Honoring President Obama's request that the controversy involving a black Harvard University professor and a white Cambridge police officer become "a teachable moment," here's my contribution to an old lesson that we white people tend to be slow to learn.
In lectures about the United States' system of white supremacy and the privileges that white people have in that system, I have sometimes told a story about being stopped by police in Austin, TX.
I was driving home in a dilapidated old Volkswagen Beetle on a busy street, late at night after a long day at work. I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, feeling rather cranky and looking rather raggedy. Eager to get home, I saw the yellow light and gunned it. Next I saw the flashing red lights of a police car.
I turned off onto a dark side street and dug in my wallet for my license. Just as the officer got to my car, I was opening the glove compartment to get the vehicle registration when out popped a small knife I keep for emergencies. I looked at the knife, looked at the white officer, and wondered what he would say.
"Sir, would you mind if I held that knife while we talked?" he asked politely. I handed him the knife and my documents, and he walked back to his car. When he returned he handed me those documents, along with a ticket, and my knife, without comment. "Please drive safely," he said. And safely I drove home.
When I told that story to illustrate white privilege, I asked people of color in the room what they imagined might have happened to them in such a situation. The black and Latino men, especially, laughed. "Do you mean before or after I'm on the ground with a gun at my head?" one of them said.