On a recent trip to visit family, I checked in via cellphone to inform my parents of my ETA, which was far earlier than expected. Of course it was. I take few breaks, and only then to empty one tank and fill another. Also, I “keep up with the flow of traffic”, which is to say, I speed. Not for the love of it, but with calculation and for the sake of efficiency. “One day your luck is going to run out, Juls,” Mom said, before hanging up with a weary sigh. By which she meant, I assumed, that one day I will get a speeding ticket sufficient to lighten my lead foot. Mom is right, and she is wrong.
I’m rather famous for talking my way out of tickets, though not by eyelash-batting and sexy simpering. Anyone who knows me well knows that flirtation is not one of my superpowers. The secret, I have preached, is empathy. Be nice to the cop. Admit that you were in the wrong. Apologize, both for the infraction and the inconvenience of making them chase after you and get out of their vehicle, risking their safety on the side of a busy highway. Once, in full sight of a patrolman, I opened my glove compartment to retrieve my registration and insurance and an avalanche of bright yellow traffic warnings tumbled out. I got off with another warning, and a joking suggestion from the cop to hide them in a less conspicuous spot. Behold the power of empathy! Like Mom, I was right, and I was wrong.
One of these days, I will be zipping down a highway, and feel my gut clench with the instinctive response of captured prey when I see the flashing lights in my rearview mirror. Someday, I will get caught and no amount of empathy will prevent that ticket from being written. It will be costly and a bureaucratic pain in the ass, but that will be the worst of it. My luck will run out, but never all the way. Because of an accident of birth, a traffic stop will always be just a traffic stop.
It is impossible to be human right now and remain unaware of the fact that many people could empathize until Judgement Day during a traffic stop and still walk away with a ticket, or worse. Some, as has been the case in epidemic proportions all over this country, will not walk away at all. This is not my experience, and that is the essence of privilege.
I have lived at or below the poverty line for my entire adult life, but I am still unquestionably, deeply privileged. I’ve chosen my circumstances because of an inner imperative to live simply, to be of service, and to feel passionate about the work that I do. I am an educated, straight, cisgender white woman from an upper middle-class background who was given all of the advantages her parents and her whiteness afforded. I have never known fear at the hands of law enforcement, nor have I ever been denied basic respect, rights, or services, and it wasn’t because of how good I am at empathy.
Naming my privilege is a step towards allying myself with those who, in similar situations, find themselves in danger and without an advocate, is one step. Making a goddamned almighty stink about the fact that (despite its “live and let live” vibe and progressive politics) Vermont has the highest rate of racial profiling by police officers in the United States every chance I get, is another step. There are many more after that, and empathy is only one of them.