My son was six years old the first time a cop put his hands on him. It was about two weeks into the summer after kindergarten.
In a nutshell, I was getting gas at the station that was right next to our house. Because we were in the gas station all the time, I let my son run in while I was outside pumping. He knew all the station attendants, so I knew he would be fine. When I was done, I went in and found him perusing the candy aisle as any six-year-old would. We were standing next to each other looking at candy, and he reached out to grab my hand, as my son often did when he was that age (and actually still does now). The cop, who thought that my son was in the store alone, mistakenly thought that he was reaching for my purse, grabbed him by the shoulders to keep him from pick-pocketing me.
Imagine my shock.
Imagine my horror.
(I quickly rushed my son out, telling him to get to the car and I would buy his candy for him, so that I could address the cop alone.)
There were lots of assumptions in that cop’s behavior.
He assumed my son was alone.
He assumed my son was up to no good.
He assumed that when my son got close to me, it was to harm me, and not because we might know each other.
It never occurred to him that we were in relationship with one another – that we were family.
Lots of assumptions were made, and all of them were centered around protecting me against a kid that was assumably bad.
Here’s the thing though: I don’t think that guy was a “bad cop”… when he realized his mistake, he was mortified. He apologized profusely, over and over. He wasn’t motivated by anger or hatred; he was just operating from his unconscious bias.
And his unconscious bias has trained him — subconsciously over and over throughout his life — to think that women (especially white women) needed taken care of. And his bias also trained him to believe that a Black child in a convenience store (especially one there alone) was up to no good. And nothing in either one of those biases would help him to understand that we might actually be together; that this scene might be a child reaching out for his mother. That cop was reacting from a place of good intention — he was thinking he was keeping me safe. In the narrative in his head, he could not have ever imagined any scenario where the two of us could have known each other or even been together.
This is what bias does. It writes stories in our heads that we then behave from. And often, those stories are based in stereotypes that belittle or harm the people involved.
That cop wrote a narrative about my son the minute he walked through the station door — a story of a young black boy alone. Maybe he wrote the story that my son didn’t have attentive parents, or maybe in his head, his hardworking single parent had to leave him alone to work. But my son was never alone.
Then when I walked in, he continued the story in his head — a woman. a white woman, older. He may have even wondered what I was doing in this neighborhood. Clearly, I didn’t know where I was. I must be naive. And with a big purse too, I am going to need protection. See where I am going here? … it was all based in his good intentions, and his assumption that he needed to serve and protect.
But his narrative failed us. The story he wrote in his head was wrong. And he focused on the protecting the safety of a purse instead of protecting the psyche of a child. My son was harmed, and my naivete was gone. All in the name of good intentions.
This is what bias does. It lets our assumptions color our vision and blind us to the truth of the lives of the people around us. Because when we write stories in our head, we don’t take the time to hear stories in our communities.
When we write stories out of our bias, even our good intentions can’t help us from harming and being harmed.