I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a young white woman in Los Angeles, and I work as a social worker in a federal program for low-income, recently-homeless veterans who are looking for affordable housing. Once my guys move in to their selected apartments, I do home visits - meeting with my clients in their new apartments and talking with them about how they’re adjusting to their new roles as tenants, neighbors, community members, and rent-paying heads of household.
Last year I had a home visit with a veteran who had just moved into his 1-bedroom apartment in south LA. He was doing great, he told me as we sat on his couch, and felt optimistic about finishing truck driving school now that he had a stable place to live.
After the visit, he walked me out of his apartment, then stayed with me for the walk down the block to where I had parked my car - a white Chevy with government plates. I wore a blouse, skirt, and my work ID badge on a lanyard around my neck. I carried a cell phone and a Manila folder. I might as well have had SOCIAL WORKER stamped on my forehead.
We reached the car and were finishing our conversation, standing on the sidewalk near the passenger side. It was a sunny day, beautiful, not too hot. We stood there for almost 10 minutes, planning the date and time of the next visit, chatting about the Crimson Tide (he’s from Alabama), lawn care, the loud dog in the neighbor’s backyard. An LAPD patrol car came slowly around the corner, pulled in front of my car, and stopped. The officer in the passenger seat looked directly at me, paused, and said, "Are you OK?"
"Uh…yes…" I said, “I’m fine-?" I answered out of genuine, dumb confusion. Why wouldn’t I be fine, officer?, went my brain. I’m standing here on the sidewalk, having a calm, friendly conversation with another adult on a lovely Los Angeles Tuesday at 11 am.
Ohhhh, I realized a second later. Oh. Oh. Of course. I should’ve known. My face changed, my brow unfurrowed. I wasn’t confused anymore. My expression turned to vile, disgusted disbelief as soon as I realized what the meaning behind his question was. I did not know what to say. I did not know what to say.
The officer looked at me for another few seconds, making sure I was allowed the opportunity to volunteer any information about how I wasn’t OK. The officer did not look at or acknowledge the man standing on the sidewalk with me at any point in our exchange. I still couldn’t think of anything to say. I am not quick on my feet like that. I’ve never had to be quick on my feet like that. He said, "I just wanted to see if you were OK," and drove away, having completed a successful check-in on a white woman possibly being assaulted by a black man. Whew. That was a close one.
I JUST WANTED TO SEE IF YOU WERE OK. He said those words to me in front of an adult man who had just invited me in to his home and offered me a sandwich and a bottled water. I was shaky with anger and couldn’t make eye contact with my client. It was my appearance and coloring that had drawn attention to us, and I was embarrassed that I had made him go through this experience. I said I was sorry about that. I was sorry that, you know, he had, I just, I was so, so sorry. I said I didn’t know what that whole thing was about, faking confusion, and shook my head and furrowed my brow for emphasis. I knew exactly what it was about.
"Aw, that’s nothing," he said, “That’s how they are round here." He had a smile on his face and the demeanor of a man who was not confused. That’s how they are. That’s how things are. He said he’d see me for next month’s home visit, and told me to drive safe.
I think it’s important to think every damn day how privilege affords me the luxury of being assumed that I am a good and innocent person. I am not Trayvon Martin.