We’ve been home for a couple of days now, and we’re finally settled back in enough that I can take this time to write without feeling guilty that I should be doing something else. Tomorrow, I need to begin prepping for the new semester, which starts in about a week, so this will have to be the last letter I send you.
Not too long after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, someone started the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite. It seemed at first like a marvelous idea: white people tweeting stories about times they’d been stopped by the police and been treated politely, kindly, even indulgently—precisely the opposite of the kind of treatment Black people have come to expect from law enforcement. The more I read the #CrimingWhileWhite tweets, however, the more skeptical I became. Yes, there were plenty of 140-character-long stories that fit the hashtag’s purpose perfectly, and, yes, the effect of telling those stories one after the other was to highlight the fundamental unfairness of how cops all too often treat Black people. Highlighting that unfairness, however, seemed to be about as deep as the hashtag could go. Don’t get me wrong. Fairness is important, but, as a framework for dealing with white privilege, it has definite limitations.
This default focus on fairness was why I didn’t post my own #CrimingWhileWhite story, despite the fact that it matched the hashtag’s intended message. Basically, a cop pulled me over because my rear license plate was missing, letting me go with just a warning that I should replace it as soon as possible. He didn’t even write me a ticket. The full narrative of that encounter, however, is far more complex than this brief summary suggests, and Twitter’s 140-character format would have meant the loss of that complexity. So I tried instead to write the story as an essay in itself, but nothing I wrote did justice to what I thought I was trying to say, so I put it aside. I want to tell you the story now because I think it’s relevant to what I’ve been writing in these letters.
About thirty years ago, I was driving my girlfriend home late one night along an otherwise deserted stretch of the Northern State Parkway. From behind us, a patrol car’s all-of-a-sudden flashing lights illuminated the dark. At first, I didn’t think the lights were for me, so I moved over into the right lane to let the car pass. It, however, moved into the right lane behind me, and a voice came over its loudspeaker telling me to pull over, which—confused about why I needed to; I knew I wasn’t speeding—I of course did.
As I watched the officer approach my car in the rear view mirror, I was frantically buttoning the inner placket of the shirt I was wearing, which my girlfriend had playfully undone while I was driving. The design of the shirt—with two sets of plackets, one inner and one outer—made it look like I was wearing two shirts, and I was just starting to button the outer placket when the officer’s knock on the driver’s side window interrupted me. I rolled the window down. “Please step out of the car,” he said. I could see he was white. “Bring your license and registration with you, and come around to the passenger side.”
He watched me take the registration out of the glove compartment, then walked over to where he wanted me to stand.
“Who’s in the car with you?” he asked when I got there, taking my license and registration from me.
“My girlfriend,” I answered.
“What was all that commotion I saw in the front seat after you pulled over?”
“I was buttoning my shirt,” I told him, and I reached to open the outer placket so he could see what I was talking about.
“Stop!” the cop said very forcefully. “Do that slowly.”
“What?” I asked, a bit of a challenge in my voice, since I didn’t at first understand why he was suddenly talking to me like that.
“Open both sides at the same time,” he instructed, “one with each hand, and lift the shirt up.”
Now I understood. “I don’t–” have a gun, I wanted to say, but he interrupted me. “Just do what I told you!”
I glanced quickly around and noticed that his partner, whom I could not see clearly, had stepped out of their vehicle. I don’t remember if they had their guns drawn, or if their hands were at their holsters, or if maybe one had his gun out while the other was poised to draw if he had to. Or maybe their hands were nowhere near their guns. I really can’t recall. What I do know is how suddenly afraid and even more confused I was that they were now treating me as if I might be armed.
I held the front of my shirt open and up, while the officer shined his flashlight on me. “Keep the shirt up,” he said, “and turn around.” I did as I was told.
“Where are you driving this late at night?” he asked, his voice considerably more relaxed now that he knew I didn’t have a gun tucked into my pants.
“I’m taking my girlfriend home,” I said as I straightened my shirt.
“Where does she live?”
“She goes to Adelphi University.”
“Where do you live?”
“In Stony Brook. I’m in graduate school.”
“Whose car is this?”
“How long have you had it?”
“A couple of years. I got it from my grandfather.”
He examined my license and registration very closely, shining his flashlight once or twice so he could see my face as he did so. Then he asked, “Did you know your rear license plate was missing?”
“No, I didn’t,” I said, and he took me to the back of the car to show me.
Car thieves, he explained, take the rear plates off the vehicles they steal so the cars can’t be identified from behind. “That’s why we stopped you,” he said, returning my license and registration. “There’s a ring of car thieves operating around here. We thought you might be one of them.” Then his voce grew a little stern, “Just make sure you get that license plate taken care of as soon as possible.”
“I will, officer,” I said. “Thanks!”
That was the end of it. I got back into my car; he walked back to his vehicle; and he and his partner drove away. As I said before, he didn’t even write me a ticket.
As soon as I buckled my seat belt and put the key in the ignition, my girl friend, who was also white, started teasing me. “You should have seen yourself,” she smiled. “You were so scared. You should’ve stood up to them more.”
“You do realize they thought I might have a gun on me, right?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You didn’t have a gun. They weren’t going to shoot you.”
“I don’t know what they would or would not have done,” I said. “What I know is that they could have, and I’m glad nothing I did made them think they had to.” I turned the key, the engine turned over, I pulled back out onto the parkway, and I drove her home.
Not once—and if this is not a sign of white privilege, I don’t know what is—not once in all the years since that incident took place did I think about it in racial terms, not until I saw the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag. What made me want to tell you the story now, though, was how I felt when I heard on NPR—I was driving home from work a few weeks before we left for Europe—the audio of Philando Castile’s girlfriend talking to Castile, and to the cop who shot him, as Castile sat in the seat next to her, and she couldn’t do anything to stop him from dying.
The similarities between my story and his started to haunt me almost immediately. I was driving with my girlfriend; so was he—and their daughter was in the car was well. He was pulled over for a broken taillight; I was pulled over because my rear license plate was missing. In each case, the cop believed something potentially violent and deadly might be going on beyond the routine traffic stop. Jeronimo Yanez, the cop who stopped Castile, said that Castile resembled a suspect in an armed robbery; the cops who stopped me thought I might be a car thief. Castile told Yanez that he had a licensed gun in the car; the cop in my situation wanted to make sure I did not have a gun tucked into the waistband of my pants. Philando Castile died because Yanez thought Castile was reaching for his gun, not his wallet; the cop who stopped me gave me the chance to prove I didn’t have a gun, and I walked away with my life. Castile was Black, I sat in my car thinking after I’d parked and turned off the radio. I am white.Is that fact the only reason I’m alive today?
Or, to state it more directly, Do I owe my whiteness my life?
The question may seem melodramatic at first. After all, my being white might have had nothing to do with the fact that those officers did not shoot me. It’s entirely possible that they would have treated a Black version of me the same way. What makes the question a valid one nonetheless is that there’s no way to know for sure. To take it from another, less dramatic perspective, ask yourself why the cop who spoke with me didn’t write me a ticket. My guess is that your first impulse would be to say because he and I were both white. Again, to be fair to him, there’s no way to know for sure. He might not have written the ticket because I was young and he wanted to cut me a break, and it is certainly within the realm of possibility that he might have done the same thing for a young Black man. I’ve always wondered, however, if he didn’t write me the ticket because he didn’t know I was Jewish. Because, in other words, he didn’t know he had before him a chance to give a “cheap Jew” at least some small measure of what all cheap Jews “deserve,” i.e., to be made to pay?
I have no doubt that most people who aren’t Jewish will say that I am being unnecessarily paranoid, and maybe even most Jews will too, at least at first. I’d be willing to bet, however, that if you asked those Jews again, most of them would say something like, “There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Richard is right.” Because Jews know about antisemitism what people of color know about racism, that it is not merely an unhappy accident which some white people escape and some don’t. Rather, it is a meaningful and functional part of our culture that lives in everyone who calls our culture home. Everyone. The only real question is where you position yourself in relation to the lines that racism and antisemitism draw.
When that Jewish academic claimed to know what Black people feel, I think it’s clear that he was trying to declare his own disloyalty to white privilege. However, by asserting his Jewishness as that which gave him access to Black people’s feelings, he was also asserting that a line exists within him beyond which, because he is Jewish, and despite the fact that he was born into a white body, he ceases to be white. To put it another way, he was claiming that, because he is oppressed as a Jew, he does not experience—the full implication is that he has never experienced—what white privilege feels like, i.e., that physical sense of being at home in your own skin and therefore in the world, while at the same time doubting that anyone who isn’t white can ever have that same experience
To give whiteness a body in this way—to make it not just about ideas, but about feelings—is to give it also a metaphysics, an ontology, and an epistemology. It is to propose, in other words, that whiteness both asks and offers answers to the question of what it means for white people to be in the world; of what white people can know about that world; and of how we are able to know it. In a book called White, Richard Dyer argues that whiteness roots the answers to these questions in the medieval Christian idea that a body’s value is defined by the quality of the spirit that inhabits it. The souls of men, for example, were understood by the Church to be superior to the souls of women, and so men’s bodies were valued much more highly than women’s. Similarly, the souls of Christians were understood to be far superior to those of the Jews, and so Christian bodies had more value than Jewish bodies.
Dyer asserts that this ability to imagine different bodies as being different in essence, not just in form, is a prerequisite of the racist imagination, and he lists some of the ways Christianity has imagined such differences in racial terms:
the persistence of the Manichean dualism of black:white that could be mapped on to skin colour difference; the role of the Crusades in racialising the idea of Christendom (making national/geographic others into enemies of Christ); the gentilising and whitening of the image of Christ and the Virgin in painting; the ready appeal to the God of Christianity in the prosecution of doctrines of racial superiority and imperialism.
Dyer does not argue that Christianity is itself racially white, pointing to the Black church in the United States and the growth of Christianity in Africa and Latin America as obvious evidence to the contrary. Rather, he insists that Christianity “has…been thought and felt in distinctly white ways for most of its history.” This notion, that whiteness, and therefore racism, cannot be understood apart from its roots in the same Christianity from which antisemitism emerged suggests to me a new avenue for understanding the relationship between these two forms of hatred. Unfortunately, though, I do not have the time right now to walk down that avenue even just a little bit, As I said, the new semester starts very soon, and I need to prep my classes.
I know, Jonathan, that these letters were not the kind of response you were asking me for when you messaged me about that Jewish academic’s submission; and I know as well that the version of him I’ve been imagining has probably done him an injustice. Nonetheless, I am happy and grateful that your message to me about him moved me to write. The letters have forced me to push my thinking about some of these issues further than I have pushed them in the past, and I have learned some things about myself in the process. I hope you have found the letters thought provoking and useful as well.
Richard Jeffrey Newman is a poet, essayist, and co-translator of classical Persian poetry. He has published two books of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006). He has published a chapbook of poetry, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016), and three books of translation from classical Persian poetry, most recently The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011). Newman is on the executive board of Newtown Literary, a Queens, NY-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, NY. He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. www.richardjnewman.com