Monday, February 2, 2009

A Question of Race?

Last week I was out with a friend of mine in Harlem. My friend happens to be a white woman, blond and beautiful, which in this case has bearing on the story. At least I think so. Here’s what happened:

We were on 125th street (a busy area) just after dusk, headed for the subway, when we were prevented from crossing the street by a rush of police cars, lights strobing, sirens screaming. After a moment’s pause, more cop cars came out of nowhere--regular sedans, NYPD vans, ambulances, all kinds of emergency personnel, from all directions, within the space of several blocks around us.

I said to my friend, “Something’s going down.” I told her that when I’d worked in Harlem, I’d occasionally seen police turn out en masse like this for some big bust operation. To be honest, the level of police activity made me anxious. I wanted to keep my head down and get in the subway asap.

My friend reacted differently. As two cops hurried toward us on foot, she said, “Let’s ask them.” Then she did just that. “What’s going on?” The cop didn’t really answer her, but that’s not the point. When she stepped toward them, I literally, physically shied away from the encounter. It was involuntary.

Afterward, she found me on the other side of the sidewalk. I couldn’t believe that she’d stopped them, and I told her so. But she hadn’t thought twice about it.

It never in a million years would’ve occurred to me to speak to them. She and I talked about the dynamics at play, and we decided it comes down to race. As a white woman walking down the street, she (perhaps subconsciously) sees a police officer as a protector, a source of information, one of the good guys. As a black woman walking down the street, I see a police officer and I worry what he’s up to and whether he’s looking at me.

It doesn’t matter that I’m basically a law abiding citizen (Well, I like to drive fast. So sue me.) or that I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just what it is.


sally said...

So you never did find out what was going on, huh?

I think more than just race, it is also how you grow up -- which is often related. If you learn to question authority in general and to always ask questions, you would have felt better about approaching them. I would guess a man would also be more likely to approach them than a woman as well.

Anonymous said...

i dont think it's gender more than race. i'm a black woman too, but you think a black man would want to go up to the cops more than me? no. most of the guys i know leave them alone as a rule cuz they dont want to get in trouble or call attention.
i'm a big one to question authority, but also know that can't always trust authority not to f you up.

sally said...

You're right, I don't think it's gender more than race. My point was that how you grow up and are socialized is really what probably determines whether or not you will speak up. And I think that how you grow up and are socialized is often related to how you identify to your race, gender, socio-economic background, etc.

You bring up a good point about the distinction between questioning authority and trusting. Does anybody really trust authority nowadays? Perhaps the new administration can change that =)

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