My yard is a mess. Admittedly it is my own fault, for being lazy and not keeping on top of things the way I should, so yesterday I was determined to get on my hands and knees and remove the millions of dandelions choking out my lawn. I’m not one for chemicals, because I worry about the dogs out on walks in the area, along with my own. So manual labor and a removal tool was the order of the day.
You would think I would just hire someone to weed and/or cut the grass, but I’m cheap at times, and there is a certain zen to doing the work. I often see lawn care services in my Pennsylvania neighborhood, doing people’s yards or just driving by, and have occasionally thought about contacting one, but I never have. Yesterday, a young man approached me to talk about what I was doing and possibly offering his services.
The whole experience left me rattled and angry at the end, and I am still not sure how to process it.
I was in my own headspace, kneeling face to the ground, when I heard him say “Excuse me, sir. Hi there.” I looked up and standing about eight to 10 feet away was a smiling young man in his mid-20s. He greeted me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I was fighting a losing battle against the dandelions in my lawn; we both laughed and acknowledged the frustration I was experiencing. The ice now broken, the young man moved a bit closer and began to explain that he had recently started a lawn care service; he was trying to differentiate himself from others in the area by using all-electric equipment and natural weed control methods.
I was struck by two things: the eco-conscious approach he was taking, and the fact that after all these years of lawn care services driving by as I did the yard myself, not one ever stopped to ask for my business. This young man was the first; how could I not be impressed? As a business owner myself, I could really appreciate his initiative.
We really dove into the weeds, metaphorically speaking, for about 15 minutes, discussing his efforts and setbacks with his fledgling business thus far. I was offering what I hoped was helpful advice when not one, but two cop cars came from different directions and rolled to a stop in front of us.
Down went the window of the one closest to me. “Good afternoon sir, everything ok here?” the white officer asked. Not grasping the point of his question at first, I looked over to the young man; his head was down and body language was now stiff. I looked back to the cop, who was staring at him. That’s when the ridiculously obvious smacked me over the head: I’m an older white man in a fairly affluent white neighborhood, speaking to a young Black man standing over me while I’m on the ground.
Almost as soon as I put it all together, there was a rush of feelings. Feelings about, and for, the obvious discomfort this young Black man was experiencing, feelings about my own naïveté and this brutal reminder of my privilege as a white man, and feelings about an ingrained system that reinforces that privilege by seemingly running to my rescue when there was a perception I was under threat.
I watched that young Black man assume a position of fear, uncertainty, and deference right in front of me, despite having done NOTHING wrong at all. It’s a position baked into the day-to-day reality many people of color assume when whites in positions of authority appear to consciously (and subconsciously) project their power. Their power to shape the direction things can go, good or bad, that we as white folk take for granted, but people of color know is dangerous. In this case, the fact that one thing said by this young Black man, or the projection of body language deemed “wrong” by the officer could set off a whole chain of events that could end in disaster for him—hence his suddenly stiff body language and the soulless expression.
That I held the power, as a white man, to completely diffuse the situation by simply reassuring the officer everything was okay is power I never thought about until this incident. It’s power I should not have and have not asked for. It’s power given to me by a system I live in and have responsibility to dismantle, but admittedly had been living in a cloud of delusion about—until this moment.
And so I used my own power to put an end to the situation—by telling the officer that everything was not only fine, but that I was doing business with the young man, and hiring him to do my lawn care. The officer made some small talk about yard work and we exchanged smiles, then he rolled up his window, and both cars slowly drove off.
Only then did the young man begin to relax. Crisis averted was the unspoken vibe from him, and all because two white folks took care of what he was powerless to change. I could cry writing that last sentence. It still gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, but the knots in that young man’s had to be so much more spirit-crushing than I will ever know or understand.
I truly believe overt racism is what sparked this whole situation—likely a call from a neighbor or passerby who felt the need to “protect my whiteness.” I also noticed that the cop was exceedingly polite to me, and once the air was cleared to his satisfaction he went on his merry way, but the subtle (not so subtle?) racism on display during it was an eye-opener.
The entire exchange lasted just a few minutes, and the chance to offer some witty comment calling out the officer was lost in my sudden awareness, and my desire to end the interaction. But I could, and I should, have done more. I wish I had asked the cop why? Why are you in front of my house? Why do you think you needed to make certain I was ok? Why didn’t your dispatcher recognize the inherent racism in the initial call, if that is how you ended up on my doorstep?
And why did you act like that young man was invisible during it all, with the exception of that initial look at him which was designed to signal why you were there?
Because we all knew why he was there, despite the polite dancing around it he probably learned at “sensitivity training” and the like. None of us were blind to the unspoken reality, a reality that plays out not just in my town, but in towns all across the country. A more covert and unspoken reality that happens every day but doesn’t make the news, and one that white folks don’t address—either out of blindness or ignorance to that reality.
This is the first time I found myself in the middle of such a situation, and while I did get the cop to leave, I failed to call out the bigotry that caused him to be there in the first place. But these subtle instances of racism need to be talked about. It’s the only way they’ll ever be addressed and stopped.
RELATED: Daily Kos’ resources on antiracism
Once the cops were gone, I told the landscaper that I really wanted to hire him to do my yard, and that I was genuinely sorry and frankly embarrassed about the whole thing. Truthfully, I was mortified and wanted to talk more about what had just happened with him, but I sensed that he didn’t want to “go there,” which I respected.
I do intend to talk more to him, and to do what I can to help him grow his business. I want him to succeed for a multitude of reasons, some of which are not fully articulated even to myself.
Editor’s Note: This story has been lightly edited for style and clarity.