Bonnie Berman Cushing
I have been devoted to a white anti-racist path for close to a dozen years, but I still stiffen with fear and a state of heightened awareness when I find myself alone on a darkened street with one or more Black men nearby.
As a dedicated student of anti-racist facts and principles I know intellectually that white people are five times more likely to be attacked by another white person than by a Black one and that two-thirds of the rapes committed in our country are by white men. I am aware that the vast majority of corporate criminals are white and that most of our politicians who have declared war – bringing death and destruction to millions – also have the same skin color as I do. My own experience includes a mugging at gunpoint and a date rape – both at the hands of white men. And yet I have never found myself anxiously responding to a white male or males on an evening walk the way I do in the presence of Black men. Why, exactly, is that?
I believe there are several reasons for this disturbing phenomenon and that it certainly isn’t limited only to me, but also to most (if not all) white folks – and many people of color as well. History, psychology and media all play a significant role. The myth of the predatory Black man stands on the shoulders of centuries of stories and images shared from one generation to the next, sometimes directly and sometimes in coded messaging (such as admonishments to lock the car in certain neighborhoods or clutch your pocketbook closely on certain elevators and streets). Our collective fear of the Black man has a rich and detailed history, one that by this time has practically been encoded in our national DNA.
A Black woman, writing under the name M. Gibson, expressed this truth succinctly in a comment on a blog site shortly after a police officer killed Oscar Grant in Oakland, California:
As a nation we seem to have very short memories. Fear of the black man just didn’t start overnight, and it didn’t just happen during the course of our lifetime; like any singularity it has to have a beginning. Its origin has been embedded in this nation’s consciousness since the Nat Turner revolt; a pathological fear that the oppressed will one day rise up and inflict vengeance upon the oppressor.
The fact that so many unarmed young Black men have been killed by police officers is tragic testimony to this underlying fear. I quote another blogger, Carmel:
Why ask what Whites fear about Blacks? Why not ask what Blacks fear about Whites? More Blacks have been killed by Whites in our country than the other way around. I don’t even know the number of unarmed Black men who have been killed or attacked by police or simply just pulled over for “Driving While Black.” When was the last time you heard of an innocent White man being riddled with bullets by the police?
In a 2010 radio broadcast Rush Limbaugh, one of the voices of right-wing America, brought it more directly into present times when discussing the Obama Presidency:
It’s Payback Time. This woman’s going to find out what it was like, in Obama’s view, for other Americans to live as they did in this unfair and immoral country for the 230 years we’ve been around. In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, “Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on…”
No wonder Obama and many other Blacks who have managed to achieve prominence in our society have had to maintain a calm demeanor, even in the face of insult and aggression. To appear as the “angry Black” is to trigger these deep seated fears in our collective consciousness and to undermine any real agency with the public at large. As Tan-nehisi Coates wrote in his September 2012 article for The Atlantic entitled “Fear of a Black President,”
So frightening is the prospect of black rage given voice and power that when Obama was a freshman senator, he was asked, on national television, to denounce the rage of Harry Belafonte. This fear continued with demands that he keep his distance from Louis Farrakhan and culminated with Reverend Wright and a presidency that must never betray any sign of rage toward its white opposition.
In addition, there is a psychological defense called projection – when one accuses someone of having traits they refuse to acknowledge in themselves – that also explains some of the reason white people fear the violence of Black people. Instead of acknowledging the past and present forms of violence Black people have suffered at the hands of whites, it is projected on the victims themselves. M. Gibson gets it right when she writes of the white fear of Black sexual violence:
During those times the white man feared miscegenation above all; he feared his saintly white women being sullied by an over-sexed bestial black buck. The white man held onto this erroneous belief/fear even as he himself raped black women without fear of reprisal.
And then there are the media, which continue to broadcast images of Black men in handcuffs and behind bars on nearly a daily basis (and this is by design, not accident). It is due to news coverage that most of us first think of Black men when we hear of drug dealers, rioters or perpetrators of domestic violence. This is true despite the reality that white people have, and do, participate in mob and domestic violence in higher numbers, and that whites comprise more than 70% of drug abusers and dealers in our country.
Popular culture also supports and feeds on these images. Quentin Tarentino was awarded the Oscar for his script of the blockbuster hit, D’jango Unchained, which tells the story of a freed slave enacting revenge on slaveholders and their kin. The vision of D’jango, wielding a bullwhip, guns and a bomb against his enemies speaks directly and powerfully to our subconscious (and in many cases, conscious) fear of Black revenge for past atrocities. Apparently it pays artistically, monetarily and politically to exploit these fears – and until the costs outweigh the benefits, the media will continue to reinforce them to the detriment of us all.
I understand I will have to check my racist assumptions and continue to unlearn the lessons I have inherited about Black men for the rest of my life. I will always need to remind myself I have been socialized to collectivize the violence of Black individuals and individualize the violence of whites. I will need to intentionally counteract that socialization. This is part of my legacy as a privileged white woman in the United States, and I take it on both sadly and gladly.
I will end by quoting another inspirational blog entry, by abagond, from a site that asked why whites fear blacks:
Moral blindness. Every single black person in the eyes of white people is the sign of a terrible crime from their ugly past, a reminder that their life is a fraud, that they are pretty much nothing more than armed robbers. But it is hard for them to simply own up to their past and make it right. Instead they deny, shift blame, lie, twist facts and make black people into these creatures that they look down on, laugh at and yet, oddly, fear. It is a failed attempt to be at peace with themselves. This is why whites need to give reparations more than blacks need to receive it.