When you think about today’s society, you hear a lot about politics, global warming, innovation education and challenging the status quo. When I think about today’s society, I think of issues that I face as a black woman – subtle racism, police brutality and safety. I think of living in Wisconsin and being a black woman. More specifically, I think about living in Milwaukee, where I currently reside.
I live on the lower east side of Milwaukee, one of the most-segregated cities in the United States of America. From the perspective of my family, it’s the “whiter” side of Milwaukee. Living near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, one would assume I feel safer than most people than in other parts of Milwaukee. This is arguable. The part that people usually don’t take into account is the commute – to and from campus and back and forth to my family through rural areas of Wisconsin. As a black woman who grew up in Madison, I am not new to the violence that black people face.
I have been around my fair share of violence in my childhood neighborhood. I recall the time I was at my uncle’s house playing with my cousins … that was the first time I heard a gunshot. My older cousins were outside and I heard some people arguing, but that was pretty typical. I heard my aunt scream “get down” from the dining room. I was standing in the kitchen. When I hit the floor, I could feel my heart pounding against the Pine-Sol-smelling floor. Until recently, that was the scariest moment I had ever had in terms of whether the outcome of a situation was going to be my death.
Little did I know one of the scariest moments for me would be an encounter with a police officer in a rural community recently. As I am writing this, I know that I am not alone. I have seen and read too many stories way to similar to my own. In this case, I am privileged enough to write about it. To name a few: Sandra Bland, Gynnya McMillen, Darnesha Harris and Malissa Williams – all black women who did not live to tell their story. As a black woman, you cannot hide your skin color, just as much as I cannot hide the fear that resides in me every day that’s simply because I am a black woman living in Wisconsin.
On this day, my car overheats and starts to tremble, and I know I’ll have to pull over. I’m right in between U.S Highway 14 and County Road A. all my senses are heightened. I immediately notice there are three houses with one car each. No one appears to be home, but I’ll have to pull near one and wait. As I’m sitting there I see mostly land and across from where I’m located I see what looks like condos. I call my cousin. After I talk to her, I realize I’ll be waiting awhile until someone can come get me. I’m freezing and I want to start my car but I also don’t want to make it smoke more.
After about 35 minutes, I notice I can’t feel my toes. I notice the constant glares and the fact that no one has stopped and asked if they could help me or if I was alright. Out of nowhere, I hear a bark; I can’t really tell how far or near at this point. At the moment, I notice I’m on the side of this house next to some open land. I see a Trump/Pence sign. Instantly, I feel unsafe. I feel unsure of how the people who own this land would feel about a black woman being on and around their property. I think of all the despicable things Trump has said about blacks. Would these owners assume I am lazy because the soon to be President of the United States does? Would people automatically assume I deserved to be roughed up like Trump said about the black person at the Alabama campaign rally? I guess to them I would be just another lazy Negro.
“The scariest moment of my life was not when I first heard gunshots, but when passing drivers looked upon me with suspicion and someone who is allegedly sworn to protect and serve came to check on me; maybe not to make sure I was even safe, but to make sure the house, with a Trump/Pence sign and a dog, was.”
Then, within a blink of an eye, I notice that bark I heard has made an appearance. I see a dog. He’s brown. I’m not sure what type of dog, but if he stood up to attack, he would be taller than me. At this point, I could feel the fear and knots in my stomach. I’m not sure I’m afraid of the dog or if I’m afraid someone from his home let him out with bad intentions. Is there anyone in this house? Am I all of a sudden freaking out because the name of a man in power who doesn’t like people like me is on a lawn where I literally have to sit until someone comes.
Finally, I see a flash of red and blue. A set of colors that once reminded me of “I pledge of alliance to the flag.” Those knots turned into raging pains in the back in my stomach. Will this cop encounter be like the many others I’ve seen and read? Then I think of the Trump/Pence sign: does this cop support Trump and Pence, too?
I shouldn’t let this sound and these lights influence such strong feelings of fright. As I’m taking deep breaths, I can see it’s a female cop through the window. I feel a sense of relief but still scared as she approaches. I notice I have no idea where my wallet is. Do I open the door? Do I stay seated in the car so she knows I don’t have a gun?
I put my hands on the wheel.
She tells me to open the door.
I haven’t taken a breath since I saw her approach.
She repeats, “Open the door.”
I take one hand and open the door as the other one is clearly attached to the wheel. She tells me she was told that I was sitting here, and asks, “What’s the problem?”
Someone, who didn’t stop to check in on me, called and told them I was sitting here. I don’t know why this bothered me as much as it did, but I continue to attempt to not stew on it.
I explain that I’m having car troubles as she asks for my ID, and I then let her know that I think it’s in the back seat in my backpack. At this moment, I have never felt so afraid to reach for anything in my life.
I lived to write my story. Sadly this will not be the last time I feel afraid. Unfortunately, we live in a place where to be a black woman means to be in constant fear.
While I felt slight relief that the officer who approached me was a woman, it brought to the surface the differences between white feminism and black feminism. My black feminism is not just a part of me, not just something I can choose to say I am when it’s convenient. I am always black. I will always be black just as much as I will always believe in the advocacy of women’s rights and the social, economic and equality to men. The portion of that, that is constantly left out in white feminism, is structural and institutional racism.
Yes, this officer was a woman and that is something we have in common, but she was still a part of a system that has proven to be institutionally racist. On this day, this officer was polite and did not use force (not assuming that she ever will). The fact is, however, that she works for an institution that will protect her had she racially profiled me and without knowing a thing about what was going on had decided to use force.
There has always been danger in being black and experiencing an emergency, especially emergencies that put you in contact with police. Even more so in rural areas. Now, a few generations after the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, our next President has unleashed the full force of white nationalism back upon us. It is only by chance that my car breaking down in rural Wisconsin didn’t end in the loss of my life, because we have seen that simply reaching for your wallet while black can be a death sentence.
The scariest moment of my life was not when I first heard gunshots, but when passing drivers looked upon me with suspicion and someone who is allegedly sworn to protect and serve came to check on me; maybe not to make sure I was even safe, but to make sure the house, with a Trump/Pence sign and a dog, was.