Calling the White Man’s Police

I hate calling the white man’s police.

As a black woman, I am the keeper of many things. Chief among them is the hope of black men. A black man introduced into the criminal justice system for any violation, no matter how minor becomes a son who cannot care for big momma, a brother who can’t hold down his siblings, a mate who can’t promise a paycheck, and a father who is a parent only when the penal system says he can be.

Black women calling the police on black men has a long, tragic history. That history  isn’t just about protecting black mens’ futures. It’s also about how that leaves black women trapped between a rock and a hard place beneath an open sky.

Last night I called the police on a black man.

I travel about three to four times a month to talk to people, to do field work, to give lectures, and all manner of other things I’m surprised They let me do. I am a short woman that people are always surprised to discover is short. I take up space but it rarely changes the empirical reality that I am five feet, two inches tall. I wouldn’t tell you how much I weigh if Jesus himself imbued you with the power to compel me. But,  I am not the 220+ pounds that my cab driver was last night.

I think that’s a safe guesstimate. It feels like I’m reading that without the implicit bias that often accounts for inter-racial misidentifcation. Of course, I cannot be sure. I can tell you that until things went sour I’d closed my eyes, probably had my legs sprawled open in the back of that taxi after a flight from hell without a single thought of my safety, his size, or my limited ability to kick his ass.

But sour it went. He wanted cash. I don’t carry $60 in cash at 2 am as I’m traveling across the country and I do not have to. I pay all manner of black taxes, female taxes, and short people taxes to try to police my safety. I pay extra for the blow-out so that TSA won’t pat down my natural ($90).I buy the good shoes for an extra inch so that the men in business class don’t trample over me in the mad dash to board through the priority line ($too much). And, I pay for licensed taxi cabs as opposed to cheaper bootleg alternatives so I’m not walking around like an ATM, ripe to be plucked (on average about a $15 difference).

I absorb most of these things, chalk it up to surviving in the machine, and carry on. That’s what women do to protect themselves. That’s what black women do to protect everybody.

When Joseph refused to take a credit card and I stood my ground, Joseph became angry and I quickly became a “black bitch” that no one wants to “do shit for” because of reasons just like this. He pushed me towards the car, still running, threatening to “take me back” and to “keep [my] credit card” as ransom (although not for payment).

I do what short black women do. I got crafty.

I lied and said my male partner was inside.

I put arms akimbo, feet apart and my bag between us and took up all the space I could.

And I cussed like a sailor fresh from leave.

The juxtaposition of all of this confused him just long enough for me to escape inside and call 911.

I hesitated before I hit the final “1”. Even as I heard him pacing on my stoop, alternately yelling and threatening me, my conditioning caused me to reconsider hitting the “1”.

He could be here on a work visa. You just know there’s a woman and a baby somewhere who needs his paycheck. He is dark skinned and large and male. I could set in motion a series of events that could end with him hurt or worse. I could bring the wrath of the white man’s police down on the head of a black man.

I hit the “1”.

I haven’t always hit it. Not when the brothers trapped my car in a carwashing bay at dusk to “holla”.

Not when the friend of a friend refused to leave my house, except by going through me.

Not when a paramour punched a hole in the wall and wished it was my head.

I did not hit “1”.

Last night I did. I praised affirmative action when the officer was black and I was at Emory and not in the West End. And then I felt guilty for affecting privilege I do not legitimately own. Trust me, I’ve been black in the West End where the police have assumed I ain’t shit, don’t know anybody who isn’t ain’t shit, and detained me like I wasn’t shit. And that did not end well.

This did end well. It ended as well as it could with the police and a bruise on my arm could end. A card reader magically appeared, the officer made the driver use it, and stayed awhile. Of course, the driver still knows where I live and that’s not the most fun idea I’m having today.

To not think about that I’m choosing to think about other things like, when did I stop mortgaging my present for the future of black men? I do not know if this is a permanent change or an anomaly. The only empirical test involves me staring down more angry men and I am too busy for that. But it seems important for me to understand when I became the kind of person who,  knowing the risks and the costs, hits the damn “1”.

There is no insightful analysis here. I should have said that at the start; saved you some time. I may just be slow on the uptake. Even though black women are at a higher risk of all kinds of violence, including domestic violence, they do not trust the criminal justice system to protect them. But, there is evidence that black women are slightly more likely than other women to report some kind violent crimes. The social science hypothesis is that what we’ve understood as race may well be an interaction with race and class.

Which is an “of course” for me, a somewhat social scientist.

But for me, the person, somehow hitting the “1” because I thought I could is almost as disturbing as being pushed against that taxi.

No one prepared me for that.


19 thoughts on “Calling the White Man’s Police

  1. As a white male of some size, I cannot begin to know your point of view as a black woman. As a teacher in the hood, I do understand pushing the “1”. I have been assaulted, verbally and physically, I have been threatened, I have been disrespected, cursed at, and ignored. Yet, when the heat of the moment has passed. I have never been willing to involve the police. Why? I think these kids have enough against them without tangling with the legal system. They probably will, anyway, but it will not be by my hand.

    I once had a student who had been in a gang, but had given it up and was trying to fly straight. He got picked up on probation violation one day after his eighteenth birthday and disappeared for three months. It turned out that he had been sitting in the police station for several hours with nobody to vouch for him. I told him that in my neighborhood (white, middle-class), when a kid gets in trouble with the police, a parent goes down to the station, bangs on the desk indignantly, and gets their kid out. I told him the system was not fair, and that he was being profiled because of his shaved head and his tats. I gave him my phone number, and told him if he ever landed in the police station again, he should call me and I’d go down there. He asked me if I thought that I was his designated white man. I said, I guess I am.

  2. Tressie, “1” I’m glad you are safe. “1” you/we deserve to choose safety without reservations. “1” Thank you for sharing this experience and making plain the process of being your complicated lovable self.

  3. Yup, many, many people in our nation need a “designated white man.” One of our “better” public schools here in Detroit (oh, some people not might realize “Detroit public school = 100% Black students) had more out-of-school suspensions last year than they have students, even though the official document lists about 10 lesser mediations/resolutions that can be used, and even though the principal knows at least 3 people who want to establish an in-school suspension system there, and even though we have a very active School-Board-in-Exile (elected but disempowered by emergency management) that wants to end the schools-to-prison pipeline. But we have to stay alive to fight these fights–which sometimes means hitting the last “1.” Thanks for this, Tressie.

  4. I’ve been in both places you mentioned here and it’s never easy. Chicago cab drivers often say they can’t take a credit card even though the city requires them to be able to do so, so having a black man lock me in a cab and scream at me is never a safe situation. The other was a domestic violence situation where he tried to stab me with scissors, yelled at me, and threw things so violently he destroyed drywall in my apartment and then went upstairs (we lived in the sane building) and called 911 on me ( yes, really ) and the cops threatened to throw ME in jail despite the way my apartment looked and the fact he weighed 300 lbs to my 170. I know how you feel. What kind of system fails us so completely we have to make these choices? And should these qualify as choices at all?

  5. You did the right thing. You showed him who was boss. Not him. Not the cop. You. Because you knew the right action to take to protect yourself and win. The taxi driver won’t be back to bother you as he’s on a police report. You’re not a traitor to black men for calling the cops.
    My african american history teacher in college said he was “rescued” as a young man by white college students who defended him against racists that had surrounded him. He said it changed his perspective… Years later when his son was shot and killed by gang crossfire, not because he was in a gang but because he got caught in the middle, all the lines blurred.

    1. Upon further thought and if you haven’t already filed a report with the taxi drivers company… you might want to. He shouldn’t be driving if he’s going to threaten passengers or call them names or try to hold them hostage. You shouldn’t have had to even pay for a bullshit ride like that. The company owes you an assurance that their drivers follow some kind of quality code and a refund.

  6. There doesn’t need to be insight to be worthy of posting. Thank you for posting and giving food for thought.

  7. As difficult as it must be, you have to protect yourself in the specific so that you can continue to work to reform the systems in general. If an injustice occurs as the result, you can (and I’m sure you would) work to right it.

  8. (this is a long silent hug from another black woman. our bellies and boobs and hair touch during this hug. i lay my head on your shoulders. or, since i am tall 5’10” tall, maybe you are mashed up on my chest somewhere. neither of us give the shits. because hugging is about fitting together as we are and accepting the specific geometry of our hug. the shape we make is good and holy. during this hug i do not say anything because there is nothing to say. instead we simply wrap our arms around our black women’s bodies and we breathe. and stay hugging. and just fucking breathe. we won’t let go until we have to. we won’t ever let go of each other. this is me hugging you and never letting you go. ever.)

  9. The fact that you remained relatively safe shows that you did the right thing. That is insight enough. Wrestling with the events in your mind later and this post just shows that you’re a compassionate person, which is why I like reading your work.

  10. I’m so sorry this happened to you. It must have been a frightening experience. And it obviously involved a bigger piece of your life, your existence, than this single specific incident. We can only ever make those decisions in that one moment of time, even when it feels like decades of life experience have all converged into that moment. It can be overwhelming. I’m glad you are safe.

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