Yesterday was a personal object lesson in racism and white privilege in America. In the early afternoon, I ordered a pizza for delivery; I would be tutoring a student that evening and my wife would be getting home late from a conference in DC, so I thought we would both appreciate the leftovers. Upon his arrival, the deliveryman called up, asking if I could meet him outside of our high-rise. By itself, this is unremarkable: our building has a concierge desk, and a call from a deliveryman usually means that the desk is unstaffed for a moment. So, I went downstairs.
I wasn’t startled to see the concierge desk unstaffed. But something else did take me by surprise. In the lobby were several police officers, wearing their flak vests and talking with the front office staff. The pizza guy’s car was idling outside. I walked—unnoticed—around the police and outside to the car turnaround in front of our building.
The deliveryman was a Black man. He thanked me, repeatedly (and unnecessarily), for meeting him outside. He said he had looked inside and felt uncomfortable going in. If you don’t immediately understand why he was afraid, I can only assume that you’ve been held hostage for decades in Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride.
Later that evening, my wife got home from her conference, and she realized that she had lost her cell phone at the hotel. I booked a Zipcar and drove into DC—it was only a twenty minute drive from where we live in Virginia. I recovered the phone from hotel security, and then went through the steps to unlock her iPhone. On the corner of E Street, a plainclothes officer flashed his badge and asked why I was in possession of two iPhones (with the implication that I could be selling stolen goods). I told my story, and in a few minutes was on my way.
And here’s the moral of this story. As a white man, I was given the luxury to explain. To tell a story. (I’ve been told I’m a decent hand at the storytelling gig.) By dint of skin color alone, I have little to fear. That is not true for people of color, who have every reason to be distrustful of people who pin their badges and holster their firearms with prejudice. The Black pizza deliveryman who sees a few cops, their agenda unknown, in an apartment building’s lobby—American law enforcement does not afford him the right of an explanation, however peacefully he’s willing to provide it.
I hope that these anecdotes speak for themselves.