I have been pulled over. I have been in accidents. In both cases, I have interacted with the police. Once I was pulled over for speeding at 1am, which I was, because I missed the transition from 55 to 30. I was doing 60 in a 30, and the cop said “you don’t have a record in New Hampshire, so I’m going to give you a ticket for 45mph instead.” I certainly didn’t fear for my safety.
Once I was pulled over for doing 65 in a 45, along with a dozen other cars, because the police had camped out at the speed limit transition just over a hill, and I didn’t slow down fast enough. It wasn’t fair, but I wasn’t in danger.
Once I was pulled over for doing 37 in a 25, because it was raining and foggy and I missed the sign. I tried to explain that. The cop was surly, and wrote me a ticket for 40 in a 25 instead, and claimed on the ticket that the weather was “clear and dry,” and was definitely punishing me for doing anything other than meekly agreeing with him. But I wasn’t afraid—just annoyed.
Over the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.
If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.
But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.
There are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”
But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.
It’s easy to say members of the fringe aren’t part of the group. We’d prefer that they not be, at least we it comes to public perception. The fringe is an uncomfortable reminder of the flaws in our beliefs: as the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians, as PETA is to environmentalism, as racist Trump supporters are to Republicans, as GamerGate trolls are to gamers, and so many others. We want to say these people are not really Christians, or environmentalists, or whatever group they claim to be part of.
But that’s rarely true—more frequently, these are the members we uncomfortably ignore, espousing views we have left carefully unstated inside our communities. They are bad actors we tolerate in our midst because, somewhere, we decided that solidarity trumps civility. When they finally become the loud voices, we suddenly want to distance ourselves from them, but it’s too late. Our complicity is already established.
People lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.
“How are you today?”
“Fine, how are you?”
I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.
That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.
Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.
That was the question he asked, to a man near the front, when the first answer wasn’t good enough.
It was a workshop I attended recently with people I did not know. Some of them had traveled a ways to attend, but so had the presenter. And, when he called on the man, the presented asked what is an entirely reasonable question: “where are you from?” It was relevant to the work at hand, and something entirely acceptable to ask in a group.
“Boston,” the man replied.
With nary a missed beat, the (older, white, male) presenter replied, “no, where are you really from?”
I couldn’t miss the unspoken “…because of course you aren’t one of us.”
Reliably, whenever issues of sexism, racism, and prejudice appear, so too does the phrase “a few bad apples.” University professors are harassing their students, but universities and media hasten to remind us that they are just a few bad apples. Police officers are abusing the people they are supposed to protect and serve, but mostly when those people are black—still, it’s a few bad apples.
“A few bad apples” is in-group language. It’s what you say when you identify with the group in question, and you just can’t believe anything bad about that group because it would also mean something bad about yourself. It is, in essence, group-level denial: that person did something I can’t be associated with, so that must mean they don’t really represent my group.