The invisible visibility of black women and police

Roll the dice: Women and privilege, or black women and discrimination

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Oct 16 · 10 min read
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Photo credit: Roman Koester/Unsplash

There is a strange dynamic between black women and police officers. There are moments when we may as well be invisible, not seen as a threat, just a woman on-the-go. Then there are moments when we are seen as more black than we are women. Then there’s that third viewing, the complex dynamic when we are black women who are the family members, friends and bystanders around black men. Depending on the view, the treatment follows.

When I saw the group of white officers walk onto the el train, I glanced up and went back to texting. One sat down next to me while the other two stood over us. I was still texting away. The officer sitting next to me glanced over and said, “You really type fast — like my daughter.”

“I’m not playing around,” I mumbled. “I have shit to do.”

Then I snapped my fingers quickly in a get-a-move-on fashion. He copied my finger snapping. We both laughed. I finally looked around the train and noticed there were plenty of empty seats. These three white, male officers could’ve sat anywhere they wanted but chose to surround me. I finished my text, half-listened to them talk about their own kids who are also fast typists and opened a book I had on my lap to continue reading. They barely acknowledged me after that but waved goodbye when they got off the train.

I thought about this moment while reading John RossWhite Privilege and #BlackLivesMatter.” There have been many moments when I strolled past police SUVs, vans and cars, and barely got a glance, similar to white men like him. The usual reaction is indifference. However, I’ve interviewed a few as a journalist, one of which was a white officer who looked up my website after a phone conversation. He then emailed me to tell me I was “cute.” Another was a black man — and noticeably handsome — who, after a year of casual chatting and flirting on my way home on the Metra, told me he was a narcotics officer. (I would never date an officer. If he wilds out, who could I possibly call for help?) These are those moments when I am seen as a woman first.

I was on my way to Border’s for the millionth time (I used to work there, but this was a leisurely visit). Without a care in the world and daydreaming about all the books and magazines I would buy before I left, I stood up when the el reached my stop. A black man on the opposite side of the train stood up to get off, too. When the doors opened, a group of white officers stepped onto the train.

“C’mon, man, I’m just trying to go to work,” I heard the brotha say in an almost pleading tone.

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Photo credit: Pedro Lastra/Unsplash

I turned around, confused. The officers cornered him as he stepped off the platform, walking him backward. I gazed at him wearing a tan trench coat, suit and a black top hat. He was carrying a suitcase that was quickly taken away from him but still looked like he stepped off the pages of GQ. I hadn’t noticed him on the train, but I loved his whole outfit now that I was paying attention.

More importantly, I now didn’t know what to do. I could’ve easily jogged down the steps and made my way to Border’s. However, that just wasn’t an option. I won’t say all black women do this, but the average black woman may — we immediately feel obligated to look out for “our” men when they’re in danger. (And sometimes it’s to our own disadvantage when the anger from black men is directed our way.) I may not know this black man, but he could’ve easily been my grandfather, father, uncle, cousins, nephews, (ex)-boyfriends, male friends or anybody else. And I would hope another black woman who observed a scene like this would do the same for him. Her presence makes a difference — sometimes.

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Photo credit: Koshu Kunii/Unsplash

So I slowed down. I “looked” for something I “forgot” in my purse. I “needed” to check my train schedule. I couldn’t “find” my smartphone. Eventually I ran out of reasons to be on the train platform, and it was just us two plus the officers. For all I know, he could’ve really been a criminal who got caught up. But it just doesn’t work that way with black women like me. For me, there will always be a glass-half-full approach to any black man approached by officers. I’m always going to need proof before I assume the worst.

I sped-ran downstairs so I wouldn’t lose sight of him and turtle-walked through the alley, staring above at the platform. They were just talking. Low. But he was unharmed — physically, that is. I’m sure the officers figured out I was paying way too much attention to him. Eventually I walked across the street to the bookstore, only to go directly to the top floor to stare out of a cafe window. By that time, they were gone. I don’t know why they stopped him. I just didn’t want to see him on the news as a victim of police brutality that night. For some black women, it is more stressful (or as stressful) to see a black man be profiled as it is for us to be profiled. There’s only so much we can do as onlookers when we don’t know what lead to this incident. But leaving the scene feels like betrayal.

For about eight years, I lived in an apartment a couple of blocks from the lakefront. It was a beautiful location, and I loved walking over there to dig my feet in the sand or to walk a few miles to people watch and sit by the boat docks. A childhood friend who became a significant other had just moved from Texas. We were on and off for the course of five years, but in our time apart, he’d had a not-so-great childhood after moving to another state. As with most black men I know, he was not a big fan of police.

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Photo credit: Benjamin Rascoe/Unsplash

As we walked at night along the lakefront bike path, I saw a police car out of the corner of my eye. I knew why it was there. The beach had just closed for the evening, and everyone was heading out. The officers honked at us, saying, “Ya gotta go.” I gave them a head nod and strolled on. But I could feel him tense up next to me. He mimicked them, “Ya gotta go.” I could tell he was reading this moment much differently than me. I linked my arm in his — a simple touch. I made eye contact.

All it would take was for him to make one smart remark for this whole night to go left. When you’ve constantly been stopped for minding your business, it is much more difficult to identify when there’s a legitimate reason to catch the police’s attention. Meanwhile I lost count of the number of times I was kicked out while walking solo, along with a flock of white people. From the ice grill on his face, I could tell he wasn’t seeing it like that though.

I made some kind of flirtatious comment (I forgot what it was) to redirect his attention. It worked. He stopped looking at them and smiled, looking down at me. I know this experience for him would’ve been different if he was walking alone, just moving into this town and not understanding the neighborhood routine. But I also know he could’ve easily been like the guy on the train — stopped and held for any reason at all. We left that park and headed back to my apartment. He never said a word about that bike path walk, but when we returned, I made a point of leaving before it closed.

I’ve already told the story of my first time being profiled. As a teenager who went to a high school next door to a police station, I was constantly asked where my ID was. It was the reason that “Higher Learning” was my favorite movie for well over a decade. I could relate to Ice Cube saying, “No, let me see your ID.” (I still don’t know what to say about Ice Cube’s current politics.) Initially I was naive enough to think that cops were checking everyone’s IDs, until one particular incident where it was no way to confuse it for what it was — unapologetic racial profiling of a brown girl while letting a blonde girl of the same age stroll by for the exact same reason I was stopped.

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Photo credit: (left) Cortney White/Unsplash, (right) Djurdjica Boskovic/Unsplash

I’ve had plenty of moments involving racism and racial profiling, but other moments, I am treated like a human being. I once called suburban police on a guy who walked up to me while my umbrella was blocking my path. I heard a flick like someone was taking the safety off of a gun and moved my umbrella to look into the face of a white guy. He called me a “bitch” and told me to “stop stealing.” I was completely confused, but I could tell something was very off about him. I’m not sure if he was high or drunk or what, but it happened so fast that I was scrambling to comprehend whether someone just aimed a gun at me. The only thing I could think to say was, “What the fuck is wrong with you?” He scowled and swiftly walked away, heading toward a nearby mall.

I turned to see him tuck in his shirt, hiding the object that he clicked in my direction. I stood in the mall parking lot, stunned at what had just happened. After calling the police, them arriving soon after, asking me to identify him and being escorted to a station, multiple (white and one Hispanic) officers apologized for the experience I had with a white guy, asked me was I OK and wrote a report. I never did find out whether he really did have a gun or whether it was some kind of lighter that looked like a gun — one officer “accidentally” said it was a lighter before several talked over her — but I remember them being extremely nice to me. I looked around at all these officers with their eyes on me, wondering, “Where did they find THESE officers? Can they teach OTHER officers how to act?”

Fast forward to a few months later when a woman (white lady) rear-ended my car. Naive enough to think the treatment would be the same in my own city of Chicago as it was in this suburban neighborhood, I strolled into a nearby police station to get a police report for my auto insurance company. Minus the stop in high school, I have never had more of a contentious exchange with an officer — and this one was black and female. At one point, a fellow officer (Latina and female) asked her, “Are you all right?” just from overhearing our conversation. And this was about someone hitting my car and trying to leave the scene of the accident — not someone I thought was pointing a gun at me. You would swear I robbed three liquor stores and punched someone in the face from the reaction I got for something this small.

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Photo credit: Ev/Unsplash

The black, female officer flat-out refused to write the report or give me information to electronically do so. I stood there perplexed, wondering how this went left so fast. How did I go from being treated like everybody’s black cousin in front of a group of white officers to being treated like a criminal in front of a sista? I shook my head, waited about a week, went back to the same police station and had zero problems filling out a police report with a white male officer. (His boss referred to me as a “very fine person,” but I gritted my teeth and ignored him.)

If there was a social media option to ask black women like me what their relationship is like with police, it’d be Facebook’s notorious “It’s complicated.” Rolling the dice is more predictable. Sometimes I feel like they are trying to protect and serve us all. Other times, I’ve had entirely too many personal instances with police to challenge any black person who says (s)he’s been profiled.

For someone who has never been profiled, it’s fairly easy to believe we’re all overreacting. But when you’re on the other side of it — even if it’s just as an onlooker or walking on the beach — you will fully understand and never forget how one interaction can make someone stressed out at the sight of them. I still have mixed opinions on defunding police. I’d rather them all be retrained to learn how to diffuse as opposed to “kill first, talk later.” But when I have a positive experience with some, I’m usually left wondering, “How did you figure out how to treat people of color fairly when so many others do not? What makes you different?” To this day, I still don’t know. But I’ve stopped trying to predict how each experience will end up for me — as a woman, as a black woman and as a relative/friend of black men.

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I Do See Color

“Seeing” color is no more a problem than “seeing” height.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

This writer/editor (since 2005), dog owner (22 yrs) and dog caregiver (1 yr) publishes Doggone World, Homegrown, I Do See Color, Tickled and We Need to Talk.

I Do See Color

We are not ashamed of our melanin, and we know you “see” it. Just don’t discriminate and disrespect us because of it.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

This writer/editor (since 2005), dog owner (22 yrs) and dog caregiver (1 yr) publishes Doggone World, Homegrown, I Do See Color, Tickled and We Need to Talk.

I Do See Color

We are not ashamed of our melanin, and we know you “see” it. Just don’t discriminate and disrespect us because of it.

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