White fear of Black men

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.


29 thoughts on “White fear of Black men

  1. Pingback: Reactions to Cleveland hero Charles Ramsey show America's race problems | Nanjala Nyabola | The Usual Sources

  2. I’m from India and amazed to read this eye-opener article. I’m from a scientific background, currently nearing the end of my PhD in protein science.I know of many Indians who are in the US pursuing higher ed in science from there. Indians living in the US too carry this notion that black-Americans are horrible people who will either kill you or rape you. They do this even after spending years in the US.

    This goes down easily with the Indians who’re rooted (silently or otherwise) to caste system in the religious beliefs. Lower caste people are mostly dark skinned. Present day false theories say that the religious beliefs allowed one to “choose” his/her caste but the fact is that lower castes have been plundered and kept “low” with an iron hand of the three upper castes. There’s just one party in India that represents the lower castes The BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) and I’ll vouch for the hatred that most people around me have for it (yes, I’m talking about educated Indians).

    Like many other Asian countries, dark skin is looked down upon and abhorred. Even in the present day India, dark-skin is hated and despised. Dark skin jokes are common and acceptable, some of them can be extremely extremely mean.

    God help an African who comes to India, especially North India. Blacks are mistreated, gawked at, made faces at by children. I’m an eyewitness to this innumerable times. Hate for the dark-skin is rooted in the Indian religious beliefs as well where in all the Gods are fair skinned and the Asuras (~devils) are dark skinned, mostly belonging to South India (for eg Ravan, who abducted Ram’s wife Sita). Such deep rooted is this bigotry here that it’s acceptable watch the most horrid possible bashing of dark-skin right in our living rooms. Here’s a link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PamAOBZLq6o this is not all, many famous hollywood and a cricket star have endorsed skin lightening products.

  3. Hi, i am a young black man living in this country just trying to find answers. I found your article highly informative, and would encourage you to not feel guilty as to where you were born because its not up to you! Also thank you for being you and understanding. Great article!

  4. Thanks.

    For telling the truth, even when you didn’t have to. The world needs more of this honesty because hate only breeds hate.

    As a black person I’ve always believed the hate comes from a place of guilt – “they must hate us because we’ve treated their kind appallingly”.

    My worry right now is that when a human being feels they have nothing to lose, they are truly a dangerous force to be reckoned with. White society needs to cut black people some slack for white society’s sake.

    Many whites here in Britain feel they don’t want to live near black people born here, yet they dislike minorities living together in ghettos. Surely they must be able to see their nonsensical arguments?

    Thank you.

  5. i found this article today, and am reflecting on it in the aftermath of the zimmerman trial, which had 5 white women perpetuating these very dynamics of fear and devaluing of the black body. Today, asm much as ever, we have to commit to undoing this dreadful socialization that strips all of us of our humanity.

  6. Pingback: Reflections on racism, white women jurors and the Zimmerman verdict |

  7. Wow…….is all I can say. I am a black women who believe’s in and who loves god. I am so confused about all the hate because of skin color. What gives someone, anyone the right to believe they are better than another because their skin is lighter. ….where does it state thate dark skin is evil. rom what past history tells us, light skin is the skin colored to be feared. What is sad is that blacks did not ask to be dragged into this racist country, they were forced. Now even after all the injustice has occurred, we still suffer simply for having pigment in our skin. Enslaved, lynched for no good reason, raped, beaten, sprayed with hoses like animals, shot just because we are black, who is the victim in all of this? The reason America, and people around the world such as the light indians who fear the dark indians fear dark skin is because you ridicule it falsely. Just as a child fears consequences when he has done something wrong , so does the man who treats people like animals just because of their skin color. really people. …..find god and you may begin to love all because he created all in the likeness of his image…..which by the way had a darker skin tone.

  8. Bonnie thank you for writing this piece…of all the thoughts on why…I think that this one is most salient…like ghosts in our genes. White Scoiety has been altered.. “, 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.”

    check this out…it is soooo powerful… Written by Questlove is the drummer for the Roots and the bandleader on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.


    A MUST read written by Questlove: Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit
    By The following essay is an adaptation of a Facebook post by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

  9. One big mistake for this analisis is belive that the only different between whites and black is only de color of the skin, the main differents are these: colors we like, the way we talk, the way we pronounce the words, the way that we associate with other races, the way we think, our music, our behavior in front of the music, the way we dress, our external morphology, our names. and more..for that a social analisis base only of the color of the skin is wrong

  10. This whole racism business is kind of abstract for black people born and raised in Africa- not including north Sudan and some other wicked places. I am a black dude born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, and I have never personally experienced any type of discrimination or judgments based on my skin color. I don’t even know anyone who has.

    That image of the angry black man is actually pretty strange to me and a lot of people I know. We see it on TV; rap music, black films and so on, black dude being chased by ‘DA-poh-lease’ and its really hard to relate to because I guess folk here don’t have that slave mentality or whatever.

    We have a significant Asian population here- mostly Indians, and most of them prefer to huddle up in specific neighborhoods where they build temples and stuff, pretty neat structures BTW. They don’t really mix with black folk but they don’t show contempt for them either. Really private people and civil.

    But generally all races blend OK here. No beef no fear- white chicks here like local African dudes for whatever reason- but then Kenyan men are polite and a little shy: sometimes just downright boring when compared to African Americans. So that fear doesn’t exist here- and it wouldn’t.

    What I would say to black folk in the US is that playing into common stereotypes about black people doesn’t help the ‘struggle’: It only makes them look naturally incapable of change or growth. Go to school, get a job and be productive. School dropouts and gang bangers are what’s eroding black culture.
    Freeing the mind allows people to be real, unique, and better.

  11. You shouldn’t feel to bad. Just think if it were a group of suspicious white men, wouldn’t you feel the same? It’s just common sense the way things are today. Last time I went to a court house I saw a back man dress in the gang style, A white man with skin head and Nazi tattoos, and another white man with what appeared to be prison tattoos. I wouldn’t be comfortable alone with any of them.

    I’d rather be called a racist than be injured or dead. I’m sure some blacks cross the street to avoid a group of whites. There is a difference between careful and racist. I’m sure many blacks feel the same.

  12. Im a black male 17 years old. I dont see true racism everywhere but you can feel the vibe from other people. Im expected to be angry and fueld off ignorance. Yet Im usually more intellegent than the person looking down on me.

    An angry black man isn’t the most feared type of African American.

    Its the intellegent ones who can start an uprising and topple down the system.

  13. Congradulations on the wonderful writing. I am a young, professional black commercial artist. I am also a dark brown skin man, who has had to literally push white women, and men away from unwanted advances. It is more evident that many whites are jealous of our incredible talents in sports, entertainment, business, and science. We are beautiful from our soulful gifts to our brilliant minds.

  14. Awesome piece of writing! Two key aspects stand out. The fact that “this disturbing phenomenon….. is not limited only to me, but also to most (if not all) white folks – and many people of color as well”. I am a 6’4″ 250 lb. black male born and raised in the suburbs of Miami, Florida. I grew up around a white (now Hispanic) community. I can vouch that even my thinking towards blacks, on default, holds the same perspective as many whites.
    You’re right when saying “It’s part of our national ‘DNA’”, but there’s another kind. My parents are well educated; Father from Sudan came to U.S. and obtained a PhD, mother from Ethiopia and obtained MBA. In Ethiopia and nearly EVERY country, darker skin is less desirable, lighter skin is more desirable. I met some Chinese kids who go to the University of Miami who just came to the U.S. for the first time 2 weeks prior. The girls were concerned about the hot sun here, making their skin darker. Check this out: They bought furniture from me I listed on Craigslist. They don’t even know me, but they went in my car and drove nearly 20 miles with me and let me in their house. Here’s an example of how black skin is itself, undesirable, while the ‘barbaric’ view of black skin was absent.

    The other significant comment was that “there is a psychological defense called projection – when one accuses someone of having traits they refuse to acknowledge in themselves”

    It’s interesting how the blacks of past and the blacks of present (in US) seem to carry one identity (that of barbaric), while the whites of present quickly deny any relation to the maliciousness of the whites from past. I must say however, there are people, white people, who DO NOT tolerate such injustice, for blacks or anyone else and have put their life on the line in doing so. It seems for blacks to defeat this ‘psychological monster’ they would have to begin by stopping the complaining about inequality and let the actions speak for themselves. This is difficult. Again Great Article!

  15. T.H.U.G L.I.F.E.
    The Hate U Gives Lil Infants Fucks Eveyone.

    Whites taught generation to generation of hate that hurt the whole world. Being a blackman a POW of the Civil War living in the Mud South (MS) I on top. Bless by the hand of God we survive all odds. No jobs, no fair treatment and no control of Our success.In POST- Jim Crow America we still hear which begin fear to those that want all dead. A people with no cultural roots your fear of us was maded us. All street gangs started as club and posse the protect us from white hate. Now in 2013 a let live with NO FEAR and survive by Any Means Necessary. Everything we was taught we live every day ready for whatever. What is jail for a blackman with no self control while in the struggle.Your fear comes from a lack of control America have on the Ex-slaves the back of America. If the blackman was to leave America u all would die you all can’t survive on your own thats why we was bought here in the first place. WE DON’T NEED U, U NEED US. That power that black people have we csn live throw anything anywhere.

  16. your article was well thought out and you really put an effort into making sure that what you wrote had proof behind it instead of empty words being repeated. im glad that you took that effort because it means that there is one more white person in america trying to understand the trials of us black people. it makes me think that if only more whites could be brought around to your way of thinking and weren’t so stubbornly stuck on believing the stereotypes of blacks, america would be just that much closer to being a united place.

  17. I just don’t understand white folks today. They act like black men are some kind of monsters. I get that everyday i step out my house. I get horror looks fgrom whites as if I’m going to rob them. White women and men hold on to their purses and bags so tightly everytime a black man walks by and I see that everyday. They look so silly

  18. I know one thing, black males aren’t the only ones to be afraid of. They better be afraid of these terrorist and these white dudes that goes into schools and moviie theatres and shoots up everyone. They’re the ones whites should be afraid of.

  19. Not all white Americans feel fear of blacks. In some parts of the country, say Washington, it’s very evident that (some) white women like the dark meat (if you know what I mean). It’s kinda hard to fear somebody so much that you allow yourself to give in to their charms and/or seduction. Plus even if someone is initially fearful of you, if you can engage them in deep conversation, alot of times strong bonds can be formed especially if you have alot in common.

    I come from a place where whites are tourists and blacks are the majority and we run the government. White Racism is not part of the daily thought process there. In fact, alot of the white female tourists seem to enjoy the presence of masculine chocolate entity. But that’s a different story.

    Unfortunately, I came to America in search of opportunity, and I’ve witnessed first hand the pervasive but subtle white intolerance of blacks. Sometimes people make subtle remarks or use double entendre that make you wonder hmmm is that person being racist?

    But what I’ve come to learn is that regardless of someone’s perceived fear, hate, prejudice, or otherwise…we cannot control other people. The only thing we can control is ourself. Self-mastery is what all human beings should strive to achieve. Mastery of ones own emotions and to realize when one is being prejudiced and irrational one’s own thought process. Self-mastery includes humility, empathy, and remaining calm during heightened emotional times, among other things. Imagine if Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis all collectively practiced empathy and remaining calm…I have a feeling the Zimmerman Michael Dunn trial probably would have been avoided altogether. Every action has a reaction. Even if you as a black man or white man feel disrespected, when you react to the instigator, they will react to you in turn and so on. Choose your actions wisely. It’s better to feel punked than to be DEAD! Think about that.

    On my journey (I’m far from the end) toward self-mastery, I’ve learned that smiles disarm while frowns alarm. Even if a white woman or man is experiences fear by my dark chocolate presence, I smile at them even if I can see the dread or disdain on their face. If they choose to smile back in reaction to me, then I’ll say hi first. Maybe we can even have a conversation. Maybe not. It’s up to them. But I am open to conversation with any race, any creed, any kind (except the serial killer types).

    But white people feel more than just “fear” when they encounter blacks. Some admittedly feel superior, more hardworking, more intelligent, etc. A big of class and race warfare in America results I think from capitalism in that capitalism inherently has a competition component. No one can deny that there is intense competition in America for limited resources (job slots, university slots, etc). Since resources are limited, people with the best strategies or most power get access to the best resources (jobs, prep schools, ivy league universities, etc), and those without power and superior strategies (and performance) get the scraps.

    What a lot of white people don’t understand is that they sometimes have an advantage over blacks not because of superior DNA or a black-laziness problem. Instead, alot of white parents teach their kids the fundamentals of success in corporate America from young ages. Kids learn how to have belief in themselves, ambition, and are taught how to excel and survive in this capitalist society. Some black parents teach their kids these ideas, mentalities too, but, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d guess that a lower percentage of blacks teach their kids the necessary behavioral traits and mental skills that are necessary to compete and excel in corporate America. Skills such as problem solving, decision making, time management, critical and creative thinking, and so on and forth. The thing with skills are that they take deliberate practice and a long time to develop into mastery and apparent effortlessness. Anybody who learns and masters these skills from a young age will have a competitive advantage over others that never were even introduced to the concepts. Not blaming whites, or saying whites shouldn’t strive for excellence. My argument tho is instead of thinking that you’re better than other people or that blacks are lazy, realize that alot of white kids have loving caring parents (or family members) that believe in them, and these kids in turn develop a positive belief in themselves that they too can succeed. On the other hand (I’ve seen this personally) some blacks never get this reassurance from anybody that they can succeed or will amount to anything. But success requires belief. Alot of black kids also do not get an early introduction to the necessary skills and mental faculties that it takes to remain competitive in the corporate American space. No blame, just an observation. A solution could be for more black parents going forward to learn the proper skills that it will take to compete in the corporate space (thus enhancing chances for success) and then instill those skills and mentalities into their kids from early ages. Obviously some black kids come from nothing and make successes out of themselves, but I’d argue that their road toward success would probably have felt easier if they had encouragement and/or introduction to the fundamentals of success from early ages.

    Anyways, America is a place where status, money, and power is a big part of what alot (not all) people live for. Some people become snobs as a casualty of the system, particularly in the more elitist locales such as Washington. And if you are a highly educated person, whether or not you want to admit it, you probably consider yourself (consciously or unconsciously) above others who don’t have the same level of education, power, status, fame, etc as you. In America, alot of whites have status, power, education, skills and a smaller percentage of blacks do. Just the law of the numbers.

    And this difference between the classes and races sometimes seems to be correlated to a lack of empathy, manifesting itself in the more successful (white or black) people looking down on the less successful people (white or black or whoever). In a capitalist society there are ways to win and ways to lose. This means there will always be haves and have-nots. I think though, the key is that even if you’re a “have,” you should remain humble and empathetic to others and to give back to the community (all races) if you can because we are all human beings.

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