Whiteness


I remember vividly sitting on the curb outside of the police station.

Looking around.

Handcuffed and confused.

My mind was running a mile a minute.

I knew I had a mission, but I could not quite grasp what it was yet. The messages…unclear. The voices…distorted.

When I could break through the noise inside my head, I heard officers talking about me, but could only make out pieces of it.

“He was in the back of their pickup truck and wouldn’t get out.”

“Back of their pickup truck?”

“Yeah, back of their pickup truck. They drove him over here.”

It has been about 13 years since my (thankfully only) psychotic episode and my memories of it are hazy at best. I guess that is what happens when your mind fully breaks from reality. I’ll write more another time about the episode itself, but for the moment, I just want to focus in on one particular memory that remains very strong  through the haze.

That memory is one of being at a police station, apprehended for, I’m assuming, trespassing. What I don’t remember is being charged. What I don’t remember is being treated as a threat. What I don’t remember is being thrown in a cell. I don’t remember those things because they did not happen.

As it was relayed to me later, apparently the cops:

  • saw that I was wearing Habitat for Humanity gear
  • called the people that they knew ran Habitat in the area
  • arranged for me to be picked up without being processed

They also assuredly noticed I am white. If I wasn’t, I have to imagine that situation would have gone very differently. I reflect on that whenever I see that a mentally ill black man ended up dead or in jail after an interaction with the police. When I first started talking about my episode many, many years ago, I talked about it in a “I could have been dead or in jail if not for the grace of God” kind of a way. As I’ve learned more and become more socially conscious over time, I began to discuss it in a “I could have been dead or in jail if not for the grace of Whiteness” kind of a way. 

White privilege means that my illness is first thought of as a health issue rather than a threat.

White privilege means that I’m much less likely to be read as ‘dangerous’.

White privilege means I have better access to treatment and care.

When it comes to societal privilege, my cup runneth over…excessively. As a straight, white, cisgender man, I’m benefit from tremendous unearned advantage. The only marginalized identity I hold is that of someone living with a severe mental illness. It speaks to the pervasive nature of our country’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that even in the area where I experience marginalization, I’m still protected by my privilege.

For a point of comparison, I remember being at a club in Baltimore in my late teens/early 20s with a couple of my black male friends. As we were leaving the club, one of the officers started jawing at one of my friends…who was doing absolutely nothing at the time. He was taunting him and trying to create a problem where none existed. He was trying to bait my friend into an altercation. An altercation where he could then use force and have my friend still get in trouble. I had to physically put myself between my friend and the officer to try and keep my friend safe. Just to remind you…this was all because he was leaving a club in a peaceful manner while being black. 

Now compare that to the response I received for actually trespassing while being either non-responsive to commands or speaking incoherently.

I’m incredibly thankful to the Habitat for Humanity folks who came and picked me up, watched over me, kept me safe and got me home. I will forever feel indebted to them. However, the fact that they were called at all is a direct reflection of how whiteness is the protective factor to end all protective factors.

 

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