Why Fear is Not Our Friend

Why Fear is Not Our Friend

March 30, 2011 Social Change 12

Cover of You Don't Even Know Me By Sharon FlakeWhen 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.


12 Responses

  1. Morgon says:

    While this is brilliant as usual, I have a couple things to say (which invariably means I have a couple things I disagree with).

    I for one am quite afraid of the city. While it would be a lie to say it wasn’t related to violent crime, that’s just one part of it. I think the biggest part is actually bound up in the metaphor of open space. To me, everything is just too congested. If I drive there, I’m in a constant state of high alert[1]. I’m deathly afraid of getting lost. If I get lost in my preferred habitat (which I live in), I can always pull myself off into a field and take a breather. Get my bearings. Turn around. Get lost in the city, especially on one of those crazy highway interchanges, and it’s not such a pretty thing. Not just driving though — I need the space. The green.

    For the other thing, have you thought about the implication of using the specific experience your mother had as a vehicle? It seems to me that you present as good or better a case for a taser or a concealed carry than you do for kindness to strangers that sees beyond race. And this might be privilege talking, but I think that the concealed carry is a bit more empowering than depending on the responsibility of others for defending yourself. (Plus, I for one don’t shed any tears when a rapist sucks down lead.)

    [1] Alert while driving is not a bad thing, but constant high alert is exhausting.

    • I really appreciate your point about city driving…. the blog was written about Rochester, though, and I can guarantee that when people say here they’re afraid of the city, they’re talking more about gangs than about traffic. I’ll think more about your other comment.

    • Peter says:

      It makes me very sad, Morgon, that you feel like an instrument of death is a good replacement for a community of people who look out for and care about each other. The loss of life is always a tragedy, no matter how lost the person who died had become, and there are other reasons to care about each other than the economic calculus of what makes you “the most safe”.

    • Okay Morgan, I’ve thought more about the gun issue. I feel like the problem is that if guns are available at all, the bad guys are going to feel much more motivated to get them (and have an easier time pulling the trigger) than the good guys. I like nonlethal self defense weapons like mace quite well though. I started carrying mace when I moved to Rochester.

  2. When I was in school I got to know a guy who’s main income was from mugging white people. This was in LA where they have the least violent muggers I’ve ever heard of – this guy never carried a weapon because “then you go to jail for longer”. He just expected white folks to hand him 20 dollars when he asked for it. I managed to get him talking when he tried to mug me. He explained the custom of handing over twenty dollars and warned me that there were people who would hurt me if I didn’t have it. I am convinced he was at least partly concerned for my welfare.

    We had lunch somewhere close to once a month (when I ran into him and maybe his buddies at the Plaza Pasadena). I convinced him to try Tempura; he liked it, I paid. He also liked Teriyaki a whole lot I’m fairly sure he thought I was insane. I learned bits and pieces about the area that I couldn’t have gotten any other way, like that white people are safe to mug but the hispanics will come after you, so don’t mug them. He left during my second year in LA, for a job in Oakland he said.

    Charlotte’s blog reminded me of this guy. He saw the way the world was a completely inevitable and did his best to live in it. It startled the hell out of him that I would talk to him, which I think supports Charlotte’s point. He made a point of introducing me to his friends, sort of like I was a purple monkey. He never would tell me his name and I have no earthly idea what happened to him after he left.

  3. Catherine says:

    I’m pretty sure that if I carried a gun, a violent mugger or rapist who attacked me could take it away from me as soon as I tried to use it and shoot me with it much more easily than I could shoot the mugger. The net result is that a concealed carry might make me _feel_ more safe, but in fact I would have increased my danger.

    Most muggers aren’t violent; they just want the money. Rapists are another story.

    My church runs a “lunch program” — what it actually does is feed two hot meals to about 100-120 people a day, provide free haircuts, a walk-in medical clinic, and other help as needed and possible (we provide clothes, public transit tokens, and have been known to buy someone a suit or nice dress for a job interview). But one of the most important things we do is know their names. We smile at them; we talk to them; we treat them like normal people, not objects of charity. We make friends with them. For many of them, it’s been years since anyone treated them like a person instead of a problem.

    • Morgon says:

      The point in your first paragraph is a good one. Guns are actually pretty difficult to use reliably! If you’re going to depend on one for self defense, you need to practice how to draw it quickly and fire it quickly.

  4. Wendy says:

    In Canada, a conversation such as the one you describe on the bus would be a crime. It’s called “hate speech.” I’m all for freedom of expression, but that’s not what that was. It was akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre and shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment.

    • I may have been inadvertently ambiguous. Everyone who was talking about fighting and using the n— word was themselves black. Pretty much anyone who uses the n– word in Rochester is black. White people don’t really use it.

      • Peter says:

        It would be a tricky court case to say that what these guys were saying was indictable under the Canadian Criminal Code. I think what they said sort of just bareley could count, since it perpetuates a culture of hatred and violence…but it also doesn’t count, because it probably didn’t lead to any immediate hatred or violence. If it had happened in Canada and if you charged them, it would be a messy legal battle.


        Basically, a person must 1)Communicate Statements, 2) In a public place 3)which incite hatred against an identifiable group 4)in such a way it is likely to lead to a breach of the peace

        Hate speech gets you up to two years of prison in Canada.

        • Catherine says:

          Ditto Peter. It’s doubtful something as casual as the conversation described would be held to be hate speech; I think the case would fail on Peter’s point 4. Most hate speech convictions have involved cases where the “hateful speaker” had a position of public trust, like being a high school teacher.

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