I Was Arrested for the Same Reason as George Floyd, and Lived. That's White Privilege | Opinion

At Sunday family dinner, the conversation turned to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests. It is not unusual for my wife and me to talk to our 12-year-old daughter about the news and this kind of tragedy has come up again and again. My wife filled us in on some of the heart wrenching and terrifying details that we had missed. Then, while our toddler busied himself pushing around the food on his plate, our daughter pointed out something that we had missed. Mr. Floyd died while being arrested for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill.

I was arrested for spending a counterfeit $20 bill in 1994. It is not a secret. Many times I have told the story of unknowingly handing over a fake bill to a store clerk and ending up in the back of a police cruiser. What makes it an entertaining story is that it happened to an 18-year-old goodie two shoes: Eagle scout, former altar boy, and honor roll student. What terrible luck, to be out minding my own business, and then out of nowhere, thrown in jail for a night.

Twenty-six-years later, at our dinner table, I sat with the coincidence. I didn't know George Floyd. I would come to find out that we are, or were, about the same age. Like me, he had two kids. But it was that small detail of the $20 bill that weighed on me. The next morning, I couldn't shake it. I couldn't imagine telling my story again with it being about only me. An editorial by President Obama popped up on Twitter with "some thoughts on how to make this moment a real turning point to bring real change" and "sustain the momentum." That's when I decided to tweet this:

George Floyd and I were both arrested for allegedly spending a counterfeit $20 bill. For George Floyd, a man my age, with two kids, it was a death sentence. For me, it is a story I sometimes tell at parties. That, my friends, is White privilege.

— Mark D. McCoy (@m_d_mccoy) June 1, 2020

I don't tweet often and when I have it has been only about my research or the work of other archaeologists. Nothing personal. I had fewer than 150 followers. With this tweet I'd said aloud what I'd been feeling. After that small emotional release, it was Monday, so I went back to working. Then my phone started to buzz. People outside my circle were liking and retweeting. Within a couple of hours, I had to switch my phone to Do Not Disturb because of the back-to-back alerts. By dinner, it had reached hundreds of thousands of people. The next morning it passed 1 million likes and I was getting contacted by the press.

I did not intend to take America's pulse on the topic of White privilege. But, the interest in what I had to say and the comments on the tweet speak volumes.

The strategies employed to deny White privilege often turn on the idea of consequences. Why was I, the model student, treated humanely? One answer is obvious. I didn't "make trouble." I didn't do anything that could be remotely interpreted as resisting. But let me make this clear. There is a straight line between my behavior and the color of my skin. Having grown up as white person in America, I did not feel like I had any reason to fear either the police or anything about how events might unfold.

That fearlessness was rooted not just in my whiteness, but also in one of my role models growing up. After my grandfather left the Marines he went straight to work for the police force in Wilmington, Delaware. This was the 1950s and his introduction to policing was a two-week long course at the YMCA. What he lacked in training he made up for in his natural, deep empathy for his neighbors. The days of non-stop riots following the assignation of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the months of martial law that followed, took a toll on him. He believed that people are people and they should be treated fairly.

When the patrol car rolled up I was secure in the knowledge that whatever the trouble, everything would be fine: ater all, one of the kindest men I have ever known wore that uniform.

And for me, that was true. I was fine. My tweet brought up similar stories by other White people who, like me, had an absolutely benign experience with law enforcement. We don't often hear about the times when police use discretion and treat suspects humanely because it is not newsworthy. Which is one of the reasons we still have White people who deny the very existence of White privilege even when faced with overwhelming empirical data to the contrary.

There are other, darker ways that consequences are used to deny White privilege. These types of denials begin by labeling Mr. Floyd a criminal. We are supposed to believe his fate was his own doing. In reality, we can't know what was going through Mr. Floyd's mind. But, just as the color of my skin informed my expectations and behavior, it is reasonable to think the same was true for him. And decades —centuries—of state violence toward African-Americans would have given Mr. Floyd every reason to be afraid.

And there is one other thing we can know with absolute certainty. There is no backstory that can justify what was done to him.

White privilege is not based on the premise that White people have worry-free lives. The premise is that whatever other real struggles that person has, be it rooted in class or gender, their skin color is not one of their worries. I don't see a way to improve that without acknowledging it as a fact.

We cannot stop at acknowledging its existence. We must recognize the ways in which our society bends toward benefiting some and not others. If you are White, it can be difficult to see because when you look around what you see are individuals and institutions being humane, reasonable, and considerate. Where is the privilege? It is in the fact that the same humanity, reasonableness, and consideration are not extended to everyone. But they could be.

Mark D. McCoy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University and expert in the application of geospatial technology in archaeology.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​