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Pulling the 'White Card'

It’s not every weekend that you find your living room full of smoke and a fire smoldering on your front door. At least, my weekends usually lack this kind of made-for-TV-movie drama.

I was in the back of my apartment with my boyfriend when we heard a loud knock at the door at about one in the morning. A little scared and pretty annoyed, we walked into the living room to see who was outside.

“Why is the living room full of smoke?” I asked in a panic as my head whirled. The knocking on the door grew to an urgent pounding as I reached for the doorknob. “The doorknob’s hot!” I screamed at my equally confused boyfriend. Grabbing a towel, I opened our front door to see an exhausted Latino man with an empty bucket.

“There was a fire,” the man explained to us in Spanish. My boyfriend, who speaks better Spanish than I do, thanked the Good Samaritan as we marveled at our charred door.

“Gracias, muchas gracias,” my boyfriend and I repeated as we stood in our doorway. The man just nodded as he continued to stare at our door and the look of disbelief and fright on our faces.

When the police came out, they were just as surprised as we were. “You have no idea who did this? This is serious. This is attempted arson, okay? Someone was really angry. Someone tried to burn your apartment down. This door is made of wood and they used gasoline and straw to light it on fire.” The policeman’s eyes were searching mine for any weaknesses, any half-truths.

“I have no idea who would do this to us,” I told the officers, my eyes suddenly welling with tears as the panic wore off. “I don’t know if this is a mistake, I don’t know if someone was just drunk or high, I don’t know if…”

And then I looked at my white skin in the moonlight and how it contrasted with the smooth brownness of my boyfriend. He was silent.

“I don’t think this is racially motivated, but… I don’t know,” I sighed as I looked at the hatred emblazoned on my front door. I felt like I was going to be sick.

I still have no idea who did this or more importantly, why. I probably never will. What I did learn in the following week, however, is perhaps even more important. It sounds ridiculous, but following the arson attempt, the apartment complex actually told us we would have to pay for the damages. In a classic move, the management tried to make this tragic event into a soap opera and portray me as some girl who got a little too crazy at her apartment with her boyfriend one weekend. When concerned tenants asked management about what happened, they were told not to worry—some crazy people had just lit their door on fire.

Of course, my roommate and I didn’t stand for this kind of treatment. I called lawyer after lawyer, e-mailed my professors and solicited help from Duke’s legal services. I was overwhelmed by the support I received from everyone I knew. Some professors even got me in touch with their own personal lawyers. My roommate wrote a letter to the apartment complex, reminding them we were Duke students, that I write for The Chronicle and that we both knew lots of important people. The next day, they assured us we would not be charged for the damages and would have no problem terminating our lease.

Crazy things happen to everyone. But when things like this happen to less connected people (those without a white card, a Duke Card or even a Platinum card), their lives fall apart. Although I use to take pride in the fact that I lived in an apartment complex that other students considered “unsafe,” after something happened to me all I wanted to do was get the hell outta Dodge. I had no qualms using my privileges to keep myself safe. Still, I know I need to remember the helplessness I felt when I was a victim and no one believed me, and how fortunate I am that I had so many cards to pull.


Bridget Newman is a Trinity senior.


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