I have been overwhelmed with news accounts of African Americans being arrested for no good reason. In Cleveland, cops were called when Paul McCowns tried to cash his paycheck from his new job. Mr. McCowns was handcuffed and kept in a police car while officers confirmed the check was his. Cops were called when Yale student Lolade Siyonbola took a nap on the sofa in her dorm. We aren’t even safe when we meet colleagues at Starbucks. For my own sanity, I sometimes protect myself by purposefully avoiding the news.
The anxiety I feel when I hear of such reports, is not new to me. As the mother of an African American male, I have always borne a concerning amount of anxiety since my son passed maybe 10 years old and was well beyond that universally recognized cute phase that automatically attaches to all little children. As my son got older I functioned as his mother as best I could. Along with his dad, I worked to help guide him through life; to keep him safe and secure. When he went to college out of state and began driving home I worked myself into a frenzy as I waited for his car to arrive in the driveway. My husband would repeat over and over: He’s fine and will be home soon.
When son #1 would make the occasional trip home we reviewed the agreed upon family strategy for the trip: Don’t speed, if you get stopped, stay calm, no sudden movements, be respectful and keep your hands in plain sight. I prayed to God to let him get home safely. Dear Lord don’t let anything happen to him. I spoke to other moms who shared that they too were gripped with irrational fear at the thought of their African American boys engaging in a rite of passage (driving home alone from college) that should not be one ensconced in fear. Friends let me know that, yes, they too endured that same fear for their children. Ok, so I knew it wasn’t right but at least I was normal.But now I know that what I have been experiencing lately is not normal and may be signs of something darker occurring. Let me share two recent experiences…
A few months ago, my husband and I went out to dinner one evening to one of our usual spots. On the drive home from dinner he took a different route. We were lost and because I asked him to use the navigation system, that was sitting right there, unused but had always proven quite reliable in getting us where we wanted to go, it was readily available should we decide to use it…ok, I am getting off topic, but anyway he refused to use it. Kept saying no, I got it, home is right up the road. We were in a rural, unfamiliar area for about 15 minutes. I sat up straight, started scanning with my bifocal eyes for any movements to indicate something or someone was near. I was on alert.
Two days ago, my husband and I traveled to another part of our state for a meeting. This time we weren’t lost but it was getting late, so we pulled off the highway to get a bite to eat. The restaurant was in a small little town. When we entered we immediately noticed there were no other African Americans there. No African American customers, waitstaff or kitchen workers. Not one. The hostess greeted us warmly, our waitress was competent and pleasant. Other customers greeted us as we passed their tables and smiled when our gaze met theirs. I looked at my husband and he was busy reviewing the menu selections to see what he would order.
In both these seemingly normal occurrences, allow me to share what I absolutely know was not normal: My reaction to them. I was increasingly anxious, fearful even, that someone would cause us harm and we would be at their mercy. I told you when we started I know this is not normal. The other folks were not thinking about us. That’s not true. I think some were, but their thoughts seemed to be on expressing pleasantries to us to make us feel welcome. They did nothing but engage in an everyday activity: eating. Yet I was concerned. I wasn’t visibly showing signs of my concern, so I am sure no one knew but I nervously looked around to assess the environment all throughout dinner. My reaction sorely disappointed me.
I have read, conversed about and been told that some majority folks are afraid of African Americans for no good reason. Those who are afraid don’t know us, don’t interact enough with folks not like them or have heard so many stories about our misdeeds (some real; many false or viewed through tainted lenses) that their reactions with us are coated in this irrational posture of fear. Never understood that. While I do understand this fear a bit better now, I am absolutely determined not to devolve into a lesser version of myself by making irrational false assumptions about others merely because they don’t look like me. To use Oprah’s catch phrase, “What I know for sure” about folks who experience this irrational fear and do nothing to challenge and forcefully push against it: I won’t be joining them.