to a just world fallacy (check out Lerner’s social psychology research) and don’t want to accept that bad things can happen to people randomly and with no fault of their own. If you are in a position of privilege, it can be threatening to acknowledge that society is not equitable.”

But if you’re Black or any non-white POC I’ve learned that the relationship with law enforcement can be anything from strained to fatal. That’s right. I am 40 years old and I absolutely did not know that until recently.

I almost 100% attribute this shocking revelation to social media. Were it not for Black Lives Matter and the advocacy around racial justice I simply would not have known that other people had a drastically different experience with and relationship to law enforcement.

I’ll admit, the first time I saw an All Lives Matter meme, a matte black background with a thin blue line behind the text, it resonated. I am almost positive I reposted it on my page. So for everyone who says it’s a waste of time to argue politics on Facebook and that nobody changes their minds based on social media, just know that there is always the possibility that a naive but open-minded person can change. Exposure can be tremendously educational and social media is a far-reaching opportunity to touch people with the stories that aren’t being told. I didn’t know my worldview was loosely defined by the Just-World Hypothesis, nor had I even I even heard of it until my friend posted about it. I have since changed my mind based on innumerable cell phone posts of atrocious and vicious police brutality all over my country — the land of the free. And as has been heartbreakingly pointed out, it’s not new, it’s just being filmed now.

The scene from Beyoncé’s Formation that made everyone burst into tears.

I grew up in the military. Many people close to me are military. My favorite uncle was a career firefighter. Two of my cousins are deputy sheriffs. I get to associate the uniform with the integrity of these people that I know and love.

I think about the cops who came to my childhood home when we got robbed, the deputy who found my car when it was stolen, the cop who pulled me over afterward because my car was still in their database as stolen, the cop who let me go with a warning when I was talking on my cell phone the day after it became illegal while driving, and the nice cop I did a ride-along with for a middle school project. Not only has my dignity always been respected in these interactions, but every interaction I have had with law enforcement bolstered my sense of safety. I felt protected and I felt tremendous respect for their bravery.

I smile when I see them walking toward me. They always say hi to me if I haven’t already said hello first. And I have had the same experience in other cities in the US, as well as in Kenya, Turkey, Mexico and South Korea.

Fellow Rotarian, Officer Moran poses with our German guests in Oregon; Kenyan police officer escorting us to Kachiuru; My friend Megan with a lovely police officer we chatted with in Istanbul

“Did you ever think it might be because you’re white?” a Mexican friend asked me during the Ferguson protests. Reeling, I was telling him how well I’d always been treated by police. I was shocked by all the anti-police outrage. “And tiny and female and ‘non-threatening’?”

I hadn’t.

There are the hometown heroes like Officer Chris Kilcullen who was killed in my own hometown at a routine traffic stop gone terribly wrong. There are pictures of him taped to espresso machines all over Dutch Bros. drive-thru coffee stands. He was apparently adored by all, including the baristas all over town where he would feed his need for caffeine. The college kids who worked at these coffee stands knew him and loved him. The day after Officer Kilcullen was killed one of the baristas showed me their picture of him while we waited for my mocha. He was unashamed as he wiped tears away.

I didn’t know Officer Kilcullen. But after he died I was on my way home from work and I happened by a memorial that was taking place for him. An American flag was stretched and suspended between the ladders of two firetrucks. He had a wife and two young children. I parked and stood on the sidewalk crying without caring.The sidewalks were full of strangers paying their respects in silence.

Memorial for Officer Chris Kilcullen, Eugene, OR. 2011. All rights mine.

But there are also cops from the second circle of hell like Roger “Officer Blowjob” Magaña, also from my hometown, who preyed on drug-addicted women and extorted them for sex for years without consequence. Says one of his victims: Magaña came to her “infuriated” that she had complained, demanded more oral sex, ripped off her pants, “touched my genitals with his gun,” and said, “If you tell anyone anything about me, I’ll blow you up from the inside out,” she alleged.

And without internet outrage and viral coverage we would not know the names of FIFTY-TWO unarmed Black men who were killed by police officers. The list includes acquitted insurance underwriter and neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman who killed Trayvon Martin, the first case of an unarmed Black victim, a teenager in this case, to command widespread media attention across the country.

The Thin Blue Line adherents do not have to stop respecting good police. But they must acknowledge that Law Enforcement is not a singular entity. Police brutality is not universal. Not all cops abuse the badge but not all cops are heroes. Some of them aren’t even good. They’re actually criminals. And we need to acknowledge the complexity of a nationwide organization composed of individuals. Cops are people. For better and worse.

So to my growing list of white privileges I didn’t realize I was enjoying, I add the freedom to not fear the police, the opportunity to respect them, the privilege to run right toward them if I need help, and to know for certain that they will.

And to my gratitude for law enforcement I add outrage for those who not only are not protected by the police but are targeted and violated.

Heather M. Edwards

Written by

Refugee Resettlement Coalition of Lane County

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