When it comes to stereotypes, I am not immune. Many think I smoke marijuana for I fit the profile:
- I’m amiable
- I’m forgetful
- I’m not motivated
- I like nachos
I know, how can I not smoke pot? How can I rest in a state where most must arrive through medicinal means? But I do. And if someone tries to pass me a slow-burning blunt, my only question will be: “Does that have caffeine? I would really like some caffeine right now.”
Like stoners I drive slowly. Really slow! The reason? I’m never in a hurry to reach a red light. In my ideal world I would never have to stop for I would coast until a red light turns green. I understand this driving philosophy is outside the norm. I understand an ideal world for most drivers is me not being on the road. That’s why I do my best to be cognizant. Still it helps to have a friendly reminder with a honk of the horn, the flash of headlights or a baffled question in the office lunchroom.
That’s what the operations manager wanted to know. One time during lunch he took me aside while I was heating up my nachos and asked why I was so slow.
I asked in what context.
He said he was driving behind me the other evening and it looked like I was about to park my car on the boulevard.
I told him I was slowing down for the red light.
He said the light was still three blocks away.
I was smart enough not to go into my driving philosophy. Still, I wondered why he didn’t just pass me. Perhaps he was afraid to ease up on my left, look over and see me smoking a joint the size of a dachshund. No, he didn’t want to have that discussion with me the next day.
The operations manager thinking I was a pothead is funny, but some stereotypes are not helpful. For example Black males tend to get a bad rap. I’m not saying this as an opinion but as one with a set of eyes.
Once I was playing basketball in a neighborhood park. I was also the only white person on the court. Still it was fun even though nobody passed me the ball.
To be fair nobody passed me the ball because I was white. Nobody passed me the ball because nobody passed the ball. (This is a stereotype.)
So the ball was dribbled, the ball was shot and nary was there a pass. Then a police car pulled into the parking lot.
Immediately, all action on the court ceased. Like deer in an open glen the players remained still. For me it was a surreal moment. For the rest it was part of their day-to-day routine.
To get past preconceived notions I feel we must make the effort to get to know the individual. Get out! Get to know your neighbor and see if there is anything that connects us together. The Minnesota State Fair is a great place to start, a place unencumbered by divisions of wealth, race and cholesterol level.
Sometimes I like to go solo to this summer affair. Sometimes I meet family or friends, but it is nice to spend a few hours by myself where I don’t have to huddle and decide where to go next. Sometimes it is better to wander through the crowds; past the grandstand; through the tight quarters of the international bazaar; around the carnival barkers; amongst the food vendors; the quilts, the sows, the blue ribbons and sleeping cows. After all, where else can you see royalty carved in butter and Peter Falk aka Columbo encased in kernels of corn?
One year I found myself at the racetrack. Not the one at the grand stand, but a miniature one by the south gate, the one with tiny gas-powered cars and drivers you wouldn’t normally see on the road like two girls giggling, laughing and trying to share the wheel; a father tentatively letting his son negotiate the bending curves; a grandpa taking his granddaughter for a spin; two brothers nudging aka fighting each other for control. No pit crews, no time trials, just spins around a track. For some it was their first time behind the wheel like a young Black kid coming down the stretch.
He caught my eye for he looked so composed. He wasn’t driving fast. He wasn’t zigzag between lanes. Instead, he negotiated the tiny car like it was already his own, like he spent four summers working to buy it and he was going to treat it with the care such a purchase deserved.
The kid’s moderate pace allowed others to pass. And as one driver eased up on the left, he looked over and cast a harsh stare.
Earlier that summer Philando Castile was driving just north of these fairgrounds on his way home from the grocery store. In the passenger’s seat was his girlfriend, Dymond Reynolds. In the back seat was Reynolds’ four year-old daughter. It was his normal routine on a warm summer’s evening, which meant he was about to be pulled over by the police.
Up until that point Philando had been stopped by the police 52 times. To me the number seems incomprehensible. To Philando it was his day-to-night routine.
Like a lot of Americans Philando owned a gun. He had a permit. And when Officer Jeronimo Yanez asked for his license and registration, the conversation went as so:
CASTILE: Sir, I have to inform you that I do have a firearm on me.
YANEZ: Okay, don’t reach for it, then… Don’t pull it out.
CASTILE: I’m not pulling it out.
REYNOLDS: He’s not pulling it out.
CASTILE: Don’t pull it out!
At that moment Officer Yanez didn’t follow protocol by stepping back and using the frame of the door as a shield. Instead, he leaned in and fired his gun. He fired seven times before Philando could produce his wallet.
In his interview with investigators Officer Yanez said he sensed danger based on Philando’s skin, the model of car and the smell of marijuana. If Yanez would have spent more than a few moments with Philando he would have soon discovered he wasn’t dealing with a hardened criminal. Philando held a job for over 10 years as a cafeteria supervisor at a local school. The four hundred students at JJ Hill Montessori called him Mr. Phil. Earlier in the evening he brought Taco Bell to his mom and sister to catch up on the day. He rarely went out to the nightclubs. He preferred the comforts of home. “He had a cheerful disposition and his colleagues enjoyed working with him,” said a statement from the St. Paul Public Schools.
And yet, none of the above mattered. In the split of a second when fear takes over Officer Yanez saw black and heard gun and that was enough to tip the scale.
It was hard not to think about Philando when I saw the harsh stare from the other driver. It was an incongruous act to the overall feel of being at a fair. Also out of place was the driver, himself: a thirty year-old white guy with long hair that he kept in place with a baseball cap. No kids, no date, not even a dog, just a grown man driving a tiny car all by himself.
And as the white guy passed a Black kid a thought occurred to me. I was stereotyping the guy while he was stereotyping the kid. In my mind, he was from one of the northern exurbs. He worked in construction. He watched professional wrestling. And he was all in when it came to NASCAR. He wanted to take one more spin around the tiny track.
I didn’t know if any of this was true. What I do know is all of us judge. We make snapshot opinions based on clothes, hairstyles, and skin color. And sometimes those stereotypes are not helpful in when it comes to our day-to-day reality.
Part of my driving philosophy that always gets me in trouble is stop signs. I can never coast long enough to avoid them. Eventually, I need to stop. The problem is I rarely do, which landed me into trouble a few weeks after my trip to the fair.
To be honest when I saw the red lights in the rear-view mirror I was confused. Moments before I was wondering whether to stop at the French bakery I slowly passed. The thought still lingered as I reached a four-way stop and turned right.
The officer who pulled me over was agitated. No, he was upset. He was middle-aged with a frame more suited for a desk job. His hair was cropped. He had a neat mustache. Perspiration beaded from his forehead.
He was Black.
The officer asked me if I knew why he pulled me over.
I was smart enough not to tell him that the only thought on my mind at the moment was a chocolate almond croissant.
He told me I ran a stop sign and cut him off at the intersection.
At that moment everything crystallized. I may have been afforded the luxury of blithely driving to work, but the officer was not granted the same routine. For him, there still was Philando. He was killed for no good reason and nothing would change. The police officer knew this and yet he was serving a community that may not give him the benefit of the doubt when he wasn’t wearing the badge.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I was just going to work.”
The apology seemed to ease the tension as the officer asked for my license and went back to his squad car.
The death of Philando, my trip to the state fair, my moving violation happened in monthly successions. Why didn’t the officer give me a ticket? Why did Officer Yanez fire his gun? Why did a white guy in a tiny car cast such a harsh stare?
I wish not to surmise, only to report what I have seen. But what I can tell you is we all need to do better when it come to looking out for one another. For if we look beyond the normal stereotypes that keep us apart, sometimes we might be surprised.
One morning quite a while back I was running around my apartment looking for my car keys when the doorbell rang.
I froze. Those who ring the doorbell at that hour do not bear good news. There would be no huge novelty check with a marching band waiting for me.
I dashed down the stairwell but stopped at the landing.
Beyond the tempered glass was a Black teenager.
The last time I opened the door for a Black teenager he wanted to sell me a candy bar the size of a license plate for a fundraiser.
At the moment I was running late for work and wasn’t interested in supporting some school cause. Still I fought my original urge to creep back up the stairs and opened the door.
He repeated the question.
The morning fog parted enough for me to respond.
“Found this on the front lawn.”
He handed me my dewy wallet, then headed back down the sidewalk on his way to school.
Black people in this country have been stereotyped for generations and have hand to live in other people’s concept of who they are. I hope more people can begin to understand this struggle and join together to work against the negative perceptions and biases. My son Philando has a very strong spirit.
Art and Healing: In the Moment
Minneapolis Institute of Arts Exhibit