“White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard, it just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder,” Jimmy Kimmel said. “People who are white, we don’t have to deal with negative assumptions being made about us based on the color of our skin.” Over the past weeks, I’ve been thinking about the time when my white skin saved me from being arrested, but I wasn’t quite ready to share the story publicly. It was seeing the footage of the Black girls—one as young as six and wearing a pink princess crown—forced to lie face down in a parking lot by police brandishing guns before having their hands handcuffed behind their backs (at least they didn’t handcuff the little one) that made me decide to share it now.
My white skin saved me from a police record
by Ruth Neuwald Falcon, Seattle, Washington
On a June afternoon when I was 15, a friend and I took the number 5 bus down Riverside Drive and across 42nd Street to 5th Avenue. We wandered down to 34th Street, where we entered the glass doors of B. Altman’s. According to the Department Store Museum’s Store Directory, we likely went to the 4th floor: Better Sportswear, Opulent Dresses, Young Expressions Dresses, Blouse Bazaar. We’d often go to stores and try on clothes we knew we’d never buy, just to see what we might look like in a long gown or a black cocktail dress. Our lives as high school students, even in Manhattan, didn’t involve occasions where long gowns or little black dresses were comme il faut. Au contraire. We spent our lives in jeans or short black skirts and turtlenecks or striped t’s.
But this particular afternoon, when we tried on the black cocktail dresses, we didn’t want to take them off. We thought they transformed us into the sophisticated young women—visibly comfortable in their own skins—we longed to be. So we pulled our jeans over the skirts, stuffing them into the waistbands, and our striped t’s over the sleeveless tops of the dresses. Over that, our oversized denim shirts.
I don’t remember if we rode the escalators back down or took the elevators with the elaborate metal filigrees and rich wood paneling. I do know we hoped we didn’t look shifty-eyed as we crossed the vast lobby. I also know we breathed a sigh of relief as we walked out through those glass doors again. But at the next moment, the moment after that relieved breath, we each felt a vise-like hand clamp upon our upper arms. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, but suddenly it felt like a cold glass shield had descended, separating us from the constant flow of pedestrians and cars.
A woman in a blue suit stood between us, her gaze as unwavering as her grip. “Come with me, girls,” she said. We thought we were safe once we’d made it to the street. We didn’t know that it is only when you’re outside the premises that they can nab you. As long as you’re inside the store, it’s always possible that you’re intending to pay for it, even when “it” is stuffed under your clothes.
The woman took us to a warren of rooms that weren’t listed in the Store Directory. They put my friend in one, me in another. “Give us your mother’s number,” the security officers said to each of us. We didn’t know until later that we both gave the same initial response: “No! Don’t call my mother.” If not your mother, they said, we will have to call the police. “Call the police,” I sobbed, as did my friend in her room. The security officers very patiently explained to us that if the police became involved, our mothers would have to know and we would be doing ourselves a favor if we would just give them our mothers’ numbers and avoid that step. We did.
Our white skins saved us from paying the full consequences for our teenage stupidity and cupidity. The security officers assumed we were good kids who had made a dumb mistake. Had they turned us over to the criminal justice system, our lives could have been derailed.
I don’t think that the people who have known me over the course of my life since then will think less of me because of a teenage shoplifting escapade. But I am sure that a police record would have blighted my life indefinitely.
I am still grateful to those security officers for their kindness and confidence that they had scared us sufficiently that we would never do such a thing again (they had; we didn’t), and I am deeply sorry that the same break wasn’t, and still isn’t, often afforded to boys and girls of color. It’s a break and an opportunity to do right that everyone deserves.