On Friday, I stopped by a Columbia Heights bakery, where a very friendly officer stopped me to talk about the event the police were hosting in the parking lot. I was reluctant to engage, but this officer was gently persistent and I had an empty half-hour to try to fill. He has been on the force for 12 years, and his mother was a speech pathologist in the public schools. I’m a recently retired teacher myself, and we began to talk about this common experience.
The reason I am writing is because of what happened next, which demonstrated a problem that is so pervasive in our culture that it is hidden in plain sight. It is the reason that every officer at this event was white, why every patron chatting with the officers was white and primarily male, and why the black family that bought doughnuts inside the bakery practically broke into a run to avoid talking with anyone in that parking lot.
I am a white, educated woman, and that matters in this context. Forgive me for the detail I’m about to add as I to try to shine a light on my observation. Hopefully, you will find it enlightening, or at minimum, conversation-starting.
It was after just a few minutes of friendly exchanges with the police officer that I began to warm up to the conversation. We’d just started talking about officers we both know when a white male, perhaps in his 40s, approached. He interrupted me mid-sentence and gave a facile apology, appearing to indicate that he was going to be quick about his point. He was not. Note also that there were other officers not talking with any citizens at that moment, so it would have been easy for this man to find himself in the audience of a cop without interrupting my conversation.
To the interrupter, I was insignificant, perhaps even a target, considering the ease with which he could have spoken with any number of available officers. The officer with whom I was conversing acquiesced to a cultural norm that ignores some people and gives power to others, especially if they simply step in and take it, or dare I say, steal it.
This is the very definition of white-male privilege. As a woman, I have had similar experiences thousands of times over my lifetime. This was a subtle but effective way to exert power over a woman, overtly by the man who interrupted and unintentionally by the officer who enabled this rude moment. Again, it is a familiar experience. Women endure it everywhere. So do people of color. I can extrapolate from my experience and know that it is familiar also to that black father and the little girl he had with him, which is likely why he was so avoidant of interaction with the cops and their free doughnuts. This is why my tears escaped.
This officer enabled something that, in that parking lot, was minor. He was polite in the ways that every nice Minnesotan is taught to be. If you scale that moment across thousands of people over decades, our current cultural crisis can be seen. These cultural norms, the very norms that teach us what it means to be nice and to be polite, actually feed into a deep chasm that is causing emotions to flare and people who need each other to be divided. It is putting lives in peril.
My hope is that the minor, simple-to-understand story of a retired teacher who was rudely interrupted by a boorish white male might be used to help lubricate the more friction-prone conversations surrounding police and people of color. This officer meant no malice, and likely saw none. Hopefully, you can also see evidence of deep-seated problems in this officer’s moment in the parking lot. He is an obviously kind man whose polite manner fuels the anger that seems to be igniting with more frequency, endangering the lives of both those who serve and those citizens who are served.
“Follow the money” is an adage that helps us ferret out corruption. Alter that to read “follow the power” and it might help shed light on when to take the conversation away from someone behaving in entitled ways and hand it to those whose voice deserves to be heard.
Beverly Koopman lives in Buffalo, Minn.