Unless you live off the grid, you’ve probably seen the video featuring Jamal Jones, an Indiana man who found himself on the receiving end of a police taser while sitting in the passenger seat of his girlfriend’s car. Police pulled over Lisa Mahone for not wearing a seat belt. She handed over her license but when officers asked the same of Mr. Jones, he explained that he had no license (due to a recent traffic ticket). At some point in this interaction, one of the officers drew his gun and asked Mr. Jones to step out of the car.
Perhaps because just weeks earlier, a police officer in South Carolina shot a man he pulled over for the same offense, Mr. Jones and Ms. Mahone were afraid. Ms. Mahone called 911 to say so. Her fears were realized when the officers smashed the passenger window (sending shards of glass all over Mr. Jones and the children in the back seat) and delivered 50,000 volts to her passenger.
I recently expressed my sympathy for Mr. Jones in conversation with a good friend of mine who is a white male – I’ll call him “Jake.” Jake has no sympathy for Mr. Jones. He doesn’t understand why Mr. Jones didn’t follow the police instructions and step out of the vehicle. He doesn’t understand why anyone would be afraid to do so, if he had done nothing wrong.
Jake is not stupid and he’s not racist. But he’s been a white male since birth, and he wears his white male privilege like a thick second skin – he doesn’t even know its there. I had trouble penetrating it to argue that Mr. Jones and Ms. Mahone were acting rationally.
Like it or not, our skin color and our gender dictate some of the things we are taught to worry about – what events or situations may bring danger. White males get the shortest list. Jake doesn’t worry about being shot by a police officer (or that his son might be). He doesn’t worry that a routine traffic stop might end in being searched or handcuffed. He doesn’t even worry about being pulled over for not wearing his seat belt.
White male privilege starts early. In the wealthy suburb where I live, teenaged boys loiter on street corners, jaywalk, and carry weed in their front pockets without worrying they’ll be questioned, ticketed, or searched. They probably don’t have any personal or cultural memories of law enforcement that aren’t positive. They will grow up to be like Jake, with no reason to worry about routine traffic stops.
I readily admit that I experience white privilege. But the “male” part of that privilege carries its own advantages, and I notice their absence. Women are taught from an early age to worry about things Jake never considers.
As a teen, he wasn’t warned to always bring “change to make a phone call” (I’m really showing my age now) in case his date turned out to be unsafe. The magazines he reads don’t include safety tips on how to check the backseat of your car with your flashlight before you get in if it’s late at night. He was never warned that danger might lurk on his own home turf – his college campus, the parking garage outside his office, or his favorite jogging trail after dark.
White male privilege means not worrying about things that women and people of color worry on a regular basis. We don’t get to pick our gender or skin color, but we do own our attitudes. We are responsible for our own assumptions. And Jake needs to stop assuming that those without white male privilege can afford to behave as if they have it.
I think it was totally rational for Mr. Jones and Ms. Mahone to believe they were in danger. Jake disagrees, but his view of what’s dangerous and rational is based on a life lived with a special privilege he didn’t earn or ask for, and one that is hard for him to see.
But I can see it. White male privilege is still a thing.