Lately I’ve been purposefully making eye contact with black men.
This might be a strange thing to read– it was a strange thing to write– but it’s the truth.
For the last month, I’ve been deep-diving through educational books written by people of color on the problem of racism in our society. I won’t go into everything I’ve learned so far, because it’s far too vast, too deep, and too complex.
Instead I want to tell you about my experience with black men.
Like many white people, I initially learned about black men through indirect sources like rap music, movies, news, and statistics. I learned that black men were defined by their baggy outfits, unprovoked violence, loud music, and propensity for crime.
I learned that black men were inherently terrifying.
In order to maintain this belief, I made exceptions for every black man I knew personally. The black men I knew wore sweaters, or dance tights, or skinny jeans. They spoke eloquently and wisely. They went to training seminars, and held space for me when I cried, and shared their own ideas and dreams and heartbreak.
There was absolutely nothing scary about these men, so I didn’t really consider them “black.”
Which is a huge problem.
These men felt “normal” They felt just like me. And since I had been taught that “blackness” meant “otherness,” I assumed that surely I just had never met a “real” black man.
I imagined he would look different, he would look BLACK. I’m talking about the kind of young black men who seem shrouded in violence and anger, with dark clouds of violence emanating off them, their body language unnaturally fast, somehow looking guilty and threatening as they emerge from shadowy alleys.
As I unpacked the layers of my unconscious beliefs and biases around this topic, I realized that the kind of black man to which I refer is an absolute fantasy. It’s no more real than the image of a prince charming, hair combed perfectly, with a halo of soft light around him as he gallops in on a white horse to save the day.
The black man of my unconscious imagination is fantastically dangerous. Inhuman, almost, in the way my mind has painted him.
A few weeks ago, when I realized I was afraid of black men, I also realized that the black men I was afraid of didn’t actually exist. That is, the thing I’m afraid of– this hideously dangerous inhuman beast– does not, and has not ever, existed.
This really shook me.
Because for as long as I can remember, I have been crossing streets to avoid walking near a black man on the sidewalk. I have been careful to avoid eye contact with black male teenagers at the mall.
And I suddenly had no idea why.
I sat down and did some digging. What was I afraid would really happen on the sidewalk, or at the mall, if I came too close to a black man?
Assault, I suppose.
But… how? In plain daylight, at the mall food court? Am I afraid that a teenager will take my eye contact as a sign of aggression and jump me? Or that if I walk too close to a man on the sidewalk he’ll take the opportunity to lunge at me?
How I wish the answer to these questions was no.
As I have wrestled with this over the last month, I have been floored at how utterly stupid and illogical and FUCKING WRONG this fear is, but there it is:
I have, for my entire life, lived in fear that a black man will see me, have some irrepressible violent urge, leap at me, and then… I don’t know, rape or theft or murder?
(As I write this, my skin is flushing a painful crimson. I am so horribly embarrassed and ashamed to admit this.)
I recognized that my fear was based in a completely untrue fantasy, and that I have been afraid of black men only because I was taught (through media messages as well as family and community messages) that black men are scary in a rather non-specific but urgent way.
I recognize that this is false, but the programming is deep in my body.
No matter what I tell my brain right now, my body still responds to black male strangers as though they are a threat.
And the worst part is knowing that these black men can feel it.
That they know why I crossed the street.
They see me check that my purse is zipped when they come around a corner.
They feel my mistrust.
I’m not unusual in this fear, or these habits. If you’re a white woman, this unconscious dance might all sound mighty familiar. Having just finished the book Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I am starting to realize just how much damage I’ve done.
These men are individual people, with unique likes and dislikes, interesting stories, and a desire to be loved and accepted. For my whole life, I have been making them feel mistrusted, suspect, unliked, “othered,” inhuman.
For this reason, I would like to formally apologize to all black men.
I am so sorry, and so ashamed that I made you feel like a threat. I am so sorry, and so embarrassed that in those moments you had to see yourself through my eyes, complete with the cloudy halo of violence, as you ate Taco Bell and spent time with your friends, or as you walked home after work, or really any time, ever.
Which brings me to my resolution to stay my path on the sidewalk when a black man walks toward me, and to purposefully, warmly, make eye contact.
I wish I could report that this was easy, and natural. That now that I have seen the error of my ways, everything is better.
But it honestly takes every bit of willpower that I have.
I see the man, and I resolve to stay relaxed, keep my body language open, continue walking the same path I would walk had he not been there, and make eye contact. For a moment, I feel good.
Then my body starts sounding the alarms.
“TURN LEFT,” my body screams. My breathing becomes shallow and I blanche at the awkwardness of trying to both breathe and walk at the same time. How can I make eye contact when it’s taking all my energy to keep walking this direction?
I make eye contact. Sometimes I smile. As often as possible I use my voice to say “good morning” or “hello.” Sometimes I go to use my voice though, and a squeaky gurgle comes out, and I wonder if my little experiment is doing more harm than good.
Many men have seemed surprised, and a few have begun to pause, to interact, as though I was going to act them directions, before realizing I was just saying hi. One man scared the shit out of me by trying to get my number, but for the most part I get confused-but-pleasant nods, smiles, or simple hellos back.
I have no idea if this is a good idea.
I have no idea if this is an appropriate goal, or an appropriate email.
All I know is that since I began this experiment, my body has relaxed a little, and it’s slowly getting easier.
I also know that the eyes I use to look at black men are different than they were a month ago. I see people now. Individuals, rather than a collective mass. The cloud of danger is gone, and now I can see them how I see everyone else: interesting, unique, utterly lovable.
I didn’t even realize that this wasn’t true before.
I didn’t even realize how much I had to unpack about race.
There is still so much work to do.
PS I specifically did not mention black women or women of color in this email because I don’t know how to talk about that subject yet. Next up I’m reading White Spaced, Missing Faces: Why Women of Color Don’t Trust White Women, so as always, I’ll keep you posted.
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