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The Experience of Race

Created/Modified: 2013-07-15/2020-05-29

I have no clue what it's like to be a member of a racial minority. I am pretty much the definition of privilege: a straight, white, English-speaking, male, highly-educated, middle-aged, middle-class, card-carrying member of the professional elite.

My only view into the world of minorities is through the distorting mirror of negative experience: the things that don't happen to me. It's hard to be aware of this kind of thing. I'm not aware of never being subject to "stop and frisk", for example, because the possibility never enters my consciousness.

But I do have a very small experience that has given me some insight into the way the world should be versus the way the world is.

It was in Los Angeles in the early 90's. I was a post-doc at Caltech, and looked the part: poor, scruffy, bearded, in old and tattered jeans. I was walking home from a fast-food place at dusk one day when I noticed a uniformed police officer on the corner. I walked past them and they didn't even blink. Then I noticed a helicopter passing low overhead with a searchlight scanning the ground, and saw another cop down the block, on the next corner. This was weird, but an explanation wasn't long in coming: half-way down the block there was a jewelry store with the front door kicked in. Clearly there had been a robbery. I walked past the other cop, who also ignored me, and back to my apartment.

There was something about the whole thing that disturbed me. As a grad student in Canada I had at times wandered around in middle of the night, unable to sleep. This sometimes led me to back alleys and odd places where a person might not be expected to be. Now and then a police constable would see me, and they would stop and question me, politely, just to be sure nothing untoward was going on.

The same thing happened to me ten years later on a winter evening in Canada not far from where I lived. I was working downtown in a small city, but my home was a few miles out of town, in a quite rural area. People rarely walked the distance, particularly in winter. As I turned off the county road toward home, I noticed a police car parked by the verge. The cop rolled down her window and called me over, asking me politely what I was doing there--I was still kind of scruffy looking at that point in my life, and my body language was not that of a happy and contented person. I explained that I lived in the area and went on my way.

This is the kind of interaction I--as a member of the privileged elite--expect to have with the police. If they see me in circumstances that look odd, or unusual, they politely and respectfully check me out. This is as it should be. I'm privileged, not above the law.

That evening in LA I was invisible to the police, although I was very happy to be left alone and quite relieved when I was clear of the block where the robbery had occurred. But it was weird. I was not a very auspicious-looking character at that stage in my life. I was living just above the poverty level, where grabbing something for dinner at Taco Bell was a considerable indulgence, and that was pretty obvious to anyone looking at me.

I'm a scientist, and Issac Asimov once said that the most important phrase in science is not, "Eureka!" but "That's odd..."

It was odd that not only hadn't the police stopped and asked me anything, they had acted as if I wasn't even there.

I spent some time thinking about it, and it eventually dawned on me that the most likely explanation was both simple and terrifying: I am white.

If I had been the same man in every respect, but black, I can't help but believe that those cops would have stopped and questioned me. Everything I've read and heard about the black experience in America supports this.

In that moment I had the tiniest view through the tiniest gap in the wall the separates me from people who are vastly less privileged than I am. I can see barely anything of their actual experience, and understand even less of it.

But it was a profoundly creepy experience, a brief glimpse at the other side of my relatively comfortable reality.

Those on the other side of the wall, from First Nations people to newly arrived immigrants to simply those who didn't choose their parents quite as cleverly as me: they deserve a more level playing field, and simple procedural equality demonstrably won't get us there. I used to believe it would, because hey: it worked out OK for me, despite my considerable deficits, some of which were exacerbated by the same system of privilege that protected me in other ways.

We have a system of special treatment, and it would be a good thing for all of us to create social and legal mechanisms that will carry us toward a more inclusive future. Beyond "building a somewhat more equal society, where anyone can be rich but no one can be poor, through the proven mechanisms of social democracy" there are likely more specific things we can do to address racial inequality in particular, but as someone who isn't even aware of the wall of privilege most of the time, I am not necessarily the best person to talk about what might most help those on the other side.

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