Our house is located on a non-through street. While it is not a dead end, it is shaped more like a horseshoe. It makes our neighborhood semi-secluded for traffic. Generally the cars that navigate the street are ones belonging to the residents and their guests. The homes are close together so that the children can play out on the street and front yards while the adults can talk over raking leaves, shoveling snow and monitoring children.
Yesterday I witnessed racial profiling in our neighborhood. It made me quite uncomfortable and it made me wonder what I can and cannot do about it.
I was outside on our front lawn raking leaves. As I am want to do, with any car passing I usually look up and wave. Most times I recognize the car and driver but if I don't, I still wave because we have had some new neighbors move in and I am not completely sure of all their identities.
A car I didn't recognize was driving quite slowly down our street. It was obvious that they were looking for a specific house number. After a turn-around in a driveway and two failed attempts to park on the curved street, the car stopped across the street from where I was. I was about to approach the car and offer the driver a suggestion for easier parking when a police officer drove up. He started to ask me a question then said never mind and proceeded to get out of his car and approached the parked one. He rapped on the window and said, "Hey, what are you doing here?" As he spoke I cringed because the tone wasn't so nice. The woman was polite in explaining that she was here to do some cleaning and wondered why she was questioned "because I am black?"
The officer accompanied her to the house of her appointment and very shortly got back into his car. The woman then came back to her car to get her equipment. I went over to talk to her and apologized for the general misunderstanding. I explained that there had been a bunch of break-ins in our neighborhood recently and the community association was told by police to call them if someone we didn't recognize was in the neighborhood. We had a nice chat. She told me where she worked and how she knew our neighbor. I offered her a place to park in our driveway if she ever had trouble parking.
I found the incident disturbing. Partly because it was embarrassing that one of our neighbors felt threatened by a "stranger" in our midst and called the police . Just because she didn't look like one of us. I wondered, will the neighbors now be calling the police on my sons' friends when they come over to our home to visit?
I felt disturbed because in the few minutes that the officer and woman were validating her reason to be in our neighborhood, I had the panicked feeling, "What if she thinks I called the police? What if she really isn't here for legitimate reasons and decides to retaliate?" I was disturbed that I had that thought at all.
I also was embarrassed that the police officer's tone wasn't nicer. It seemed to go in line with all that I hear on the radio about the clashes with police and people of color. But then again, I haven't walked in his shoes, seen what he has seen nor am privy to what he knows.
I understand why my neighbor called. I realized afterwards who probably did make the call. These folks have had a number of break-ins at their home over the last couple of months. They are overly cautious.
I can see why the racial problems are escalating. It doesn't take very long nor take much imagination to have a full scale misunderstanding. Thank goodness the woman was very gracious.
What can be done? I do think conversation and getting to know one another is key. I generally don't like to get involved with neighborhood things but I somehow felt that I should reach out to that woman. I am glad I did.
I also realize that sometimes things happen, misunderstandings occur and it is a risk to try to rectify. If the woman did suspect that I called the police and I had not talked to her, both of us would've have continued building the wall of stereotype and division. She would've thought I was another paranoid privileged white person and I would've thought that she was another defensive black person.
Sometimes trying to reach out and talk doesn't help at all. The walls are quite thick. Neither party wants to hear what the other has to say. Judgements and ideas are solidly formed. But over time, walls can be chipped away. Thoughts can be changed. Stereotypes can be laid to rest.
There is a great story of racial tension and transformation called The Best of Enemies:
"C. P. Ellis grew up in the poor white section of Durham, North Carolina, and as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan. Ann Atwater, a single mother from the poor black part of town, quit her job as a household domestic to join the civil rights fight. During the 1960s, as the country struggled with the explosive issue of race, Atwater and Ellis met on opposite sides of the public school integration issue. Their encounters were charged with hatred and suspicion. In an amazing set of transformations, however, each of them came to see how the other had been exploited by the South's rigid power structure, and they forged a friendship that flourished against a backdrop of unrelenting bigotry.
Rich with details about the rhythms of daily life in the mid-twentieth-century South, The Best of Enemies offers a vivid portrait of a relationship that defied all odds. By placing this very personal story into broader context, Osha Gray Davidson demonstrates that race is intimately tied to issues of class, and that cooperation is possible--even in the most divisive situations--when people begin to listen to one another." (taken from the sales description at UNC press)
I still am stumped about the best way to handle situations like those I witnessed but I hope that by keeping the dialogue and conversations open, we might be able to have some type of break through in our racial divide.
What about you? Have you ever witnessed or been part of racial profiling? What happened? How did it make you feel?
Have you ever experienced profiling close to home?