"You ain’t getting outta here anytime soon, young man. You’re in big trouble.”
I could only see the police officer’s lips through the minuscule opening in the steel door of my cramped jail cell, but his words reverberated against the cinder block walls and shook me to the core.
“You’re charged with assault.” He said sternly.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood upright as chills ran through my body. I wanted to throw up, but was paralyzed. If it was not for the cold grey concrete slab of a bed that I was sitting on in the police station cell, I would have fainted hearing the officer’s words.
Less than ten people in my life know how harrowing this experience was for me and now I am sharing it with the world.
I intentionally made my arrest become a fading, distant memory. I never talked about it and wanted to forget it. I pretended as though it had not happened. But throughout these last few weeks, while police brutality and racial inequities have surfaced to the forefront of everyone’s mind, I keep thinking about it. I think about how different my life would have been if I were not so privileged.
I wanted to scream out loud but with my teeth clenched with fear, I barely uttered a sound.
For the first time, as I sat in the cell, I was scared for my life. “My life is over. Everything I’ve worked for has evaporated in an instant.” I never wanted my mother’s love, my father’s support and my brother’s resolute strength more in my life than in that moment. All I could do to stem the panic was to dream of the four of us ice skating in the hockey rink I grew up playing on.
My momentary dream was interrupted to take fingerprints and mugshots. “I’m so mad at myself for letting this happen! I don’t deserve this. It’s not fair!” I thought as the reality of my situation came roaring back.
It all happened in an instant. I remember getting aggressively wrestled out of the bar by a group of big bouncers. In a moment of panic and unable to break free, I punched one of them, cutting his lip. The next second I was tackled and pinned to the ground by several bouncers. I remember feeling crushed by their hulking weight. They had my arms twisted behind me. Any attempt to move felt like I was breaking a bone. As I lay motionless I wondered “man...what the hell just happened?”
Earlier that evening, a warm breeze blew through the night. Everyone was bubbling with excitement for what the summer could bring. I was thrilled to be out with a group of friends. We were drinking, laughing, and dancing. As the music turned louder, so did my energy. To amp up the dance floor, I took my shirt off and waved it over my head. The bouncers promptly told me that was not allowed. After a few choice words and realizing I had been overserved, they kicked me out. Finding myself outside on the curb unable to reach my friends who were all inside partying, I marched right back in. Spotting me, the bouncers converged and that is when the situation rapidly escalated. In a fit of anger and feeling threatened, I lashed out and threw a punch. It was a mistake. I am sorry. I regret it. I should never have gone back in.
The police happened to be nearby and arrived on the scene immediately. I was handcuffed. The bouncers told them what happened. I was taken into the police station placed in a cell and charged.
What made matters worse was that the officer read the wrong charge to me as I sat in the cell. He told me that what I was charged with assault causing grievous bodily harm, which as he explained was “just down from murder.” That set me into a panicked tailspin. At the time, I did not know the bouncer had only sustained a cut lip. “How could he have gotten so injured? It was a reaction in a moment of fear.” I nervously pondered what could have possibly happened to him from one punch. I felt terrible for the bouncer and hoped he was alright. Overnight I sat in the holding cell feeling the walls collapsing on me, wondering how this all happened and wanting to take it back.
I never shared this story because of how embarrassed I am. Being arrested did not portray me the way I wanted to be perceived. I worried it would impact my career. “Better be quiet about it,” I thought. Deep down, I feared people would think of me as a criminal. I would be an outcast and passed over. I just wanted it to go away.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the demonstrations that ensued, my deep dark secret kept resurfacing. While trapped at home in quarantine and consumed by the news cycle, I replayed my incident over and over in my head. I contrasted my experience to that of George Floyd. The difference was life and death. “What if I had been black?” I thought. I watched the video of his death in utter dismay. I also watched Ahmaud Arbery lose his life in another shocking video. I was stunned and speechless; at both heinous murders and the inaction by officials. I went from news sites to blogs, to twitter, to Instagram, to podcast dumbstruck by the stories and statistics. Names like Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown and Rayshard Brooks became familiar names to me. I was aware that they had been killed by the police, but I was not informed on what actually happened. I had not taken the time to understand. I was aware black men were imprisoned frequently, but I did not know that in the US black men are incarcerated 5 times more often than white men (source). Yet there are nearly 5 times more white than black males within the population (source). Like layers of a stinging onion, I began to peel away the layers of my naivety and my eyes welled up.
A black woman recently explained to me that upon moving to New York City, she and her husband had two self-imposed rules to limit unwarranted police interactions. They did not wear hoodies and they did not run at night. That hit home for me. It is such a simple example, yet so powerful and relatable for me as a runner and a New Yorker. Running at night never concerned me. I freely wear hoodies. Never has it crossed my mind that either of those two simple things could bring undue attention to me. “Holy shit…” I thought. “I haven’t the faintest idea what it’s like being black.”
My mind was flooded with memories of my invincibility. I recall a police cruiser that pulled over the cab friends and I were riding in because the officer thought we had yelled obscenities at him when we had in fact been singing the latest Drake song. We confidently told the panicked driver, a brown man, “don’t worry, we got this.” We did not have the awareness to think how he must have felt. We felt wronged by the police and empowered to say something about it. The driver wanted the episode to end. Perhaps he feared the police or his job being compromised. We paid little mind to him and proceeded to harangue the police officer about how to properly do his job. For white guys, challenging a police officer was not foolhardy.
Another time, late one night with a few friends, I fell asleep in the backseat of our taxi on the way home. I woke up with cash in my hand and all my clothes stripped except my underwear. The taxi driver and police who were also nearby were bewildered. When everyone realized my friends had played a prank on me, and only pretended to run on the taxi, leaving a scantily clad guy passed out in the back with cash to pay, we all had a laugh; police included. As kids, on Friday nights we used to attend park parties where groups of teenagers would drink, laugh and have fun. Inevitably the police would show up each time at midnight to break up the party. We all scattered. But none of us were scared. No one got arrested. It was a bunch of middle-class white kids. The police showing up was part of the harmless excitement of the night.
I thought nothing of these interactions at the time. Recounting them in light of today’s social changes solidified for me how different my interaction with authority has been. My parents never had to tell me how to interact with the police. I never felt threatened by them. When I did get in trouble with the police, I had all the resources to defend myself and no stereotype to overcome.
I buried my arrest experience for too long. I share it now, many years later, because it exemplifies the differences between my experience and that of non-white people. I hope that it enables white males to appreciate the privilege we have.
I had it wrong. My arrest was not what should embarrass me. What I am most embarrassed about is that it took a pandemic and the senseless killing of yet one more black man for me to awaken to the injustice.
I lacked awareness and understanding of what black people have endured for centuries. Like many straight white males in the twenty-first century, I have never felt the wrath of prejudice. I can barely fathom it: the constant oppression, fear, judgment, scapegoating and systematic marginalization. I was naive and wrong.
I thought that I was not part of the problem. I treat everyone with respect regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity or religion. “It’s not me that needs to change. I’m an ally! It’s those white supremacists that are the problem.” Respect alone is not enough. I can ‘respect’ the planet, but that will not solve climate change. Recycling, not eating meat and reducing my carbon footprint are specific actions I took to be part of the climate solution. I was wrong to think that I am not part of the problem. I have been willingly abiding within a system that marginalizes minorities.
I thought it was on someone else to say something. My voice does not carry much weight. “Someone else is better placed to speak up than me,” I thought. If I think someone else is better placed to speak, then that person thinks yet someone else has a louder voice, and the next person thinks someone else is better still; we will drown in silence. I was wrong for not speaking up about the privilege I have as a straight white male.
“In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
- Martin Luther King Jr.
It is on me to change my wrongs. I do not want to be remembered as someone who sat idly by. Life is too precious to be a spectator.
I imagine how different my life could have been from that one punch. Two scenarios come to mind; what actually transpired and what could have been.
Sitting in the police cell, I feared being in trouble whether I deserved it or not. The police were eager to have me confess to the charge of assault causing grievous bodily harm. None of it made sense to me. “How could I be charged with such a serious offense?” I pondered. “It was one punch in a moment of panic.” I requested to speak to a lawyer before signing what the police asked me to. Several long hours later, a government lawyer appeared. Although he was inexperienced, he explained that I could elect a court date instead of accepting the charges. I heeded his advice. A dozen hours after I was taken into custody, I was released without bail on an agreement to present myself in court. I walked out of the police station never so thankful to feel the morning sun on my face. It had been the worst night of my life.
I slowly made my way home trying to make sense of what had transpired. I sat on a park bench dazed for hours. A great friend took me out for lunch and recounted that “I looked like a ghost.” I was lucky that a couple partners at my firm stood by me and confirmed that my employment would not be jeopardized. I had the financial means to hire an experienced lawyer, whose team tracked down people involved in the incident and negotiated with the prosecutor. My expensive expert lawyer recognized immediately that the charge, assault causing grievous bodily harm, was far too severe for a minor incident. Notable community members wrote glowing character reference letters of me that were presented as part of my case. It was a gut-wrenching ordeal for a few months. I could not sleep. I barely had an appetite. I was preoccupied, distant and said little. It was an incredibly difficult period for my family as well, but my loving parents and brother were unwaveringly supportive. Their strength carried me through. On the day of my court date, my lawyer, brother and I walked unceremoniously into the courtroom. There were no arguments made or impassioned speeches. Everything had been agreed to beforehand through my lawyer. The charge of assault causing grievous bodily harm was expunged. I paid my fine and walked out of the courtroom relieved the incident was finally behind me.
In the months and years that followed, I was constantly worried someone would find out about my arrest. But nobody did. No one expects an educated white male to have been arrested and charged with assault. No one ever asked me. I never even had to explain myself. The incident has not impacted me professionally whatsoever. Ironically, as a white man I got a pass for doing something I actually did, punching someone, whereas black men often get judged based on something they actually have not done. In my case, when I do something wrong, it is attributed to an external factor beyond my control, be it stress, anxiety or hardship, that explains why my infraction is not reflective of my character and should be pardoned. Yet often when a black man does the same thing, it is attributed to an internal factor, be it aggression, anger or unruliness, and we are quick to judge and unlikely to pardon. Why is it that we start from a different vantage point for me than a black man?
I imagine what the outcome could have been if I were black and had punched a bouncer the exact same way. I suspect that, as a black man, I would be fighting against a stereotype of black aggression emphasized in the media. I would be railing against a social construct that systematically arrests and imprisons black men at a disproportionately higher rate than white. It would be an uphill battle to plead my case in a justice system that is more sympathetic to rich white people. Maybe the police would have been more intimidating had I been black and coerced me into admitting to the excessive assault charge that very night. Or without the ability to be defended by an expensive expert lawyer, the exaggerated charge of assault causing grievous bodily harm may not have been expunged. It would have been crippling. I could have lost my job and maybe faced jail time. Thereafter, with a criminal record it would be much harder to get a job. Without a job, feeling robbed of my potential and treated as a castaway, who knows what could happen next. Undoubtedly, the trajectory of my life would have been forever altered.
It does not take much imagination to see how two vastly different outcomes could occur from the same one punch. It was so hard for me to get through this period of my life, even from a baseline of privilege. It is unthinkable how hard it could have been had I been black. I likely would still be dealing with the unfair consequences of it today.
By mid-morning on my court date, I was back in my office. The incident was finally over. I had lunch with my colleagues like any other day. No one was the wiser. No one knew that I had closed the chapter on one of the most trying periods of my life. I slammed the book shut and hid it forever.
Or so I thought. Revisiting this chapter of my life today highlights my privilege. I realized it stretches far beyond the judicial system. All of us white males are privileged.
I used to recoil at the sheer utterance of privilege. The term alone irritated me. “How dare you accuse me of not working hard?” I thought. I equated privilege with nobility. But I was not bestowed with a special title or crown at birth. I worked hard to get where I am. I have been fortunate, but that was the doing of my immigrant parents who also worked tirelessly to provide for our family. “I deserve what I’ve achieved!” I cringed in frustration. I feared the term ‘privilege’ because it undermined the merits of my hard work. It was as if my effort did not matter and that my successes were because of privilege; something I had nothing to do with.
“What does privilege even really mean?” I have been grappling with this question. To me, white privilege is access to opportunities that are presented to me, not because of decisions I made or effort I put forth, but because of the color of my skin. I think of it as a head start or an accelerator granted to me because of the environment I happen to be in. Being privileged does not mean that I did not work hard for my successes. It does however, mean, that I had an extra boost that amplified my effort.
For example, picture all of our lives as a 26-mile marathon. Imagine that every instance of privilege I benefit from propels me 3-miles from the start line. I never worried about food on the table or where I would sleep at night. Not having to deal with those hardships sprung me up to mile 3. I had two loving parents that always came home and cared for me. Now I have leapt all the way to mile 6. I lived without fear since there was no crime in the neighborhood I grew up in. I am vaulted to mile 9. I had access to great education that I did not pay for. Just like that I am at mile 12. Nearly the halfway mark without having even applied myself. None of the things that got me to mile 12 have anything to do with the decisions I made or my effort. It would be foolish of me not to recognize that I had a head start. I would be kidding myself if I thought I got here all by myself. (Watch this video to see a real life example of this race)
It is evident that our social construct disproportionally and continually disadvantages black people. In the US, nearly a third of blacks and hispanics live in poverty and 46% of young black children (under age 6) live in poverty (source). Comparatively, 10% of the white adult population and 15% of the young children population live in poverty (source). Many black children are raised by single mothers. Nearly 70% of black babies are born to unmarried mothers compared with 28% of white babies (source). The odds are clearly stacked against the black baby and in my favor. Of course the probability of my success is going to be highest. Not only do I have less to overcome, but due to my privilege I am already at mile 12. I have more opportunities to succeed. The advantages are so prevalent, we do not even notice. We are accustomed to it because we live in a world dominated by white males.
Why is it so hard for us to admit that as white men we have advantages that shape the trajectory of our lives? In contrast, we readily accept that in sports advantages can dictate outcomes. For example, it would be nearly impossible for me to be an NBA center no matter how hard I tried. I am 5’11’’, the average NBA center player is 6’11’’ (source). At a full foot shorter than my competitors, it is nearly impossible for me to compete. No one judges me for not being an NBA center or says it is my fault. We understand that my height is a disadvantage when it comes to being an NBA center. But why do we not recognize the disadvantage many black people face?
We, straight white males, have disproportionately benefited from our social position. White males have dominated politics, business and media. Nearly every position of power is occupied by a white man. There are 630 billionaires in the US, nearly all men, six (or 1%) of which are black (source). Only five (or 1%) black CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies (source). But black people represent 13% of the US population (source). In 2016, the average net worth of a white American household was $171,000, nearly ten times that of black households at $17,150 (source). The median weekly earnings for black men is $823, or 75% of the median of white men at $1,096. Hispanic men are even lower at $763 (source). White men represent a third of the US population, yet hold nearly all the elected positions. In 2017, 97% of all Republican elected officials are white and 76% are male. Of all Democratic elected officials, 79% are white and 65% are male (source).
When you think of a famous, successful or powerful black person, who do you think of? I bet nearly everyone you think of, except for Obama and Oprah, are athletes or rappers. Ask yourself why that is?
We, as white males, need to recognize our privilege. We need to understand that our advantages are real; all of us white males have massively benefited from them. Reflect on your own life, you likely had an incident similar to my arrest where you benefited from your privilege. As a white man, you undoubtedly have been granted opportunities because of who you are. Did you start at mile 3 or mile 6 or maybe like me at mile 12? Acknowledging our privilege is critical because it opens the lines of communication, facilitates compassion and enables empathy.
Listening to the voices of minorities is necessary to bridge our racial divide. For too long, we have not listened. For too long, we have ignored the privilege only some of us have benefited from. Admitting that our privilege is part of the problem will lead to more productive conversations. A discussion does not lead to progress if one of the parties refuses to admit any wrongdoing. Do not absolve yourself from responsibility. Admit to how privilege has helped you and listen to how others have been less fortunate.
It is awkward asking a black man what it is like being black. I have felt uncomfortable and guilty asking. Admittedly, I should have already known more by now. But I can not let my shortcomings of the past get in the way. My conversations have been insightful. I encourage you to listen to minorities.
Educate yourself on what it is like not being white in our world. The statistics and anecdotes I shared barely scratch the surface. Personal stories are more relatable. Next time you are scanning through Netflix, consider watching something you otherwise may not have. Instead of picking up the latest fiction novel, business best seller or how to guide, read a book about history told from the perspective of non-white. While you are scrolling through your feed amazed by the demonstrations, consider participating in them. If you can, go see what it is like in real life.
The listening and learning will allow us to be more compassionate and empathize. Internalize what life must be like as a minority. Think of an example in your own life of how your trajectory could have been dramatically different if you were a black man instead of white. We must begin to see life from someone else’s perspective. We must ponder “imagine if that was me?”
Our privilege is a white problem. It is white men that created our social construct. It is on us to fix it. It was not me, and likely not you, that created the inequalities but idly allowing it to continue and benefiting from it, makes use complicit in perpetuating them. We can use our position of privilege for positive change. Hold your elected representative accountable. Demand fair treatment for all. Demonstrate for equality. Support legislation that reduces the wealth gap. Remove laws that prevent black families from owning a home. Repeal rules that suppress minority voter turnout. Advocate for health care for those that cannot afford it. End mass incarceration. Protest for equal opportunity. There are so many things you can get behind. When we finally see white males en mass supporting these steps toward equality, we will see real progress.
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
- Benjamin Franklin.
I hope sharing my enlightening arrest story from my youth serves as a point of reflection for all of us. A moment to think “whoa...this has been going on in my life as well.” A spark to realize how privileged we white men are in our social construct. A point of reflection in your own life, like my arrest was in mine, to see how differently things could have played out if you were not privileged. A motivation to learn what life is like as a non-white person. An impetus to speak up. A call to act. An encouragement to level the playing field. A recognition that this is our problem to solve.
I was arrested in my youth. Embarrassed about it, I never spoke about it until now. In light of the black lives matter movement, I share my experience as an example we can all learn from in hopes that we all reflect on our experiences and recognize the benefits of privilege.