A Middle-Aged White Woman’s Encounter with Two State Police Officers. Or: How I am unbelievably privileged, and it’s still hard. Or: Some of our laws are CRAZY!

Disclaimer, right from the start:  I realize in today’s world, this is hardly worth writing about – for more serious, intellectual reflections on race, see my friend Toddie Peter’s blogs –

Toddie’s post

Or check out my friends Rev. LeAnn McDannel Hodges or Rev. Cindy Cushman on facebook, mothers of rainbow-hued children, or my friend Rev. James Ellis III, whose pastorship is invisible but whose skin color is obvious.  None of this is theoretical or a laughing matter.  It’s their lives.

Otherwise, read on:

Here’s my daughter, Sadie:  The day was August 12, two days before her 16th birthday.

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We went to the MVA for her learner’s permit test.  After long hours, she passed, picked up her temporary permit, and we got into my car.  And I backed out of my spot, right into another car.  An old Crown Victoria.  An unmarked police car.

I got out, investigated the damage, of which there was NONE.  This is important:  NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Bumpers kissed.  I started to walk back to the driver’s side, when I started getting yelled at.  Because the driver of that car, a State Police Officer who worked at the MVA, happened to walk around the corner and hear the bump.  He was angry.  And big.  And yelling.

I was like “What?”  Because yes, I was about to drive off without leaving a note because remember, NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  Apparently, I was threatening his job:

if he didn’t report this, he would blow 20 years on the force;

didn’t I understand how serious this was;

anytime a state police vehicle gets into a crash it must be reported;

another person heard the crash so there was a witness.  And on and on.

Amy’s amygdala at this point, which HATES to get in trouble, is on the verge of tears.  Amy’s prefrontal cortex, which hates illogical authority, was sputtering, politely, but yes, with an edge.  Because NOT EVEN A SCRATCH.  And I’m being told – yelled – that the State Police from the nearest precinct must be called, they must come and investigate and report this as a crime.  You are KIDDING ME.  (sorry for all the caps, but seriously…..)

So, we wait.  No, we cannot move our car, which is now not only blocking prime parking spots at the MVA, but the entire roadway.  It is hot.  I’m vacillating between tears of getting in trouble, and frustration at HOW RIDICULOUS this is.  My daughter takes a nap.  It occurs to me this could have been worse – She could have been driving.  My daughter wakes up.  She asks, “Why can’t we just take a picture, send it to the precinct, let them determine if it’s worth reporting or not?”

One hour forty-five minutes during which I get berated a wee bit more before the “victim”of this crime goes back into his comfy air conditioned seated post.  I remain perplexed as to why he is so freakin’ angry, because his life is not disrupted in the least.

The State Police Officer comes.  It takes another hour, at the end of which I am told that even though this is absurd, ridiculous, illogical, a COMPLETE WASTE OF EVERYONE’S TIME, I have to go to court.  Yes, you read that right:  I am going to court; the state ticketed me; they may ask me to pay hundreds of dollars to repaint the 20 yo, 200K + miles Crown Victoria bumper; and this poor police officer has to go to court as well.  If I just pay the fine, and skip court, my insurance company will raise my rates.

He was so incredibly kind, breaking role to let me know that he too found it ridiculous, and there was an overturned tractor trailer on the DC beltway and a child trapped in a car, and he would much rather be there.  So now I feel horribly guilty AND indignant.

But:  I am white.  I have more or less decent emotional regulation (I didn’t get hysterical with weeping or screaming.)  I am female.  I am small.  I was professional dressed (well, on-sale REI and Title Nine clothes – but obviously middle class)  I am well-spoken.  I admit I did indeed back into the other car, so I readily admit my guilt (although I did have to add, “But seriously, the punishment here does NOT fit this crime!  NEAS!)   I have got to be about the least threatening specimen of an adult human being a police officer can ever expect to deal with.  In this interaction, I was privileged 6 ways to Sunday.

But here is what matters:  I  know just how differently this could have unfolded:  If I were poor.  Black or undocumented.  If I couldn’t control my amygdala or my mouth (not that it wasn’t a struggle, mind you!)  If I were a large male in an old t-shirt and flip-flops.  If I were missing teeth.  If I got belligerent.  If I verbalized my thoughts:  This is the DUMBEST law I have ever heard of, and I’m not staying!  If I were losing pay, and maybe my job, because what should’ve taken 2 hours was now closer to 5.  If I wore a burka, or hijab.  Spoke another language.  And all the other ways I take so for granted I don’t even realize.  Our brains are wired to stereotype, categorize, take short-cuts.  Sometimes it falls our way, and when it doesn’t fall someone else’s way, we are wired to assume it was their fault.  But those same brains are wired to analyze, if we just use them.

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“Don’t TELL me to CALM DOWN!” Why it won’t work

Ever heard these 6 words when you’ve been upset?   Ever said these words because someone else was upset?

And how did that go for you?  I’m guessing, from personal experience, not well.

I admit I’ve lost it probably more than my fair share of times – You know what that looks like and sounds like:  In my case, a screechy voice, troll-like red dripping nose, zombie-like eyes spouting fountains of tears, hiccups, maybe throw in a foot stomp or two.  Shall we say, not a pretty picture?  I can’t form sentences, at least not ones that are coherent to humans.  But more to the point, I cannot hear you.  Especially if you are calmly telling me to “just calm down.”  Even though I’m guilty of saying it to my own teenaged daughter.  Even though I know it won’t work.

But why is this so ineffective?

When the limbic system takes charge, it hears your pre-frontal cortex command to “calm down” as a personal affront.

When my pre-frontal executive rational logical functioning mind goes off-line because all my mental energy is consumed with anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, fear rumbling like a volcano spewing forth, I cannot hear your words.  At least not the way they are intended.  Those words get filtered through the lava of anger, betrayal, injustice, hurt, and fear so what I hear when you say, “Just calm down,” is:

Judgment:  Why are you so upset?

Critique: There’s nothing to be THAT upset about.

Impatience: You are just over-reacting.

Belittlement:  It is not a big deal.

Disgust: What’s wrong with you, anyway?

Dismissal: What you are feeling is wrong, out of control, and not nearly as important as you think it is.  IE: You and your feelings are not important.

Of course this is NOT what you are trying to communicate to the person who’s lost it in front of you!  But what you may be communicating when you say, “Just calm down now,” is:

Your amygdala’s display of such uncensored and apparently out-of-control emotional volatility is making me uncomfortable, and I can’t help you when you are like this, and that makes me uncomfortable, so please calm down and we’ll all feel much better.

So what to do?  Imagine that apparently out of control limbic system in front of you is a scared, wild animal.  Because honestly, it pretty much is.  Soothe it – don’t command it.  Reach out to comfort it – don’t dismiss it.  It’s skittish, and scared, and lonely.  Don’t threaten it.  Let it know you won’t hurt it, you understand, because to them, in that moment, the world is not safe, and they aren’t convinced you are safe.  Under no circumstances say, “Just Calm Down.”  That’s like fuel to the fire.  And no one feels better.

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