So, our times continue to be crazy. I think it’s probably impossible to avoid at least some awareness of the murder of George Floyd, and the protests it has touched off across the United States and elsewhere, and then the brutal, reprehensible crackdowns on these. It is a scary, confusing, sad and important time to be living through, and we must try to make sure that it leads to vital changes in our society, to get us closer to one that is fair and just and safe for every person.
As always, as a writer, my first instinct is to write about it. I have been, however, reining that impulse in. I know I can’t write about racism in any meaningful way. I know there are much better voices out there speaking eloquently on the matter, and I urge you to seek them out and listen to them. I certainly can’t say anything about what it’s like to experience discrimination in Canada, and I have mostly spent the last several days trying to listen to people who can and should speak on these things.
But, it did occur to me that I have known not a few white people who I believed to be generally well-meaning folk, but who did not believe that white privilege exists. I can sort of understand because there was a point in my life when I would have agreed, and would have told you that racism was not a problem in Canada. (I must have been, at certain points in my life, a fairly exasperating person to know.) I grew up in a little bedroom town not far from Toronto which, during my childhood, was overwhelmingly white. I could count the number of non-white classmates I had on my fingers, and in most classes I wouldn’t have needed the second hand to do it.
I suppose it tends to impart a certain point of view. Fortunately patient and generous people helped me to learn a lot since then, and I am better person for it. I guess I am hoping that I might pay back that debt a tiny bit with this story I’m about to tell. Perhaps there is a person out there who thinks the way that I used to who will read about this episode from my childhood, think about it the way I did, and come to think differently. I hope so.
Here we go.
It was summer and I would have been 16 or 17 years old. I had been at a friend’s house playing Dungeons and Dragons until the middle of the night (something like 1 or 2 am would have been our usual stop time – teenagers!) and I was walking home. It was summer, only a short distance (about 20 minutes I guess) away, and at that time I liked going for walks in the quiet of the night-time anyway*.
So there was me heading home in the wee smalls, carrying an empty 1.5L Diet Pepsi bottle. This was long enough ago that they still sold it, in that size, in a big, thick-glass bottle. You got a deposit back for returning them to the store, thus me carrying it with me. I had done basically this exact thing at least dozens of times before.
But this time, I was stopped by the police. A cruiser pulled over and the officers got out and wanted to talk to me. They asked me my name and if I had any ID. I did not. I didn’t even have a wallet on me – I had gone direct to my friend’s to play D&D, had no plans to spend any money, and knew I would be going straight home after. Even if I had, it wouldn’t have helped much, as I didn’t have my driver’s license. They asked my name and address, which I gave them.
Of course they asked what I was doing out so late, and I said I was going home from a friend’s. What had I been doing? I tried ‘playing games’ but that led to ‘what games?’ and so I had to say ‘Dungeons and Dragons’. This was before D&D had experienced it’s current, at least semi-trendy renaissance, so it was the nichiest of nichey nerd hobbies. I could tell the officers thought so. I also had no proof of this – my DM was the one who owned all the books, and he kept the character sheets between games. I suppose I would have had a pencil case with some weird dice in it, but that’s it.
They had more questions anyway. There had, apparently, been some cars broken into recently, and did I know anything about that. Truthfully enough, I said that I did not. The officers mulled things over. One said he would be putting my name into a computer when they got back to the station (again, long time ago) and if it turned out that I was on probation, that I would be in trouble. I was not, so I said that was fine.
And with that, they sent me on my way. I remember that I was a little nervous when the officers got out to talk to me, but I was certainly not afraid of the situation.
I didn’t think much of it at the time, not really, except that my friends and I laughed a bit about the bit where they asked me if I knew about the car break-ins. Were there people who said yes to that? In time the event mostly faded into the background of ‘slightly odd things that have happened to me’. In many ways, it’s a story where nothing happens, and that’s the point. Nothing happened to me.
In more recent years, I have thought about it some more, when friends of mine have told me about their very different experiences being stopped by police, in circumstances not too different from mine, but with very different outcomes. It doesn’t take much imagination to think about how things would have gone, at 2am in a middle-class white neighbourhood, if it had been a black boy instead of a white one, with no ID and a weird story. It’s not hard to know that it would have been different had I been a First Nations kid, with my big heavy glass bottle, when those officers stopped me.
I was sent on my way having given a name and address that could have easily been made up. Maybe the officer really looked me up in his computer at the end of the night, and maybe he didn’t, but they didn’t make even a cursory attempt to check that I really was going where I said I was. It’s not hard to figure why – because I was a white kid in (surely) one of the whitest towns in Ontario and so certain assumptions were made, the most basic of these being that I was telling the truth, or was at least not up to any trouble.
Again, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure that it would not have been that way for a POC child in the same situation. We know it wouldn’t from the stories that fill the news and the stories that these people tell us, about how it went when the cops stopped them and they did have ID and they had a better story than mine and it wasn’t 2am but things still went bad for them.
So. That night, long ago now, though hardly an earth-shattering event, is nevertheless a very tangible way that I can use to remind myself what white privilege is, that it exists, and it really affects people. It doesn’t mean that my life has been easy, or that I’ve never faced any obstacles. It just means that when I was a teenager who hadn’t been doing anything wrong and really was just on my way home, I didn’t suddenly have the police become another one. I went home and went to bed instead of into the back of a cruiser, or worse.
I thank all of my friends over the years who have helped educate that fairly ignorant white kid into someone who, I hope, understands things a little better, and all the other people who don’t even know me who have done the same through things they wrote or said.
And thank you for reading.
* – somewhat tangential to this story, but not really, is the fact that I never had a second thought about going for walks late at night. Even when I went to university in Toronto, I kept doing it. This speaks to the very different experience one has growing up male, rather than female, in our society. I don’t go for late-night walks any more, but I do go for long runs by myself, and am never harassed and never feel unsafe, which I know is not the experience for many who do not present as male. We’ve built a society with lots of different kinds of privilege, and inequality.