Years ago, when I was just out on my own, I had an experience that has deeply shaped how I view events like those in Ferguson, Missouri these past weeks. One which taught me a lot about how biases can shape perception, and how those perceptions can have devastating consequences in law enforcement.
I had decided to transplant myself from where I had been living in Florida to the Carolinas. I’d rented a van, loaded up what little I had, and set out. I don’t remember exactly where I was in this journey when I began running out of steam. Racing twilight, I had pulled off the main road and was looking for a place to stay, when a situation developed I didn’t expect.
I was on a budget, and wasn’t that familiar with the hotel brands along that stretch of road. This worried me, as I didn’t know what I would do if I were to walk into one of these hotels and find out I couldn’t afford it. What did one do in such a situation? Could you walk away?
Caught up in this, I drove slowly along a deserted stretch of road, trying to figure out what to do. Now, situations like looking for a hotel are fairly everyday occurrences. We don’t tend to think of them as being inherently social. But they are. And sadly for me, something about how I was executing this particular social ritual caught me the wrong kind of attention. What in actuality was confusion, was taken by the policeman behind me as suspicious behavior.
I was oblivious to this, until I found myself on the other end of a gun. Convinced I was attempting to flee, the officer had whipped his car around in front of my half-turned vehicle, T.J. Hooker-style, lept out and drew his gun, screaming. Terrified, I stopped cold and put my hands in the air. The officer, it seemed, had begun to suspect that I was a thief, attempting to make off with a vanful of stolen goods. And when I failed to respond appropriately to his siren (which I couldn’t hear), that was his signal that I was spooked and attempting to flee capture. So, he’d taken immediate action to head off my escape.
Given that level of intensity that had developed in a matter of minutes, the intensity that left me staring down the barrel of a gun, it's interesting what happened next. Nothing. The gun dropped as quickly as it had been raised. The officer’s manner changed in a split second.The very second he saw my face. I didn't even have to speak. His utter confusion at seeing me was evident, even to me. Even in that moment. So why was that?
Some may say, “Well, maybe he saw the expression on your face, how terrified you were, and that lowered his guard.” But, somehow, that just doesn’t fit for me. After all, had I been what he thought me, a thief caught red-handed with a vanful of loot, wouldn’t I be just as terrified, just for different reasons? If I were a criminal of the more hardened type, might I have “played” the terrified innocent for show? Is a scared expression really all that informative about whether or not I might be a criminal?
And all that leads me to wonder—what did he expect to see? Whatever that was (and I supposed only he will ever know for sure), it was clear it wasn’t me. A young, petite, white girl. That leaves me with another question. One I’m haunted by. How would that situation have played out if my personal appearance had better fit into his expectations? When I imagine it, I don't like what I see.
When I talk about the experience, the responses are interesting. A few clear patterns emerge, and they seem to develop along racial lines. Friends and acquaintances who are white typically have one of two responses. “Pfft,” they’ll say with a wave of their hand, “Mayberry.” The officer, they imply, must have been like some real life Barney Fife, tooling around some tiny little backwoods town, shaky gun ready for any random tourist who might happen along.
But there’s something odd about that. You see, in telling the story, I never tell exactly what type of town it was. In fact, really don’t recall it myself. If I can’t remember the town, how do they think that they can describe it so precisely? And why are they so absolutely sure of their characterization? Why must be it be Mayberry? Because….well, what if it wasn’t? What would that say about our world, and the things that happen in it? What if we had to face that what so many Americans are frightened of is not Barney Fife, but GI Joe?
Then there are the other responses. "What did you do!” They ask. Or they say, "That could ONLY happen to you!” In a way that is subtly, but often playfully, judgmental. Whatever it is, it's always caustic. Because, although not always blatant, it’s about blame. And that blame often seems to go only one way.
When I talk to my black friends, the difference in response is stark. They tell me stories. They tell me how something similar happened to an acquaintance, a friend, a loved one, a family member, even themselves. Nobody talks about Mayberry. Nobody asks what I did. Nobody blames me. Nobody takes it as a joke. It’s a topic taken deadly seriously. Because, for them, it is.
There is a reason for that. It’s a reason we see time and time again. A reason many want to deny. It's a reason that comes to mind every time I hear about another tragedy. About a boy like Michael Brown. When I think about just why it may be that I’m alive, and so many like him are not. This is why my eyes have been fixed on Ferguson.
Sadly, when you are different, peoples’ presuppositions can have devastating effects, especially when physical force comes into play. Statistics say that people on the autism spectrum are 7x more likely than people who aren’t on the spectrum. Unfortunately, as my experience can attest, those encounters aren’t always good ones. And for those on the spectrum who also face compounded risk because of their racial differences, the fear can be especially acute.
These fears don’t seem unfounded, when you’ve seen these dynamics play out in the lives of people like 27-year-old Steven Eugene Washington, who was killed with a single gunshot to the head, after police identified him as “suspiciously looking around and manipulating something in his waistband area.” He was autistic, and unarmed. He’s not the only one...the list is long, and heartbreaking. Though some live, far too many die.
This is something that needs to change. But it can only change when we learn to listen with humility to the experiences of those whose experiences we don’t share. When we educate ourselves. When we question our perceptions, and their consequences — and change them accordingly.
If you have a child who faces these challenges, do you react as a parent? For one parent's perspective, don’t miss the tomorrow’s guest post by legislative advocate and parent activist Kerima Cevik — Catastrophic Encounters and Autistic Identity: Parenting Against Injustice.