No need to fear” is a phrase that sounds utterly ridiculous, like something a super-hero would chime as he swoops in to save the day. Yet these four words come most easily to my mind in daily situations where the only thing I am trying to save is my own dignity. During elevator rides, when the person beside me very obviously clutches his or her belongings, I want to ask if they actually believe I could successfully steal something in a 4 x 4 foot space. Walking home after dark, when I can practically hear the anxious heartbeat of the person in front of me more loudly than their own accelerating footsteps, I want to apologize, pull out my student I.D. and assure them that I actually live on this campus. When I walk past parked cars and drivers quickly lock their doors, I feel bubbling anger and an urge to argue, to tell them how hearing that cautionary click of the lock is like a slap to the face.
I want to do all these things; I want to teach them that there is no need to be afraid. But I never do.
It is funny how the fears and apprehension of others can change your life, and affect your own daily decisions. When your skin is dark, there are implications you must consider, which other people may overlook. Should I wear a hoodie today? Should I plan to be out late? Should I enter this store, with no intention of buying, to browse their products? Should I risk walking past this police car? (During my Princeton Preview experience, while returning to campus from Prospect Avenue, I was stopped and questioned by an officer sitting in his vehicle, despite the fact that none of the non-black friends who I walked with were stopped.)
Unlike those who actively seek an threatening appearance, (donning leather jackets, aggressive piercings, or facial tattoos), dark skinned men like myself have little control over how people view us; we never opted for the melanin in our skin that comprises our intimidation factor. Instead, our fates were determined the moment we were born into this society; destined to inspire fear, whether we would like to or not. As a young black man living in the 21st century, I too often find myself surrounded by the apprehension of strangers.
In a recent interview with Vice magazine, rapper/actor Donald Glover (widely known as Childish Gambino) briefly described the frustrations of black men who are caught the American web of fear and racial profiling. Glover told an anecdote about how recently waiting behind a white man at an ATM had led to a tense situation that he had to defuse. Despite being a graduate of NYU, scripting and starring in shows like Community and 30 Rock, releasing award winning albums, and succeeding as a professional comedian, Donald Glover was reduced to stepping aside and apologizing to a man who felt uncomfortable because of Glover’s appearance. “I don’t think white people know how much effort in my day is put into making them feel comfortable,” he mused in to the interviewer. “I don’t want to make people comfortable all the time.” In his brief story, Glover highlighted a fact of which most Americans are unaware. Regardless of personal achievement, the average black man lives his life constantly defusing racially tense situations like wire-bombs.
This of course has psychological effects, conditioning black men to anticipate suspicious or fearful responses from strangers. Often, when I meet a stranger’s smile rather than his apprehension, I subconsciously doubt that the smile is genuine, because it could easily just be another mechanism to disguise his discomfort. We begin to expect fear, which creates a multitude of problems, not least of which is that we become fearful ourselves. Our discomfort comes from creating your discomfort; we live in fear because, in our society, making you afraid can have terrible consequences for us, whether it be degradation, arrest (Princeton-specific example), or worse (not only Trayvon Martin, but also John Ferrell, and Renisha McBride).
Still, there are those who would argue, not unreasonably, that assertion and intimidation can be beneficial in certain situations. Nevertheless, it is immensely more damaging when one is unable to switch that demeanor off, because it is built into his skin. Most people (the lucky ones) do not know how unspeakably tiring it becomes to always be feared or disliked by complete strangers. And it is not just the white strangers, but other ethnic communities, too, (whether they be asians, latinos, and even other blacks) that carry a general apprehension around those that look like me. There is a psychological weariness that comes from continually having your presence disturb the harmony of others, or feeling obliged to redeem tense situations that you yourself had no intention of creating. And frankly, it is embarrassing: embarrassing for me, and embarrassing for you. There is no dignity in the way people cower when my friends and I walk past, or the way their pace conspicuously accelerates as I trail behind, or in the way their eyes follow me through the aisles of stores. And there is certainly little dignity in my position, especially when I must apologize for putting you on guard.
However, recently I realize that, like Donald Glover, I too am moving away from appeasement. I’ve always felt bad when I am able to tell that women, and even men, feel such discomfort when we are relatively alone in the same vicinity. I may continue to make efforts to give them space, to spare us both the discomfort, even if it is disadvantageous to me. But now my mentality and that imaginary conversation between myself and the fearful person has changed. Previously, I was sorry for putting this person in discomfort. Now, I am only sorry that this person feels the need to be uncomfortable. It is true that I never chose to be born black, but I will not apologize for it, either. Unfortunately, the challenges facing black men are many, and this pervasive fear is one of the largest hurdles in our way to becoming respected citizens in America. Until our society can learn to overcome its fear of the dark, there is no way that our black, brown, and other dark skinned communities can begin to feel accepted in their own country, let alone feel love towards and feel loved by America.