As a frequent traveler and black American who’s painfully aware of the many police-involved deaths of black drivers, I now have "The Talk" with my white and non-black minority friends before getting into their cars.
To feel safe, I always tell them my four non-negotiable rules of the road—even if we’re only going on a jaunt across town—and none have to do with the physical act of driving.
I first expressed my rules during a road trip this summer with my friend Laura, a white woman. Laura offered to drive us from Durham, North Carolina, to a mountain town nearly four hours away in the cooler highlands. As the owner of a perennially cluttered car and someone who falls asleep after three hours at the wheel, I happily accepted.
Before ringing Laura’s doorbell, however, my eyes fell on her car’s license plate. It had a registration sticker that read “January 2016”—in other words, expired.
"Did you get your registration renewed?" I asked immediately after walking through the door.
"I think I did," she replied distractedly, and continued turning off appliances.
"You think? Or do you know?"
I told her to search for the registration card, and stop what she was doing. Laura looked up, slightly perturbed, but assured me that her car was road-ready in every way. But then she remarked, “Maybe that’s why cops keep following me so closely.”
Maybe, I thought silently. Or maybe because you’re white, you don’t think a broken tail light or lapsed registration can get you pulled over in seconds. And that in a few more seconds, you can lose your life—your body a corpse, your name a hashtag.
As it turned out, Laura’s registration was current, even if her sticker wasn’t. But knowing that didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. I rode in the car silently, filled with unease, thinking about Sandra Bland and Philando Castile. Thinking about how a traffic stop and trigger-happy officer can morph into roadside terror. I wished I had Laura’s confidence that a minor offense could be solved with a smile or, at worst, a fine in traffic court.
And so, Rule No. 1 took shape: If I’m a passenger in your car, you must have an up-to-date license, registration, and the correct sticker denoting your registration. On top of that, I must see them before the car starts.
While I’m no Pollyanna who believes that taking such precautions will guarantee my safety, I want to minimize contact with law enforcement.
After all, I’m a black woman who was stopped twice in 24 hours over a tag that had expired days earlier after my own bout of registration amnesia last year. The first officer was a beefy but avuncular man who urged me to go straight to the local Department of Motor Vehicles, several miles away. But on my way there, I was trailed by a sheriff's deputy who pulled me over again. This cop, a freckled white man who must have been 20 years old max, yelled and called me a liar when I told him I had just been stopped by another officer and was hightailing it to the DMV. During another traffic stop years earlier, a cop accused my husband of going 3 miles over the speed limit, then pulled a gun out the minute he got out of his cruiser. Clearly, even sight unseen, we were considered dangerous.
As I explained to Laura, she could afford to be unruffled, but her expired registration sticker meant putting me in possible peril.
Avoiding said peril led to Rule No. 2: No drugs in the car. Yes, it’s your car and your record, so I realize this request makes me sound like an obnoxious backseat driver who wants to control the radio, the air-conditioner, and the route. But the War on Drugs has never been color-blind, and it’s no more “post-racial” than anything else in this United States. As a black American, your bundle of botanical, mind-altering fun can implicate me; for many police officers sworn to protect us, my skin color has already implicated me.
These dangers are specific to those Traveling While Black; but I’ve learned that TWB has a cousin, Traveling Interracially, which can draw its own special kind of unwarranted scrutiny. In small-town America, where you’ll find some of the country’s whitest communities, travel partners who have different racial backgrounds stick out and attract questions. I've heard "How do you know each other?" while dining out with my adopted Asian sister. But TI can also have more menacing manifestations. In one incident, white men beat up my cousin at a gas station, and called him racial slurs; the apparent motive for their attack was the fact that a white woman—his girlfriend—was riding shotgun in my cousin’s sedan.
And that brings me to Rule No. 3. I ask that my travel companions do their best to reduce the number of stops we make in unknown locations. If you need Starbucks to survive, please arrange appropriate pre-departure caffeination (and bathroom stops). As much as I enjoy traveling, I don't relish asking Siri to find the closest latte off the interstate, especially in the middle of small Southern towns that seem ripped right out of Sparta, Mississippi, the fictional setting of the film In the Heat of the Night.
As I tell my white travel mates, "We may be friends, and we've got a lot in common, but my relationship to public spaces is far more complicated than yours because there are still many places in this country where people think I don’t belong because I'm black. And some of them will try to prove I don't belong there." A word of caution: Lest you think this is just about the South, take a drive through central Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, or Colorado.
Rule No. 4 proves the hardest for my white friends to grasp. If we’re traveling together and I tell you that my Spidey sense starts tingling, let's go. Period. No discussion. I don't need to be called "nigger" and beaten upside the head before I sense hostility or malevolent curiosity.
At this point in “The Talk,” there’s usually some disbelief. It’s akin to the stages of grief: My friends will wonder why we need to have this chat (denial), then become temporarily angry. They huff, “I wouldn’t knowingly put you in, or expect you to stay in, some dangerous situation.”
Not knowingly, I agree. But my racialized sense of personal risk assessment—honed throughout my entire life as a black person and from decades of living in my beloved South—is far more accurate than whatever you think. Until black and non-black people face similar risks on a daily basis, I can’t trust your certainty that a situation confronting us in the 7-11 is innocuous.
Whether we realize it or not, when a person gets in your car, it’s a social contract and statement of trust. Drivers must realize that they’re not just transporting me from here to there as a small favor or an act of companionship.
When I accept that ride across any terrain—and all geographic terrain in America is racially fraught for me—I’m asking you to be responsible for my life. Keeping me safe isn’t merely about reckless driving. It means understanding that, even in the 21st century, we desperately need modern versions of those Green Book guides that told black travelers where they could stop, rest, and eat without fear during segregation.
It’s rare that any of the people with whom I travel, whatever their background, have heard about the Green Book. So it’s common for them, upon hearing my rules and references to these guides, to continue along the stages of grief: Depression and acceptance set in, sometimes immediately, sometimes later. Almost every person who gets “The Talk” says it’s horrible that black people had to have such books, and that even today, I need rules of the road. Because it’s 2016, isn’t it? And Americans like to believe in progress.
Yes, I say. It's horrible that I must have rules like these, but it’s even worse for me if you don’t listen.
Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a North Carolina-based historian, writer, and editor at Rewire.