In the Summer of 2019, I was driving home from a Democratic candidates presidential forum in South Carolina, and it was very early in the morning.
I had gone to sleep early the previous evening and left my cheap motel at the ungodly hour of 2am because I wanted to get back to D.C. in time for a work meeting.
After 20 or so minutes, I realized I needed to get gas, so I pulled off the highway to find a place where I could stop and look on my phone for a nearby pump.
I made an exit, took a few turns, and before I knew it, I wound up on a dark country road.
It was very dark. Inky dark. No streetlights. No house lights. Whatever moonlight was out struggled to pierce the darkness in front of me. I couldn't see anything except for what little my headlights made visible.
It took several minutes, but I regained my bearings and found a place to turn around.
Then, out of nowhere, red-and-blue lights start flashing in my rearview.
There was no one else around. No homes nearby. Not a soul. I don't know how far away I was from the highway, but it was far enough that I immediately felt a hard-to-describe fear grip me. I think I would call it helplessness.
I stopped my car, and I realized I was shaking. And I was surprised that I was shaking.
I had been pulled over a few times up to that point in my life, but they were trivial instances: once for going a bit fast and once for not having my headlights on in the early evening. In those moments, I felt more embarrassed than anything, like I had let someone down.
But I never felt scared. I wasn't asked for my license and registration either time. Just a quick verbal warning, and I was on my way.
That was back in the closet, when I was presenting as a white male with a crew cut and rather conservative clothing, and despite my progressive politics, I looked no different than the young adult children of any given local GOP party chairman.
But now I was out as a trans woman who doesn't pass particularly well, with "female" on her ID, pulled over on some dark country road, where, for the first time in my life, the thought involuntarily went through my mind that I was in a place where no one could hear me scream.
I really thought that: If I scream, no one will hear me.
I can still hear the faint, muffled crunch of the gravel under the police officer’s boots as he walked up to my car.
I remember the otherwise startling silence of that moment, as though even the cicadas and crickets were holding their breath.
It felt like the world had stopped, and I was suddenly very, very aware of my being a trans woman.
I had dressed for work. I had on light makeup with a bold lip. I had on earrings. I had flats on my feet and heels placed in the passenger seat to put on later.
In the span of seconds, I realized that I didn’t know what would help me stay safe in this situation and internally debated how to “look” to a cop that may or may not be transphobic and violent.
Should I look more feminine or less feminine? Should I try my best to “pass” or play down my femininity? Is he more likely to beat my ass if I’m wearing earrings? Should I quickly rub away my lipstick? If I rub it away and it smears, will he think I’ve been drinking?
How do I make myself smaller? How do I stay alive?
I had to make a decision, and my brain arrived at the conclusion that playing down my femininity would be the wise choice. I felt those first pangs of shame even as I acted quickly.
I took off the earrings. I took out my ID out of my purse and stuffed it under the passenger seat along with the pair of heels. I took a risk and used a fast food napkin in the console to quickly and gently wipe my lips inward, careful to remove the top layers of my lipstick without smearing. I didn’t know what to do about my hair, so I left it in a ponytail and hoped for the best. I cursed myself for deciding to wear a skirt to work that morning and hoped the cop wouldn’t notice it.
There was just the one cop. He appeared at my driver’s side window, and as I rolled it down, I was jarred by his appearance. He looked like he was out of central casting for some movie about a corrupt local sheriff.
He had a simple uniform, a generous gut, an unkempt mustache, a slight southern drawl, looked to be his late 40s or early 50s, and, unsurprisingly, he was white. He would have been as white as me were it not for the blood draining from my face in that moment.
He asked for my license and registration. I don’t remember him asking if I knew why he was pulling me over. Just for the license and registration. And I didn’t ask why he was pulling me over, which, if you know anything about me, is very unusual.
I’m not exactly shy about my opinions or expressing when I’m upset.
But in the few moments that quickly passed between the flashing lights and his ambling up to my car, I had quickly decided that the best thing for me to do in this situation was 1) keep my hands on the steering wheel, 2) be exceedingly respectful and compliant, and 3) otherwise shut the hell up.
I handed him the registration and my ID.
He took it and walked back to his car, and I waited there for a good five minutes that felt like five hours while he ran it. I have been in some scary situations, and I can hardly remember feeling the time drag on slower than it did on that country road.
I could see him in my rearview looking down at what I assumed was his computer. He took his time getting back out of the car.
He walked up again, gave me a strange look, and said, "So, you're from D.C."
"Well, you blew a stop sign 80 yards back."
Now, I can't say with 100% certainty that this man was lying, but I had been paying very close attention to the road because it was so dark that if I didn't keep my eyes on the gravel ahead, I was afraid I'd hit something.
If a stop sign was there, it must have been well hidden or unnecessarily planted way off the road. To this day, I am unconvinced a stop sign was there.
In my previous life, in the closet, in my presentation as a white male, I might have respectfully asked why the stop sign wasn't visible. I might have even been annoyed enough to argue with him. I've always had a bad habit of getting angry over a small injustice and making my opinion known.
"My apologies, Sir. It's dark out here. I must have missed it. It certainly wasn't intentional."
He took a long breath, looked at my ID, looked back up to my face, flashing his light into it, back down to the ID one more time, and then, he finally handed it over.
"Well, your ID says you're a veteran, so I'll let this go, but please pay better attention."
"Okay, you can go."
Maybe it was me being a veteran. Maybe there really was a stop sign in that thick and suffocating darkness, and this cop was being both very dedicated to country road traffic enforcement and also professional enough in his overall demeanor to take me at my word.
But it is exceedingly difficult for me to believe that I would have gotten out of that situation if I were not white. Something about his demeanor seemed intentional. It didn't feel right. Something was amiss.
It felt like he decided I wasn’t worth his trouble, that maybe my being trans wasn’t enough of an incentive to be abusive as if I had happened to be Black.
I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible, but I didn’t know if it looked better or worse if I waited for him to go first. He turned his lights off and drove down the road past me. I decided to turn on my engine and headlights but wait a few moments for him to drive out of sight. For some reason, this seemed like the most reasonable and respectful approach to avoid him changing his mind.
I waited for his brake lights to fade from view before I started crying. My body seemed to unwind itself, and I sobbed. I was angry at myself. I felt humiliated. I felt small. I felt embarrassed.
I have never forgotten that immediate feeling of foolishness and the searing realization instantly hitting me that my white privilege had insulated me from ever wondering what would happen in a situation like this as a trans woman.
I knew police brutality is prevalent, but as a child, cops were the authorities who were called to my broken white household to settle disputes between my abusive parents.
They were always a calm and reassuring presence. I felt safer with them there. I never had to worry that cops would make a situation unsafe for me.
And as a garden variety white male child, albeit in the closet, why wouldn't I feel safer around them? I lived in a world where my existence was never threatened by authority figures outside my home.
In my time as an adult up to that point, I had felt disgusted with cops, but I had never feared them. I had never worried that cops were going to hurt me.
I'm not saying that white people haven't experienced acts of police brutality but rather, that it is so far removed from the common white experience, even for white people like me who were raised in poverty and broken homes, that we can generally expect a standard of safety and dignity that is denied to Black people and other folks of color.
We all live in the same country with divergent realities and systemic racism that puts all Black people and other people of color at fatal risk, regardless of background.
I keep going back to that night when I saw the flashing lights, and I realized very quickly, without ever having so much as considered it, that for the first time in my life, my whiteness would not necessarily protect me from harm by law enforcement.
I had never thought about my skin color in those terms before that night. I didn’t think of my skin color as layer of protection because I’ve never had to think of it that way.
Not until that moment when I thought: maybe this is the cop that's going to kill me, regardless, for being a trans woman.
I can't imagine being in that state of fear constantly, not just on conservative country backroads but in big liberal cities, not just for the young Black person driving to work but the older Black lawmaker inexplicably pulled over on their way to cast a vote.
I had the immediate realization, in that moment, that my credentials, my education, my job, my lack of a criminal record, my good citizenship, whatever nonsense rubric of “respectability” that’s shoved down the throats of marginalized communities—none of that would necessarily save me in that situation with that cop on that country backroad.
What then must it feel like to be Black in America and know that no matter what you do, you’re always a fraudulent traffic stop away from death?
The fear and shame I felt that night… I can’t imagine living like that all the time.
This week, Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges for his murder of George Floyd last summer. The evidence against him was overwhelming. The 9 minute, 29 second video showing him murdering Floyd. The testimony of the witnesses, including the police chief, that were resolutely damning.
And yet, even with all that, the outcome was still in doubt because countless times before, murderous cops were tried and got away with it. It is extremely rare for a cop to be convicted for murder or manslaughter, even with what should be more than enough evidence.
How can anyone live like this? And yet, Black Americans and other people of color have always lived like this.
The protests we've seen are an outcry against the state-sanctioned murder of Black people and other people of color. Murders caught on tape. Murders that we’re falsely told are prosecuted in good faith. Murders that are then excused and acquitted and vacated and pardoned and seemingly forgotten by those in power.
Murders by cops in police departments in which white supremacists with badges are rarely held accountable for their racist views.
Murders that are most often either ignored or celebrated. Sometimes both.
White privilege insulates so many of us from this reality, and so many of us, myself included, don’t do enough to be intentional in stripping away that insulation and bear witness to these atrocities and work to dismantle the system of white supremacy that upholds them.
I can’t speak for any other white individual, but I certainly have more work to do.
Hi, I’m Charlotte Clymer, and this is my Substack. It’s completely free to access and read, but if you feel so moved to support my writing, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription: just $7/month or save money with the $70/annual sub. You can also go way above and beyond by becoming a Founding Member at $210.
You can also follow my work on Twitter.