I have never had any reason to fear the police. Not just recently, but historically, there have been a lot of issues between the police and people of color, but I have never done anything unlawful; I’ve never even gotten in trouble by anyone other than my parents, so I saw no reason to fear the police. Why would I, a straight and narrow girl, have any reason to fear the people that stop bad guys? I had somehow forgotten that, just being a person of color can make us a bad guy in the eyes of another.
In the summer of 2017, less than a month before I was supposed to start my first year at Mercyhurst, my uncle, thirteen-year-old sister, and I were going to New Jersey to spend the day at Six Flags. We wanted to have a day of fun together before I had to leave for school.
We were less than thirty minutes away from the park when my uncle was pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt. Often when I think of this moment, I like to tell myself that if I had noticed he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt and told him to put it on, none of the impending instances would have occurred. Though I’m not sure if that’s entirely true.
I don’t remember what all was said between my uncle and the police officer, but next thing I knew, my uncle was told to get out of the car and time slowed down. Then my sister and I were told to get out of the car. Time stopped.
My uncle was handcuffed and talking to one of the officers, while I was placed inhandcuffs. Then my sister was placed in handcuffs. We were put into the back of the police car while the officer searched my uncle’s car. There sat two teenaged girls sat, tears streaming down their faces, terrified, and being treated like criminals.
I don’t know the exact procedure for searching a car while multiple people are there, so I can’t say that my sister and I were being treated differently from anyone else in that situation. What I can say for sure is that, prior to this moment, I never thought that I would be sitting handcuffed in the back of a police car. I certainly never thought that my younger sister would be sitting beside me. Never in a thousand years did I think we would be going through all of this as people who were completely innocent.
It took days before time started again. There are two very distinct things that I remember from that moment. The first is that I tried so hard to stop crying because I needed to be strong for my sister, but no matter how hard I willed the tears to stop, they wouldn’t. The second is that I was scared. I was scared for my uncle, scared for my sister, and scared for myself.
All three of us were being treated like criminals because of one unbuckled seatbelt.The worst part is moments like this happen to people of color all the time. We get killed when we take shortcuts home from the convenience store. We get killed when we’re at home sleeping in our beds. Killed by enemies, strangers, and even the people that vowed to protect us.
But that’s the thing; when you’re a person of color there is no one to protect you.
It’s a very scary reality and every day I’m afraid. I worry about every little interaction and how I’m going to be perceived solely based on the color of my skin. While it isn’t an always present fear, it is a fear that has been instilled in all people of color since birth. It’s fair to say that the fear of perception does not only exist in people of color, but perception can be a life-or-death factor when you are one. Therefore,it matters so much to share our stories with other people. Especially if those people possess privilege.
It’s really easy to ignore racial problems when they don’t pertain to ourselves. It’s even easier to ignore them when we assume someone else is taking care of them. It’s the bystander effect. We assume that it’s fine not to help someone because someone else is probably already taking care of it. It’s safer to be a bystander.
Real change can’t come unless we get out of this mentality. In order to do this, we have to utilize our privileges. Privilege isn’t just dependent on race; there’s socioeconomic privilege, gender privilege, cultural privilege. If there’s a situation that we’re comfortable in, but someone else isn’t, we have privilege in that moment.
Impacting antiracism and diversity is dependent on the use of our privileges. We experience so many hardships in our lives and, unfortunately, these hardships are not unique. Picture the worst moment that has ever happened in your life and then picture someone close to you going through the same thing. Then think about thousands of people also going through it. Just like it should have never happened to you, it should have never happened to anyone else. That’s why it’s important to use our privilege to help others. That’s why we need to actively seek change.
No one deserves hardships and no one deserves to live in fear.