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What Do We Do With Fear?

This week's blogs have been focusing on my own recognition of latent racial fears, and the importance of looking deeply into things we discover within ourselves, even things we don't like or want to admit. Today's post is the next step in this journey.

What Do We Do With Our Fear?

The examination of something that surfaces in your inner world can take you places you really don't want to go. I don't want to believe I harbor fear of any group or person because of their race, their skin-tone, or any other illogical reason. That doesn't change the fact that, on some level, I do.

When it comes to fear, I think we our work is three-fold.

1. Recognize and admit it.

Once I become aware of my own reactions, it is dishonest of me to pretend they don't exist. I can't pretend I don't feel more unsafe alone in an elevator with a black man than I do with a white man. I know the feeling is irrational, I know statistics tell me I'm in more danger from a white man than a black man, I know it's unfair and it's not who I want to be but, in this moment, it is true.

It's dishonest for me to tell myself that I view all black men as equal, when a careful, deep examination of myself notices that I experience a different internal response depending on how I perceive them. A black man in a suit feels safer than a one dressed as I would imagine a rapper or hip-hop artist to dress. A man with an accent I perceive as African feels safer than one who sounds like they're from the inner city. Someone who's accompanied by kids feels safer than someone who's walking down the street alone.

Are these categories fair? No. Are they logical? No. Am I the only one who makes these unconscious distinctions? Studies tell me I'm not.

Research has recently shown us that when presented with two male bodies of the same size and strength, we believe that the black body is larger and more threatening than the white. (See an article on this study here.) Studies have shown that we perceive a black person to be more threatening based on what they wear (one example of this can be found here "If Only He Didn't Wear a Hoodie"), and have also shown that our implicit bias when it comes to mis-identifying threat based on race generalizes from black adults to black children (see this study). The tragic death of Tamir Rice springs to mind, as I read these studies.

(This bias based on stereotyped clothing also generalizes to men wearing traditional middle-eastern clothing, interestingly. See this study.)

This week, as I probe the question of why it is I find the image (Above Left) of armed black men protesting on the streets of St. Louis more frightening than I did images of armed alt-right militia on the streets of Charlottesville last month (Above Right), I am both comforted and disturbed by studies (such as this one) which show that our ability to accurately differentiate between an image of a tool and an image of a weapon is impacted by whether we see a white or a black face just before the weapon or tool. Does my conscious brain believe I'm actually in more danger? No. Does my unconscious mind react as if in am? Yes.

These studies do nothing but validate the lived experiences of people of color, who have been telling us about these problems for much longer than I've even been alive. The important piece, for me, is recognizing that these bias and responses don't exist somewhere out there, they exist right here in my own mind. Do I like it? No. Am I content to let it continue to exist, in peace? Absolutely not. Do I need to know that it's there? Yes.

2. Trace its origin.

The origination of something like racial fear can be sticky to tease out. Sometimes it comes from families, sometimes from personal experience (one of the kids I mentored used to be afraid of black guys, because he had been repeatedly bullied by a group of black kids in elementary school. He used to say "I hate black people", and yet his best friend was black, and he was friends with every black kid in his graduating class. Beliefs and experiences are so complex). Researchers question if some racial fear may be an evolutionary leftover (see this article), and it seems there can be little doubt that our individual fears, judgments and hang-ups are heavily influenced by the general society's long history of presenting black people, especially men, as dangerous. (I could write an entire blog on this alone, and barely scratch the surface. Do a cursory search on the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and its impact on the Klan's rise as a start, if you're interested. It's pretty intense.)

John Pavlovitz referred to this in a recent blog as "our own acquired blind spots and inherited prejudices", and I do love that verbiage. Inherited prejudices are like so many things we inherit without asking for them--maybe we find them valuable and want to foster their growth (my family's eager curiosity and delight in life-long learning, for instance), maybe (like my family's propensity toward substance abuse or my husband's family's tendency toward obesity) we want to work to overcome them so that we can be the person we want to be.

Wherever your personal fear or prejudices come from--and they are all different--be alert to the sources and notice when they surface. The more we can understand the origins of our own beliefs and fears, the more we can work to avoid passing those on to the next generation, and the more tools we have to undo those areas in ourselves.

3. Use it to make a change.

Ultimately, recognizing our own fears and prejudices is only beneficial if we use them to increase our knowledge and understanding, and make a change in ourselves. After I posted If I'm Being Honest on my blog last week, I got a private message from my friend Avery, a big black man who is an amazing writer, husband, father and friend. My post had cut him pretty deeply, and he felt the need to respond. I'm deeply grateful for his thoughts, and he has given me permission to share them with you:

"I understand your fear. It runs both ways. I have a wife who worries every day just by my leaving the house. But if you really want to help, you have to move past the fear. You have to approach the black man with the rifle just like I have to approach the cop who keeps looking at me side eye. Fear is Satan keeping us apart, and God takes courage. If you're ever in the situation again, please, I'm asking you, take a deep breath, pray, approach smiling and be genuine. It just may make the difference. It may not, and then you try again, and you keep trying until we bridge the gap."

And that's what I'm doing. I'm trying. When I walk through my neighborhood, which is pretty racially diverse, I'm noticing my inclination to pretend that I didn't see the black man on his porch, or the one playing basketball on the street with the neighborhood kids. And when I notice the avoidance, I have a chance to make a choice that is different.

I nod at my neighbor and say good morning. I smile and say hello. When I'm in a sally port with a coworker who's black, I remind myself to look him in the eye and say "It's hot today, isn't it?" or "Headed to lunch?". It's a little thing, but it's a choice that changes my reaction from fear and avoidance to connection. And when they nod and smile back, I feel my fear recede.

What else am I doing with this fear I've discovered?

I'm learning everything I can. I'm listening to the stories of others, entering spaces that are uncomfortable or unfamiliar to me with humility and openness. I'm being open and inquisitive and brave. I'm remembering to let myself know I'm being brave, without patting myself on the back for it, because the only reason this is brave is because I'm heir to a broken system full of devastating prejudices, and I'm trying to fix that.

Plumbing Our Messy Depths for Growth

We all have broken things lurking in our lives. Yours might not be fear; it might be something else. One person told me that they noticed themselves lowering their vocabulary level when they spoke with black people, as if they subconsciously didn't expect that person to be able to understand college level words. They recognize this as an unfounded bias they wish to correct, and are doing what I am with my fear; they are noticing it, and using the awareness to enable them to change from an unconscious discriminatory action to one which connects respectfully with their neighbors and co-workers.

So I'm asking you, if you want to engage in this journey with me, to deepen your awareness as well. Watch your interactions; delve deeper into things you have not inspected, and once you've done that, if you don't like what you find, make a choice to change it. We can want society to change from now to eternity, but it won't happen if people like you and me don't do our own work of delving down, noticing, and changing.

I leave you with a quote about fear which I'm carrying with me this week and month and year. It's from Frank Herbert's Dune, and I find it amazing. Also, if you're interested in reading Avery's blog (it's great!) you can find it here.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

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