Safety, Unearned


Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on Irwin Keller’s blogand is reprinted here with permission of the author.
On Saturday morning, December 13, 2014, racism saved my life. It was maybe 3 am, pitch dark, and I was in Winthrop, WA – a tiny town in the Methow Valley, east of the Snoqualmie National Forest. We had performed there that night – theKinsey Sicks, that is, America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet, including me. This was one of my last performances with the group. I was to have an official swansong at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre the next night, and then the denouement of a couple shows in the Midwest over the next week.
We loaded out of the the theater – a large converted barn, actually – around midnight. We rested for a few hours in hotel rooms that were barely worth having paid for. Then it was time to start the long, snowy drive to Seattle to catch our early-morning San Francisco flight.
With a population of around 400, Winthrop was deserted at this hour. We pulled out of the hotel toward Main Street and paused at the stop sign to get our bearings. We were bone-tired and punchy. Jeff, who plays Trixie, was pulling up the navigation on his phone, but paused first to turn on an interior light and take a group selfie, to show the world how hideously unslept we were.
I noticed a vehicle coming toward us. It had also reached Main Street and was at the stop sign directly across from us. It seemed to be waiting for us to go, so I turned right onto Main Street. The other car turned to follow us. The navigation hadn’t quite kicked in and within a minute or so we missed the on-ramp to the freeway we needed. We saw our error instantly. I stopped just beyond the ramp, hoping the car behind us would pass, so I could just back up and grab the ramp. There were no other cars for miles.
But the other car stopped too. I stuck my hand out the window, waving for it to pass. It didn’t.
Finally, I just put the car back in gear and started to drive, figuring I’d find a place to turn around. And with that, lights began to flash on the car behind us and a siren began to wail.
I pulled right back over onto the snowy shoulder. I opened the door and started to get out when a policeman – older, grizzled – yelled, “Back in the car. I want everyone’s hands in the air.” And he bounded up to my door, gun drawn and aimed.
A million thoughts flew threw my head, from the trivial (“I won’t get my farewell show”) to the heartbreaking (“I won’t see my family again”) to the tragicomic (“Touring drag queens get rave reviews – and shot”).
“No one in this car is armed, officer,” I said slowly, with a firm and friendly tone.
“Who you got back there,” he barked.
“There are four of us. Performers. We appeared tonight at the Arts Alliance.”
This was the tense moment in which racism saved our lives.
The cop looked in at us and softened. He told us we’d been driving erratically and he was afraid there might have been domestic abuse happening in the car. I don’t have a reason to disbelieve that. And I’m grateful that there are police watching out for women getting abused by drunk boyfriends in their cars on a Friday night. He put his gun back in the holster and then, remarkably, surreally, moved on to small talk, speculating about our chances of making Seattle in time for our flight. He got back in his car and led us through town to another ramp.
We drove onto the freeway, our hearts pounding. When we found our voices again, we articulated what we were all thinking: that racial profiling, thatracism,had saved us. Because for all my outsiderness, for all my queer-Jew-edgy-dragqueen thing, I was still a white man in that moment. And so were the two in the back seat. And as for Jeff – well, as my character said to his character in one of our more politically charged shows, “Honey, we don’t think of you as Asian. We think of you asnot black.” And in this precarious moment,not blackhad been good enough.
We drove all night. This was four months after Michael Brown had been killed in Ferguson, MO. But we didn’t need a high-profile case to know the truth: that if one or all of us had been African American, we would have been in jail. Or we might have been dead.
We pushed the experience to the back of our consciousness, the luxury of our privilege. We made it to San Francisco and went on with the show, mentioning offhandedly to the audience that we’d been stopped at gunpoint less than 24 hours earlier. The audience gasped, and we saw our suppressed fear through their eyes.
I have been on this planet for 55 years. I have been pulled over for moving violations, expired registrations and broken taillights. I have been offered help changing tires. As someone who has been both a protestor and a legal observer at demonstrations, I confess to a longstanding reflex of suspicion toward police. And as a longstanding “good boy” I have a deep seated fear of their authority. But through all of that, I live with a confidence that any interaction I have with police will end with my still being alive.
Philando Castile, who was on this planet for not quite 33, had no reason for such confidence when he was stopped for a broken taillight Wednesday in St. Paul. Nor does any black man living in this country.
My certainty that I am safe is unearned and undeserved. And so is the certainty of black men in this country that they are not. This is the privilege of my skin. The ways that racism benefits me are uncountable. I am not the most enfranchised person in the world. But still. I mostly always feel and am safe, including from police.
Meanwhile Philando Castile of the broken taillight is dead. And the fact that despite the high profile cases of the last two years,killings by police, including the killing of black men, is happening with even greater frequency is shocking, inexcusable. There aren’t adjectives worthy.
So, white men, what do we do with all this privilege? Maybe we start by not taking it for granted. When you are given the benefit of the doubt by a cop who pulls you over, don’t think that it’s just because you’re a good guy. Drive away and imagine how it might have gone if you were black. Then go home, go on line toBlack Lives Matterandmake a donation. My grandmother would always put something in thepushke– the charity box – if a family member escaped some danger. Black Lives Matter is the rightpushkefor this moment.
And while you’re there, buy a t-shirt, and wear it, and respond when someone points it out.
And once you’ve gone this far, you might as well go to the next #blacklivesmatter protest. Safety and justice for black people is the obligation of all people.
As I write this, I’m at a rabbinic retreat. There has been a whole lot of praying going on here. And I wonder what are the right prayers to offer? Are they about grief? Are they about consolation? About policy? About justice?
As we offered our afternoon prayers outside on this college campus today, an African American student passed by me. “Please God, keep him safe,” was all I could muster in the moment. My heart had nothing cleverer or loftier to offer. “Please God, keep him safe, keep him safe, keep him safe. Keep him safe – from people who look like me.”
In memory of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
Reb Irwin Keller is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Sonoma County, California since 2008. His past work included LGBTQ and HIV advocacy, having authored Chicago’s first LGBT rights law and directing an AIDS legal services organization in San Francisco. He was also a founder and, for 21 years, a writer and performer in The Kinsey Sicks, known as “America’s Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet.”
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