When My Whiteness Got in the Way

When we got rear-ended in a round-about this summer, my sweet 6-year-old told me to keep going.

“Mom, it’s fine.  We just got bonked a lil’ bit.”

I grabbed my phone to call my husband when I saw the man walk up to my car.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked, kindly.

“Yeah, definitely.  Totally fine.”

He immediately walked back to his car quickly and didn’t give me an opportunity to ask him about himself.

It was just a stupid fender bender.  I was about to merge into the round-about, but a car was coming too fast, so I stopped before the merge to turn right.  The gentleman behind me must’ve been looking at the car to the left, too, not realizing I’d stopped.  And bonk!- our back bumper got crunched in.

After I made a quick phone call, I noticed a state trooper pulling over to where we were.  I jumped outside to check the back of my car and waited for the officer to finish talking to the gentleman who only slightly inconvenienced our day.

I walked to the passenger side of my car and began laughing and talking with my kids to keep the situation light and avoid any scary feels.  I glanced up at the officer and the gentleman behind me and noticed that he had his hands awkwardly on the top of his steering wheel.

The gentleman behind me was black.  I thought nothing of it.

In fact, he is a local and prominent Somali man who is well respected and trusted in the community.  And unfortunately, on this day, he just so happened to look left during the four seconds I decided to yield in the roundabout.  No big deal, right?

The officer finishes taking the man’s information and approaches my car.  He asks me if everyone is okay and he begins to get some paperwork ready.  After 20 or so minutes, we were able to drive freely to grab frozen yogurt across the street to meet friends as we originally intended.

But it wasn’t until late that night that I realized how gross I felt about the whole situation.  I didn’t realize how my whiteness had gotten in my way.  I nonchalantly walked out of my car to talk and joke with my kids.  I approached the officer to talk with him on the side of the road.  I fumbled as I reached into my car to grab my license and insurance, all while hoping my kids would keep their screeching to a minimum.

But, the gentleman briskly walked back to his car.  He spoke to the officer with his hands placed uncomfortably and visible on his steering wheel.  I didn’t even notice.  I didn’t notice that while we lived in the same situation for a full 24 minutes, how exceedingly different our experiences had been.

I have no reason to believe that the officer was anything but kind, diligent, and professional.   But, I do know that I was blinded  by my whiteness.  I am blinded by the fact that I can freely walk out of my car and reach into my purse without suspicion.  I know that he doesn’t feel always that safety only because of the color of his skin.

So, that night, while feeling gross and heavy, feeling like it was my personal responsibility to right all the wrongs, I decided that instead I would make a promise to this gentleman and all people of color:

I will be more aware.

I will see things more clearly.

I will give space for my blindness- my prejudices- by calling them out and asking others to help me be aware.

I will ask questions.

I will forgive myself, knowing that I can, I will, and want to do better.