Race and the Power of Whiteness (Case Study #399)
Imagine if you will a 40 year old black male, coming through security at Boston’s Logan airport. He’s looking a bit younger than his middle-aged self, due in large measure to the clothes he’s wearing: a black hoodie, jeans and sneakers. These seem, at least in his mind, to balance out the creases and crevices that occasionally appear on his face, hidden though most of them are beneath his beard. It isn’t that he’s trying, per se, to look younger. But to feel younger, oh sure, and wardrobe is a far less expensive and pathetic way to accomplish this end than say, botox or a lid lift.
He only has one bag with him, a briefcase, having checked his other luggage at the ticket counter. As the one carry-on makes its way through the x-ray machine, something anomalous strikes the screener’s eye.
"Do you mind if we take a look inside your bag?" the young Latina TSA employee asks.
"Of course not," comes the reply. The black traveler thinks to himself, "probably those damned computer cords all jumbled up in there. I really ought to pack those more neatly next time."
He steps to the side, out of the way of the others coming through the line, and watches as the bag screener wipes a tiny cloth all around his briefcase. He knows the drill because he’s been through it before, on other flights. Just a random dusting, perhaps for explosive residue, which has been a routine around the country ever since 9/11. Oh well, no biggie, he thinks, not having built any bombs lately, let alone stored them in his briefcase. He knows what’s in his bag: a MacBook Pro, a day planner, a cell phone, an asthma inhaler, some pens, an iPod, pictures of his wife and kids, a bunch of business cards he’s collected from people, meaning to neatly store them somewhere, but never getting around to it, and then there’s…
Oh, this could get interesting, he thinks to himself.
Just as the thought enters his mind, he notices that the screener has unzipped the pocket on the top and front of the briefcase. Her right eyebrow raises a bit, as she stares at a fairly thick wad of cash, denominations as of yet unknown, overflowing a small white envelope inside.
The passenger, it should be understood at this point, is an author, and over the last several days has been on the road for speeches and book signings. During these events, he has sold about 100 copies of his latest work, and what the screener is looking at, though she doesn’t know it, are the proceeds of those sales: approximately $1500 give or take.
His mind races, wondering how he can explain such a stash, and whether his explanation–though eminently verifiable and 100% true–will be believed. After all, he’s vaguely aware of a study from a few years back, which found that black women were nine times more likely than white women to be stopped and searched for drugs coming through airport security, even though white women were twice as likely to actually have drugs on them. How much more likely might he be, as a black man, carrying this kind of cash, to trigger suspicion?
He begins to sweat a bit, nothing too visible he hopes, as the seconds seem to pass with all the speed of ketchup, flowing hesitantly from its bottle. He stares stoically into space, hoping to seem non-chalant. He’s done nothing, but he knows it doesn’t matter.
"Where are you heading tonight?" the screener asks, as she motions for her supervisor, an older white male, to come take a look.
"Chicago," the passenger replies, the word catching in his throat, cracking on the "ca" sound, betraying a nervousness that would be hard to miss. Damn, he thinks to himself, why’d my voice have to crack like that? Man, stay cool, stay cool!
He can’t hear everything the screener and the older white guy are discussing, but he sees as she opens the pocket so the supervisor can spy the cash. The passenger hears the screener ask, "What do you think?"
Time stands still for what seems like hours. These four words, being asked by a woman of color to her white male boss, in effect, are more loaded with significance than any he has heard that day. They are, though he would rather not consider it, probably more significant than any he has written, and for which he has received the very payment that has, this evening, caused such a distraction.
"What. Do. You. Think?"
It’s a simple, benign question, at least to some. But it is being asked of a white man, who has just been shown a bunch of cash–mostly twenties–in the bag of a black man, in a hoodie, traveling from one large urban area to another. That the black man is a fairly well-known author, with four books under his belt, several awards, a publicist and an agent may well mean nothing under the weight of those four words.
Oh, he knows, or at least reasonably assumes, that in the end it will all work out. After all, there are no drugs in the bag, and if he has to, he can always open up the computer, log on to Amazon and show them his books, confirm his identity, and make it alright. And, he remembers, a few people in the past week had paid with personal checks, and even put "Book" in the memo line. Surely that will do it, he thinks. What drug dealer, after all, takes personal checks?
But none of that matters. Even though he feels certain things will be resolved in a favorable manner there is still this moment. This dread. This knowledge that even though he will no doubt be on the flight to Chicago, where he is scheduled to speak in the morning, he will yet have to endure the looks, the suspicion, and perhaps a full body search, in a way that few if any white men would have to experience.
And more, it’s the looks he is garnering from other passengers that really sting. They see him, the black man in the hoodie, standing off to the side, the TSA staff looking at his bag, and then at him, with suspicion. What must they be thinking? No, even if it all turns out alright, it won’t really all be alright. There will still be this moment, and the ponderousness of what it all means in sociological and psychological terms for everyone involved.
"What. Do. You. Think?"
He swears he hears her ask him the question again, but certainly she didn’t. Surely it was but an echo in the chambers of his subconscious mind, repeating the four words that have placed, for at least a few more moments, his fate in the hands of someone who does not know him, but may very well think he does, and therein lies the problem.
What happens next is for you, the reader, to guess. Because what I’ve just described, though it happened, didn’t happen to a black man at Boston’s Logan airport last week. It happened, instead to me, minus the dread, the fear or the worry that I might be strip-searched on suspicion of nefarious activity. I knew, quite viscerally, in fact, that it would not go down that way, and indeed it did not, even though my voice did oddly crack when I told of my destination, and even though I was in a hoodie.
The question, "What do you think?" though asked by the screener was met rather quickly with a glance my way from the older white man, one final glance at the cash, and then the words, "It’s nothing, you can give him back his bag."
The screener did as she was told, handed me back my property and said–and here is where things get especially weighty–"Sorry for the inconvenience."
"What do You Think?"
We think we are sorry for making you stand there, for all of three minutes.
We think we are sorry for even momentarily suspecting you of anything.
We think we are sorry for getting you confused–if only for a moment–with a black man.
We are sorry. For the. Inconvenience.
"No inconvenience," I replied. "You’re just doing your job, as you should," I continued, wanting to make sure that this woman of color never would shrink from possible suspicion just because the bag in her hand belonged to a white man like me. She had done nothing wrong, and I had suffered no injury.
Because I was white.
Not only did my whiteness, in all probability allow me to escape unsearched and uninterrogated by the white male supervisor, it also meant that no one witnessing the exchange would likely read much into it. As such, the psychological burden of standing there, with many an eye on me, was virtually negligble. Sort of like when I get pulled out of line and "wanded" by security, as one of their random searches that any frequent traveler has experienced at some point. For me, the psychic cost of the process is so minimal as to be nonexistent, unlike the way it must feel, for instance, to my Arab, South Asian, North African, or Persian brothers and sisters right about now.
But whiteness also did something else for me that night, and it is something I lament even more than the rest, because it is something over which I could have taken control and used in a productive fashion, and yet failed to do so. See, even though I made the comment to the young Latina screener, letting her know it was all good, and confirming that she should be every bit as suspicious about white men as anyone else, when I turned to head to my gate and passed the white man who had issued my free pass that night, I was rendered mute, turned into a silent collaborator with the process by which white privilege is dispensed. Rather than express to him my gratitude for having been looked at, initially, just as oddly as a man of color likely would have been–in other words, rather than challenging his apparent presumption that suspecting me would have been silly–I said nothing, allowing him, in all likelihood to think nothing of the incident, and to never have to rethink his own assumptions, or perhaps develop the same kind of alertness that his younger, darker colleague had evinced that night. It was one thing to validate the underling, but it would have been quite another–and more important thing–to have challenged the boss.
Opportunity missed, I boarded my plane, vowing not to miss it again, were such a situation to present itself a second time. The plane lifted off, headed to O’Hare, with me still in search of this post-racial America I keep hearing about. For wherever that place is, one can rest assured that Boston’s Logan airport lies well outside of its newly-drawn borders. And in that, it is not alone.
Tim Wise is the author of four books. His latest, "Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama," was released in January 2009 by City Lights Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org