Last Wednesday evening I engaged in my “favorite” weekly Wednesday night ritual of placing my trash, recycling, and yard waste bins on the curb in front of my house. Our neighborhood waste management provider picks up all of the aforementioned every Thursday morning, and because I am a huge fan of not having things that smell or attract the local wildlife hanging out on the side of my house I tend to be pretty on it when it comes to making sure my bins are out and ready for disposal. So I’m in my house, breaking down some small boxes, bagging up cans in recyclable paper bags, and preparing to place said items in my recycling bin when I instinctively began patting myself down. A brief moment of panic set in as I realized one of my biggest fears was facing me head on:
I was about to go outside without my wallet.
I quickly rushed over to the front of my house, to the mail sorting tower where I place my keys and wallet as I walk in the door after work every night, and quickly grabbed my “Bad Mother F——-” wallet from the top shelf. As I slid the hand-stitched brown leather billfold into my hip pocket I felt my anxiety rapidly subsiding. I was relieved; it was a whole body relief, the kind that allows your shoulders to lower and the tension in your neck to release. That relief however was quickly replaced with a feeling, a notion, a learned behavior that has stuck with me since I got my first state-licensed identification card.
I am deathly afraid of going outside of my house without identification.
When I turned thirteen years old I got my first job, an under-the-counter part-time after-school job unloading boxes and stocking shelves at a party supply store. My parents took me to the nearest Michigan Secretary of State’s office and sat with me as I filled out the application, had my picture taken, and received a temporary paper copy of my state identification card with the notification that I should receive my physical card in seven to ten working days. On the way home my parents and I had a talk about being young and Black. It was similar in tone and message to conversations I’ve had with my parents before: do what a police officer tells me to do, try and get home before it gets too dark, mind who I hang out with, things of that ilk. This is not a conversation the vast majority of white children have with their parents ever. Sadly enough, this kind of advice is a common rite of passage for many Black and Brown children in the United States. It’s signifies that you are now reaching an age where even if you are still technically a child you are now perceived by the society you live in as a possible high-level threat. This discourse with my parents, however, had a new nugget of information added to it: never leave home without your ID.
I’m sure that if you are not BIPOC (Black and Indigenous Person of Color) in the United States, especially if you are not Black or Brown, there is a very strong likelihood that your parents have never felt the need to have a discussion with you about always making sure you have current unexpired documentation and identification on your person. For many white folx, leaving home without identification of some kind is like, “Oops! My bad!” For the most part, there is no real danger for white folx if they walk around their neighborhoods and go about their daily routines without their photo ID or immigration papers. For Black and Brown U.S. Americans, however, proper identification is ingrained in us as a matter of survival, of life and death, of being able to pursue your dreams without being imprisoned or deported to a country you were not born in and/or never resided in as a citizen. The belief is it legitimizes you, letting law enforcement and even your white neighbors know that you too are allowed to walk around your neighborhood and go about your daily routines.
The ugly truth is that the United States is a country where Black and Brown citizens can be minding their business, walking home with a bag in their hand from their local 24-hour convenience store because they ran out of toilet paper at home in the middle of the night, disturbing no one and nothing along the way, and still get stopped by the law enforcement or immigration because their skin contains more melanin than is deemed acceptable for you to be outside late at night unsupervised. If that example sounds quite specific to you in tone and detail as you read it that’s because it is specific. It happened to me many years ago, when I was 20 years old, around 12:30 in the morning in the middle of summer. I have been stopped by law enforcement officials while minding my business and going about my day at least 10 times since then, but that instance sticks out in my mind because it was one of the only times I have ever been stopped by the police where I thought I was about to be killed or framed.
It was also the first time that I realized something about having proper identification: when you’re Black or Brown it doesn’t matter.
A police cruiser with two white officers inside swiftly pulled up alongside me after passing me a mere minute earlier; I watched as they hung a left at the corner a few paces in front of me, accelerated, then abruptly came back for their prey. The police cruiser’s high beams, which were not on before they spotted me, exploded behind me, bathing me in a shower of blindingly off-white halogen. The officer in the passenger seat rolled down his window and ordered me to stop; I felt my heart drop into my stomach but I complied. As I turned around to face the car with my hands up both officers exited their vehicle. From the corner of my right eye I noticed the driver clicking the safety off on his weapon as he moved toward me. I wanted to cry; I wanted to run. I wanted to ask them why they were stopping me. I wanted to do a lot of things in that moment. But there was one thing that I knew I wanted more than any of the aforementioned.
I didn’t want to die.
The driver asked me what I was doing outside after midnight. I stammered out that I was coming back from the store or some permutation of those words; I can’t quite recall how my sentence was formulated. My brain was unsettled and running wild, my pulse was racing. Everything was a mental and emotional blur because the driver’s firearm now had a right hand around its handle, a right pointer finger sliding into its trigger hole. I was frozen; paralyzed. I felt the tears wanting to burst forth from my eyes but my pride wouldn’t let it happen. Even in the throes of anxiety and fear I did not want to give these two men who were harassing me for no apparent reason the satisfaction of watching me break down. I figured that if they were going to frame me for something, or if the firearm that my gaze was repeatedly transfixed on was going to fade me to black (irony) that I wasn’t going to make this feel like a complete psychological victory for them.
The passenger looked through my shopping bag; the driver patted me down and rummaged through my pockets. The driver went through my wallet, emptying its contents onto the hood of the cruiser, meticulously unfolding papers, receipts, phone numbers. Both officers scrutinized my state identification card, oscillating between peering at me through the haze of their blaring lights and gauging by eye whether or not my physical characteristics matched the information they read on the laminated plastic. The passenger took my identification with him into the vehicle; he re-emerged a minute or so later with a look of annoyance in his face. Stymied in his quest to easily peg me as a criminal or mischievous negro without it being questioned or scrutinized by his superiors the driver haphazardly shoved the contents of my wallet back into it. He handed my wallet back to me in a huff, taking a moment to look me in my eyes before saying to me, “You get on home - now.”
They got in their car.
They drove away.
And I sat there, once again bathed in the veil of night, trembling, tears running down my cheeks, my teeth chattering.
I somehow made it home that night. I don’t know how, or when, but somehow my heart, my brain, my emotions, and my body worked together to get me down the street and into my bed. I laid there, in the dark, my heart racing, my head throbbing. I had come into contact with damn near every Black and Brown parent’s worse nightmare and I lived to talk about it.
I lived but I didn’t survive.
I’ve never gotten over that night. I’m 36 years old and I still feel queasy around law enforcement. I’ve never been able to fully process how fragile my mortality is and was, especially when said mortality isn’t mine to control at all times. I’ve never been able to reconcile for myself how a white person with authority in their professional life over the fragile state of Black and Brown lives can be a tool of a system that makes the oppressed the oppressors so effortlessly just by giving them a badge or a title. And I’ve never been able to fully digest that my state ID, my documentation, my citizenship papers, mean nothing when someone can kill or incarcerate me just because they think I’m a threat or have a weapon when all I’m doing is producing my identification as they requested.
For persons of color, the sense of legitimacy and safety that we are told we will receive from having proper identification on our person is a lie. It’s a narrative that is constructed by white supremacy, one that only applies to white folx. The necessity to obtain and maintain non-expired proper identification and documentation for BIPOC folx is another form of systemic oppression. It is a means of control and conditioning within the framework of white supremacy, another glimpse into a right or privilege that white folx created and possess that was created without BIPOC folx in mind. We are made to understand that not having a state ID, a driver’s license, an authorization card, or our immigration papers is akin to asking for trouble. Many Black and Brown folx are told from an early age that the aforementioned items can be the difference between death or possible incarceration or getting to home with all of our limbs and organs intact. Real talk though?
You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Identification doesn’t necessarily save lives. Having all of your documents and identification cards in your pocket or handbag might save you from some brief moments of grief while navigating the world we live in. But as a person of color you learn to understand that these items deemed by whiteness as necessary to your legitimacy and survival do not guarantee you safe passage to your doorstep or passage beyond the threshold of your front door and into the safety of your home. They don’t necessarily offer you safety in said home if law enforcement officials or ICE agents decide to cave in your door because you’re on a list somewhere or you “fit a description”. And if you are Black or Brown you can be minding your business, walking home with a bag in your hand from your local 24-hour convenience store because you ran out of toilet paper at home in the middle of the night, disturbing no one and nothing along the way, and still get stopped by the law enforcement or immigration because your skin contains more melanin than is deemed acceptable for you to be outside late at night unsupervised.
They can ask you to produce your identification.
You can reach into your pocket to retrieve that identification.
They could assume that you’re reaching for a weapon.
You could have a clip emptied into your body because a hair trigger acted too fast and didn’t take the time to assess the situation.
You could no longer be a living, breathing, human being. You’ll be another statistic; another story for the local and national news cycles.
And all because of a damn piece of paper or plastic with a name, picture, and number on it that is supposed to ensure that things like this do not happen.
Tomorrow is Wednesday. I’ll be engaging in my “favorite” weekly Wednesday night ritual of placing my trash, recycling, and yard waste bins on the curb in front of my house for disposal on Thursday. And I’ll have my wallet in my pocket, nestled closely to my left thigh, the embroidered “Bad Mother F——-” on its leather face pushing into the fabric of whatever pants I’m wearing. For those few moments where I’m dutifully going about my business recycling and bagging I will feel somewhat at peace. That wallet will engender a sense of safety; of compliance. But God forbid a police cruiser drives by or a siren sounds a few blocks away from me. My pulse will quicken; my anxiety will rise. I’ll subconsciously pat myself down to ensure my wallet is in place. In the moment it will calm me down. I will be OK.
I…I will be OK, right? I mean I’ll have my ID on me.