“Walt, I think you missed our turn. Weren’t we supposed to turn left back there?”
“Shoot, you’re right. I’ll find a place to turn around.”
“Well, there’s no traffic. Just make a quick U-turn, and we won’t be late.”
“I’ll find a good place to turn around, up ahead.”
“Walt, there’s no traffic. It’s safe to do a U-turn here.”
“I’ve got this, John.”
I remember being frustrated by Walt’s response. Why drive on? Why not just make a U-turn? Had I been behind the wheel, I would have slowed down, pulled way over to the right, and then swung the car around for a U-turn. Maybe it would have required another stop-and-start, but the road was clear, so who cared about making an illegal U-turn?
As I remember, Walt drove on for another half-mile or so until we came to an intersection, where he turned his car around and headed back to our destination, a restaurant.
Some background: It was 1969. Walt and his wife, Lillian, were our backyard neighbors on the campus of Virginia State College, an HBCU (historically black college or university). Walt was head football coach and a professor in the department of physical education, and I was an English instructor. Our wives bonded first, sharing the highs and lows of new babies, both about 18 months old. And, conveniently, one of their other children was old enough to babysit, meaning we could have a night off.
Oh, and Walt and Lillian were/are African Americans, we were/are white.
I’m pretty sure it was rare for a white couple and an African American couple to socialize in public in Southside Virginia back then, but I don’t recall being uncomfortable, probably because I had spent my entire life — 29 years — swimming in a sea of whiteness and was — to put it kindly — blissfully unaware.
In fact, I might never have given that driving incident another thought if I hadn’t missed a turn seven or eight years later, the way Walt did that night in 1969. I was with National Public Radio at the time, driving to interview teachers and students at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. When I realized my mistake, I did what I had wanted Walt to do: I checked to make sure the road was clear, slowed down, pulled way over to the right, and swung the car around for a U-turn.
No big deal, right? But then I heard a siren and saw flashing lights. A cop pulled me over. But still no big deal, because I assumed the cop would understand and cut me some slack. And so when he approached my window, I smiled and explained why I had made that turn, something about being late for interviews with Navajo teachers and students. I figured he would appreciate my dilemma and let me off with a warning. However, he didn’t smile back, just said, “You’re on our land, white man, and you have to follow our rules.” And he wrote me a ticket.
This may be hard for you to believe, but my mind immediately flashed back to that evening in Virginia, and I suddenly understood why Walt, a Black American, had refused to make an illegal U-turn. For the first time in my life I had a glimmer of understanding what life must be like for nonwhite Americans. True, I had spent two years as a minority on a Black campus, but that experience hadn’t punctured my ingrained sense of white privilege.
Because of my own illegal U-turn and the subsequent traffic ticket, I thought that I had put two and two together. For years I believed that Walt hadn’t made that illegal U-turn because he was afraid of getting a traffic ticket.
Then a white cop in Minneapolis casually murdered George Floyd on May 25, 2020. On video. Knowing he was being videotaped, the murderer displayed indifference, even contempt, for more than none minutes while Floyd struggled to breathe, and eventually died. And his fellow cops stood by and did nothing.
Only then did I grasp the awful truth that if Walt had been pulled over for making an illegal U-turn back in 1969, the consequences could have been far worse than a traffic ticket.
I am not clueless; I know about — and am outraged by — the idea that “driving while black” is justification for police intervention, but knowing something intellectually and even emotionally is vastly different from actually feeling it in your bones.
For many white theatergoers, Christopher Demos-Brown’s powerful 2018 play “American Son” made real the awful terror that ensues when skin color determines treatment. The entire play takes place in a police station, where an African American mother is trying to get the police to help her find her teenage son. He was driving the family car, on which he had put — in an act of youthful defiance — a bumper sticker that proclaimed “SHOOT THE POLICE” with a (small) image of a camera, not a gun. It’s gut-wrenching, because at that moment we know that the young man will be shot and killed by a policeman.
“American Son” is not about white privilege. Its subject is being Black in an America where the inescapable companions of white privilege are hostility or indifference to those who aren’t white.
I am not claiming to have been transformed by my insight. I remain the product of all of my experiences, not just those two U-turns, one taken and one not taken. However, I do understand that white privilege is pernicious, and, while it’s not the equivalent of white racism or white supremacy, it’s in that neighborhood.
Unfortunately, white privilege isn’t disappearing. In fact, in our current political climate, it seems that a growing number of white Americans are openly embracing not just white privilege but white supremacy. Former President Donald Trump has brought out the worst in many of his followers by making it acceptable to ‘say the quiet part out loud.’ Trump and his enablers have endorsed and even celebrated being openly vulgar, selfish, clannish, parochial, violent, and racist.
We seem to be getting further and further away from Dr. King’s dream that someday we will be judged by the content of our character, and not by the color of our skin.
We are a divided country, a long way from being the best we can be. Can we reverse directions and treat others — whatever they may look like and whatever they happen to believe — as we wish to be treated? Generosity toward all begins with listening to those around us, especially those we disagree with.
Two-time Peabody Award recipient John Merrow, a former “PBS NewsHour” correspondent, divides his time between Edgartown and New York City.