Driving while . . . mulatto [Rerun Sunday]

You can find a brief explanation of “Rerun Sunday” here.

The post below originally appeared on 30 Nov 2006.

Michael Omi was on campus tonight, where he gave a smart and engaging talk: “The Contradictions of Colorblindness: Race and Its Discontents.” During the Q&A period, two different audience members — seemingly with noble intentions — commented on the racial/ethnic make-up of the audience and on which members of the audience were (and weren’t) asking questions . . . and it was clear from their comments that they were relying heavily on visual markers to make their respective claims. Their eyes apparently told them everything they needed to know about the identities of the people in the room.

Of course, for pink-skinned mulattoes such as myself, moments like these are always loaded. Whether either of the audience members was actually including me in their reading of the room is impossible to say — the crowd spilled over into the hall, and so there were a lot of faces for them to focus on — but I’d be willing to bet that I wasn’t the only person in the room who typically gets read as white, but who would self-identify as something else. And I found it particularly ironic that a talk as nuanced as Omi’s — where one of the issues specifically on the table was the sloppiness of racial profiling — led more than one audience member to slot a crowd of 150 or more people into discrete racial categories solely on the basis of visual appearance.

Skip ahead to the trip home after the talk. Margaret had taken the car so she could attend a different function just off-campus, and our arrangement was that she would pick me up when she was through with her duties. The side street where she pulled up seems to lead around the side of the building and onto a major thoroughfare . . . but it really doesn’t. And we discover this at the moment when we’re suddenly squeezed in on both sides and stopped on a sidewalk facing an iron gate that’s way too narrow for a car to pass through.

At this stage, Margaret gives up — she’s had a long day and is usually happier as a passenger anyway — and she asks me to drive the rest of the way. So we switch seats, I back out of the predicament we’re in, find my way back to something resembling a real road — and then I proceed to take a wrong turn which has me heading down a “street” that’s technically a pedestrian-only zone, but that I know will actually get us where we need to be. I hadn’t intended to do the illegal thing (honest), but suddenly I was past the “Do Not Enter” sign — and I made the split second decision to cheat the half block or so it would take to get onto a legal road again.

Only problem was that I did so right in front of one of Minneapolis’ finest.

So Officer Friendly pulls me over and asks for my license and proof of insurance. The insurance card I show him was expired (by a few weeks), and he says “close enough.” (The proper one turned out to still be in the glovebox.) He wanders back to his car, checks my priors, comes back, reminds me of the speeding ticket I got in 2004, offers me a firm lecture about paying attention to road markings . . . and then lets me off with a warning. I thank the nice man, and we drive away.

And I suspect that Officer Friendly did just what those two audience members had done: he profiled us. He looked at me and Margaret (and her colleague Sonja, who was also in the car), saw what he thought were white folks with good jobs . . . and that visible whiteness is what spared me the expense of a ticket. While I’d like to be wrong about this, I suspect that if my blackness or my native-American-ness were more clearly visible in my pigmentation and features,* this story would’ve had a different ending. Especially given that I initially handed him an expired insurance card: compounding one offense with another is usually not a recipe for success when people of color get pulled over. I’m not exactly itching to have the ticket he could’ve legitimately written for my moving violation. But I’d feel better about the break I was given if I could believe that I wasn’t being rewarded simply for having pink skin.

*Mind you, in some people’s eyes, I am visibly non-white. It happens often enough that I’m not completely surprised when it happens again . . . but more typically, I get read by people who don’t know me as just another white guy.

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