White Colleague's Recent Confrontation With Police Is Stark Reminder of White Privilege

AlterNet senior editor Cliff Weathers was waiting for the bus in his hometown of South Nyack on the way to Manhattan for the annual AlterNet holiday party last week, when a local policeman rudely confronted him. The cop accused Weathers of taking pictures of cars and said he wasn't allowed to do that.


Weathers was not taking pictures, and was outraged at what seemed like pointless harassment. He got into a heated confrontation with the officer, and when he got to the Christmas party, he was still pretty worked up. He mentioned the incident to his colleagues, including Terrell J. Starr, another senior editor. Starr, who is black, was amazed at the degree to which Weathers, who is white, felt comfortable expressing his outrage so vociferously to a cop. As unpleasant as the encounter was for Weathers, Starr also thought it was a clear example of how different encounters with the cops are, depending on whether you are black or white. 

The two men talked more about the incident the next day during a Gmail Instant Message chat. Here are excerpts of their conversation:

Terrell Jermaine Starr: Great! So it was cool seeing you yesterday and hearing about your experience with cops in your town. I was amazed by two things: 1) that the cop was such an asshole; and 2) the comfort you felt responding to his asshole behavior. Tell me what happened again?

Cliff Weathers: I was waiting for the bus and standing on the opposite side of the street because you can better see the bus from there. The bus stop is in front of Village Hall. I decided to call the bus service to ask where the bus was because it was 20 minutes late. As I was talking to the woman on the phone, a cop approached me in a surly manner and got in my face and asked why I was taking pictures of cars. My reptilian brain kicked in: I didn't need to justify what I was doing so I didn't say yes or no. It is legal, in fact, to photograph things from the street, although I was not doing that. Still, all I did was visit a website to get a phone number so I could make a simple phone call. I called him an idiot. I may have said "fucking idiot" or even "stupid fucking idiot." So then he told me another cop saw me photographing cars, so I called that cop an idiot and the four inches between my nose and the cop's nose was now two inches, because I was getting back into his face.

TJS: Wow. 

CW: Then I told him: "I live here, you can't do this to me," which is wrong because anyone, despite where they live, can do what I did, which was use a cellphone. The bus was now coming and he demanded my name and asked where I lived, and he stood between me and where the bus picks people up.  

I wanted to get on the bus so I gave him my name and address. I mean, I'm standing on a public sidewalk minding my own business and next thing you know I've got a surly cop breathing down my neck, interrogating me on the street. So, yes, calling someone an idiot is not something I'm proud of, but I was reacting as a human might in a very uncomfortable situation. I didn't feel I needed to defend myself or my actions, so I went on the offensive and that's the first thought that came into my head. And, frankly, It worked. 

TJS: I would have felt the same anger but I wouldn't have acted the way you did. That cop would have probably thrown me to the ground. I likely would not have made it to our holiday party last night had I done what you did. I wonder why? *Rubs black wrist* What you did was White Privilege Exhibit A! 

CW: Yes, I think so. 

TJS: I mean, you weren't scared for your safety?

CW: In all honesty, what I said was crude and impolite. But what's more inexcusable, a premeditated attempt to harass someone who is in no way engaged in any illegal activity or that person's visceral and reflexive reaction to feeling that his rights are being violated? I am guilty of using words I shouldn't have used, but I was shocked enough that I wasn't able to articulate my anger at his actions well. I have such a strong sense of my rights, that defending them is just a kneejerk reaction. I don't think twice. 

TJS: Yeah. I would have tried to just think of any way I could leave the situation alive and unharmed. I would have been extremely cautious. 

CW: It's also how I was taught. My father taught me to stand up for myself at all costs. 

TJS: My father taught me to stay alive. "Don't fight the cop, fight the judge," is what he always tells me.

CW: Funny, two different sides of 8 Mile, two different lessons. 

TJS: Yes. We're both born and raised in Detroit, Mich. When I saw you at the party, you still seemed worked up about it. When you told me the whole story, as a human being, I was upset for you. Then my black side said, OK white man, use that privilege.

CW: Sure, I know that I have a societal privilege you don't. 

TJS: I put myself in your position and all I would have thought of was surviving. I would have thought about my rights later. I know my rights, too. I also know that cops don't give a damn about them.

CW: I was surprised you didn't say anything that night. I told another friend, who is black, and those were the first words out of his mouth: "White privilege." I got it. 

TJS: Yeah, keep in mind that black folks in America are in a state of shock with all of these cop killings. You know how many black folks have been shot in the last week alone? Unarmed? You're not a small man, either. We're both six feet. I just see your six-foot frame in that cop's face. Me in that same situation? Nah, that wouldn't have had the same outcome. I'm sure of it. 

CW: You know, the word "idiot" was unfortunate, and I'm the first person to admit that, but I didn't say, "Oh, no I'm in trouble now." If anything, I was only disappointed that I couldn't think of an articulate argument at the time. 

TJS: But that is not the point. It's not about words. Cops deal with abusive language far worse than anything you said. The point is that you reacted in a human way. The cops were rude but they honored your humanity. I am doubtful a black man your size could have done that. Think of Eric Garner. He did almost what you did when confronted by cops. He felt harassed and didn't want to take it anymore. He was very non-aggressive. We know how that ended. The cop choked him to death. 

CW: Still, we should all be able to react the way that I did and reasonably expect the same result. 

TJS: Eric Garner did not have that luxury extended to him. 

CW: Quite true. I saw that video when it first surfaced and I thought, cell phones with video cameras are such a new thing, only been around for six or so years. Think of all the times that this happened that we don't know about. 

TJS: Oh yeah. And what is so fucked up about your story is that many people who deny there is police brutality and abuse against black people are likely to relate more to you than me. 

CW: True. It's been said that technology will democratize us. It didn't work for Eric Garner, unfortunately. 

TJS: No, it doesn't. #DemocracyIsForWhitePeople. But I think the heart of what we're discussing is that all you were trying to do is live your life. And some cop accused you of something you didn't do or that you have a right to do and made your life hard. All you wanted to do was get on a bus and meet your colleagues. Eric Garner just wanted to live his life and feed his kids. All of these people killed by cops just wanted to live their lives. 

CW: My white friends are thinking I should march into the police station and demand an apology. Odd. 

TJS: Are you serious? 

CW: Oh, yeah. 

TJS: I just heard Stephen A. Smith on First Take talk about how often he is stopped by cops. I doubt he reports all of the unjust stops he endures. 

CW: A lot of my black friends let a lot of stuff go. A lot of black people don't report the harassment they get. 

TJS: Unfortunately, it is normal to us but it shouldn't be. That is why I am so happy activists are working to empower marginalized communities to fight back. We shouldn't have to take this. And I know I am sick and tired of it and I am learning how to fight back, too. I'm planning on becoming more active in the protests and using my skills as a reporter to fight abusive behavior of police beyond what I do now. We should all have the right to be human with cops, just like you. And leave the situation alive, just like you did. 

CW: You know, I never saw white privilege until small examples were pointed out to me. 

TJS: Oh yeah?

CW: Like my being able to run a tab at a bar while the guy next to me has to pay cash for each drink. Someone pointed that out to me 15 years ago or so, and it was an eyeopener. Now I see it in very small ways. Taxi cabs. Remember Yaphet Kotto trying to get a cab in New York City and he couldn't?

TJS: No. Don't recall.

CW: It was a segment on Michael Moore's TV show. They filmed a black man trying to get a cab and he couldn't. 

TJS: Oh yeah. I remember. Of course, I don't have to remember because I live it every day. But what do you think someone like you can do to help more white people realize their privilege? I think that should be the takeaway here. I mean, we grew up in the same city but have two very different realities and understandings of authority. 

CW: It's odd, because I still probably only see this from my perspective. And the more I think about it, I only see small pieces of evidence by comparison. 

TJS: So, you know you have privilege, but not sure of how you can articulate how others who look like you also have it? 

CW: Yes, because I don't know when it's working for me. 

TJS: Wow! See, that is something. We black folks always know when it's working for you. When we have to report to some white person who is not qualified but is friends with other white managers with power to hire and fire. Even think of our profession, journalism. It is 88 percent white. Many of the new startups are mostly staffed with white reporters. Silicon Valley is almost all white.

Cops are more likely to shoot an unarmed black man than they are an armed white man. We see white privilege in our white friends, family and white folks in general everyday. Because we have to. That you don't even know when white privilege is working for you is the epitome of white privilege. But at least you know you have it and that is the first step! 

CW: Some people get defensive when I bring up the subject. A Tim Wise article has cost me a friendship. 

TJS: Oh. Black people unfriend people on Facebook all of the time, especially during elections and news verdicts over white people who kill blacks, be they cops or whomever. Welcome to the club.

CW: I don't know this to be true, but I think some people are worried that talking about race is somehow terrible. You talk about race, they say the "race card" to try to shut you up. Or they bring up Al Sharpton, because all black people are Al Sharpton. 

TJS: Of course. Al Sharpton is not the problem and they know that. It is easier for them to fight folks who fight racism than to look deep inside and fight racism itself.

CW: I know, but as a white person, bringing up race in front of a room filled with white people and you see a lot of people are very uncomfortable with the issue, and I'm talking liberal people. The people who are blatantly racist will say something crude, but the other people just squirm in their seats not knowing what to say. 

TJS: I think liberals are the worst when it comes to discussing racism. I see so many white liberals on TV expressing how unjust our legal system is but they still won't hire black people. I wonder how many black people work from Colbert, Jon Stewart and all of these other white primetime white liberals or liberals at major publications. Twitter posted a #BlackLivesMatters sign at their headquarters but barely have any black employees. Liberalism doesn't mean much to me if it doesn't get me a job.

CW: The bad part is, and it's hard to admit it, if they see the system is working for them, why do they want to change it?

TJS: Exactly. We associate that thinking with conservatives but liberals, in my opinion, have the same mindset. They can be the leading voices for racial injustice on network TV but not hire black people. 

CW: Yup. 

TJS: So that is why I don't consider myself a liberal or anything; I'm black and I'm interested in anything that will work in the best interest of my black existence. 

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