Why Fear is Not Our Friend
When a black man wants to comfort a white man who is feeling guilty about racism, there is a certain script he uses. It goes like this: “You know, I’m black. But if I’m walking alone at night, and I see a tall black man coming, I’m still going to cross to the other side of the street. It’s only common sense. You know the statistics.”
Until this year, I never thought about the feelings of the black man we cross the street to avoid. Their feelings do get hurt though. I was chatting with my library’s janitor and he said, “Where I come from, it doesn’t matter what color you are. So when I moved to Rochester, and people started crossing the street to avoid me, it was a big shock.” He stared off into the distance. “I guess I got used to it,” he said, with a kind of weary bitterness.
Black males, especially young ones, swim in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion. One of my teenagers told me a story. He was waiting in the hospital for his sister’s baby to be born, and the nurse on duty wouldn’t take her eyes off him, watching him suspiciously. She would yell, “What are you doing?” every time he got up to move around. Looking at that proud uncle-to-be, she saw nothing but a hoodlum off the street.
One time I was waiting at the bus stop with a friend from out of town, and a group of young black people began shouting curses and playfully pushing each other. I had been around that same group before, and knew they were only kidding around. But my friend got kind of freaked out. Every muscle in his body tight with tension, he watched them like they were about to attack us or something.
Later I told him, “If a group of white college students had acted that way, you wouldn’t have tensed up like that.” My friend replied, “I don’t understand why you are insulting me this way.” He thought about it for a few minutes and added, “It’s not my fault their group chooses to associate themselves with violence.” Did he even hear what he was saying? “None of those young people CHOOSE to be seen that way. They don’t get a choice,” I protested.
He argued back, “Well, you say they weren’t dangerous. But what if they had been? Is it worth taking that chance? What’s wrong with prioritizing MY safety?”
I told the story of my frightened friend at our weekly neighborhood potluck. These potlucks are a delightful mixture of aging hippies and shiftless student types, enlightened liberals all of them. They recognized the story I was telling when I was only halfway through and began to chip in with stories of their own. “I have friends who live in the suburbs, and oh my, they are simply TERRIFIED to go into the city.” “They won’t even come here to shop.” “They watch the news all the time, and all they see is gangs, gangs, gangs.”
One forthright lady banged her fist on the table and declared, “What is it going to take to make us all love and accept each other, for who we are as HUMAN BEINGS? It’s going to take a miracle, that’s what. A miracle…. or a disaster. Like an earthquake or a tsunami or something. That’s the only time we human beings draw together.”
“An earthquake… or an ice storm,” said my neighbor across the table. “I lived in a…. challenged…. neighborhood for a number of years, and I couldn’t even persuade my friends to visit me. I told them it was fine, but they just weren’t comfortable. Then the ice storm hit, and “ (he began to laugh) “I had ELECTRICITY, and they didn’t, so they came over to live in my house for a couple days. You know, so they wouldn’t freeze to death. That was when they learned my neighborhood wasn’t so bad after all.”
We think our fears keep us safe. They keep us from many other things as well— friendship, relaxation, comfort, a sense of belonging. A man once told me about the time he was stranded in Denver. “I was walking down the street,” he said, “And suddenly, I realized I was the only white person in sight. And even though I was in a public area…. being the only white person around just made me feel nervous.” Imagine having that feeling, not just on a street in Denver, but your whole life. The feeling of being a minority.
We think our fears keep us safe, but do they? In some ways, our fears can put us in more danger. When my mom went to the University of Chicago, a policeman came to lecture a group of students about safety. His advice was surprising. “Everyone you meet, you should smile, look them in the eye, and say hello,” he said. “This will make them see you as a human being. Studies show that a criminal is much less likely to target someone who has greeted him in a friendly fashion.” Everyone else will tell you the opposite, but this was the educated opinion of this rough & tough Chicago policeman.
Are there dangerous people out there? Yes there are. I was riding the bus today with a group of men who were bragging to some young ladies about all the fighting they had done. They were giving gory, blow-by-blow descriptions of all their conquests, using the n-word pretty much the same way we would use the pronoun “he.” And then one of them said something really chilling. He said, “I don’t even like to fight with n—s anymore. I just like to scare the shit out of their families.”
How do people get like that? I looked over my shoulder. And then I saw a young black man sitting at the edge of the group, looking as uncomfortable as I have ever seen a human being look. His face was creased in a worried frown, he was leaning forward, and sitting on the edge of his seat. Trying to sit as far away from them as possible, without actually getting up and moving. They were more or less ignoring him, but you could tell he couldn’t wait to get away from them.
When my mother was a college student, she earned money working in a lab in the basement of a hospital. She regularly smiled and said hello to the two black janitors who also worked there. One day when she was there alone, one of these janitors pinned her against the wall and threatened to rape her. The other janitor came in, saw what was happening, and drove away the rapist.
Later, she asked him why he had defended her. He replied, “You smile and say hello to everyone you meet, no matter who they are. Most people aren’t like that.” He added, “You’re the only white woman I ever met who was a lady.” When mom tells this story, she always says, “And I have always considered that the greatest compliment I have ever received.”
I do not write this blog to deny the existence of danger. Rather to argue that the greatest danger of all, is in failing to recognize another person’s humanity. How would the story have been different if my mother never smiled, never said hello? Looked past the janitors as if they were invisible? She was in danger anyway. Her habit of treating everyone around her with respect, was what rescued her from that danger.
Sometimes (not often) I hear my library teenagers talking like those men on the bus this morning. Bragging about fights they’ve been in, their uncle who has a gun, their cousin who has a set of brass knuckles. They’re not supposed to talk like that in the library. My coworker Vera and I were feeling very harassed one day, dealing with such a group of kids. And then Vera leaned over and said to me, very quietly, “They try to talk like such big guys, but they’re just babies! Just babies. These little kids. You may act tough, but when it comes down to it, who are you going to rely on? Your momma.”
I raised my eyebrows. She said, “It happened to me one time. A kid came over to me, real quiet, and asked to use the phone. Then he called his mom and asked her to pick him up at the library, because there were some kids outside waiting to fight him. It all comes down to the moms.”
I had a nightmare the other night, woke me up at 3 a.m. cold and sweating. I dreamed I was sitting in the library, just as I usually do, saying hi to the kids, playing games with them. And then a kid came in who didn’t have any head. In place of his head, he just had a cloud of dark mist, faceless. He looked monstrous. I was terrified. But I knew my job. I needed to walk over, greet him, make sure he felt welcome in the library. As I approached him I got so scared I woke myself up.
If only I had had the courage to stay asleep, how would the dream have gone? Maybe I would have walked over to him, seen the dark mist clear away, and behind the mist, the face of some mother’s baby.