Whiteness and The Benefit of the Doubt

Guest Contributor: Caitlin Cliff-Perbix 

One swampy afternoon in September I made the mistake of convincing myself that I had time during my lunch hour to run a few errands and get a quick, healthy lunch. In the frenzy of grabbing my garment bag filled with thrifted blazers that I had planned to alter (a tip for all you public interest folks) as well as my stack of nearly-overdue library books, I forgot my wallet.

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I was sweating through my jumpsuit when I arrived at Allez —a community bakery in Over-the-Rhine.  I picked out a seltzer (lime) and a veggie sandwich from the fridge but realized my mistake when I reached into my pocket to pay.

“Don’t worry about it! Just get us back the next time you’re here!” chirped a man bustling behind the counter—kindly waving-off my stuttered apologies as he slung fresh, crusty loaves to the lunch crowd.

I am built to worry though. I rummaged through my backpack while I asked for another option to pay.

“Do you have the Cash App? Or Venmo maybe? I really don’t want to walk out of here with a sandwich without paying.”

“It’s really fine! Just come back and pay when you have your wallet on you again.”

Still, I persisted. The idea of not paying a small business for my meal made me uncomfortable.

“Could I write down my order so that when I come back you know that I’m paying for what I took?”

He smiled, shook his head, and reassured me again.

“Really, it’s okay. Just pay us back when you can.”

That week I stewed over the interaction at Allez. I wondered how the interaction would have played out if I had a visible disability, or if I appeared to be experiencing homelessness, or if I had not been white-presenting in a gentrified neighborhood.  How did the man at Allez make the judgment call to give me a free meal and believe that I would pay him back?

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Businesses have no obligation to give away their labor, services or products for free; and as long as they do not refuse a patron service based on a legally protected status, they are not breaking the law. However, what I really wanted to know was if my whiteness was acting as a symbolic promissory note. Did it make me more trustworthy? No. But did it signal to the man at Allez that I was more trustworthy? That was my concern.

The following week I returned to Allez to pay my sandwich-debt when the lunch rush had quieted.

I learned that the man who I had spoken to is the owner of Allez—Tom Mckenna. I thanked him for giving me the benefit of the doubt, then quickly added “but why did you do it? What about me indicated to you that I would come back?

To that, he simply responded “I do it for everyone.”

Tom told me that he came from a background of financial insecurity. When he had the opportunity to become a business owner, he said that he wanted to create a bakery that would feed everyone regardless of their circumstances. It is his practice to always give customers the option to pay later if they don’t have any money and he purposefully does not count his till at the end of each day.

“Most people come back and pay. Some people don’t. The point is that they are getting fed.”

If you’re reading this and thinking “He gave you a free sandwich, and you paid him back. So what?” —then you are asking the right question. What does this seemingly innocuous exchange mean in a broader cultural context?

Tom’s policy is important because instead of making judgment calls based on seconds-long interactions with patrons, he is removing an element of bias from his business practice.

He said that he has a similar blanket policy for his bathroom—the bathroom is for employees only. Although, he added that he has made exceptions for people with children.

Tom’s policy is so significant because when we choose to give people the benefit of the doubt, our biases play a role in determining who is trustworthy, and therefore deserving of our kindness.

What happens when our biases take over and we do not give people of the doubt? In 2018, a Starbucks employee in Philadelphia called the police because an African American patron tried to use the restroom before he bought a coffee. I have personally relieved myself in countless Starbucks, chain restaurants, and miscellaneous gas stations without buying anything.  No one has ever questioned my actions or right to exist in those spaces, and I am willing to bet that no one ever will.

In an even more horrific example, in 2015 a white University of Cincinnati campus police officer shot and killed Samuel Dubose, a 43-year-old African American man. The officer allegedly stopped Dubose because he had a missing front license plate[1]. I once drove my car for five months with a broken taillight. During that time, I drove through the same area where Dubose was shot and killed, and neither my white husband nor I were ever pulled over. We are always given the benefit of the doubt.

This phenomenon is not confined to our daily social interactions. It exists in every facet of American society— even within the professedly “objective” walls of the legal system.

Brock Turner and Amber Guyger are two examples of people who have been given the benefit of the doubt by the legal system because they are white. I am not angry that Brock Turner sat in jail for only three months after he sexually assaulted Chanel Miller while she was unconscious (okay, I am because three months in a county jail is hardly punishment to an affluent Stanford student). I am angry because his judge, Aaron Persky, chose to see Turner’s humanity and potential—however, despite being permitted to use discretion in his position, Judge Persky historically would not give that same benefit of the doubt to the young black and brown men coming before his bench.

I am not angry that Amber Guyger was sentenced to just ten years in prison (which I would argue is substantial, but that is another matter) for murdering Botham Jean. I am angry that it took a majority-black jury to convict a white police officer for the murder of an unarmed black man in his own home. I am angry that black and brown humans are in prison and have been in prison far longer than ten years for non-violent offenses because white judges and juries put those black and brown humans there. This is because judges and juries are given discretion under the guise of “objectivism” while overlooking that we all carry biases.

When we pretend that bias does not exist it creates a ripple effect that may begin with our social interactions but ultimately disrupts our legal system. While policy solutions may exist, what we need is a cultural shift. The United States justice system, despite what some lawyers may believe, does not exist in a vacuum. Confronting our biases is uncomfortable and painful work, but that confrontation is the only route toward creating a society that administers true justice.

I challenge my white-presenting peers to pause and evaluate the mundane social interactions that occur each day and think about how your race, sex, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, age, ability and the combination of these attributes play into how you are being treated.

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I then urge you to pause and observe others. Do you see the same kindnesses being afforded to others? Do you give others the benefit of the doubt indiscriminately? While it is crucial we hold our systems accountable, we must start by looking inward first.

Caitlin Cliff-Perbix is a 2L at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.  She is the offspring of educators, musicians, & immigrants, and is a fellow for the Nathanial R. Jones Center for Race, Gender and Social Justice. She is a native of Licking County and resides in Northside with her husband.

[1] Front-license plates are required by law in Ohio.

Author: johnniefitzpatrick

Johnnie Fitzpatrick is a third-year student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He is the president of UC Law's Black Law Students Association, a member of UC's Trial Advocacy Team, and on UC's Moot Court Board. His interests include national politics, improving American race relations, and the economic empowerment and educational advancement of the African American community.

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