What does it feel like to be feared? I don’t know. No one that I know is afraid of me. I’m a woman for one thing and I’m not really big although I’d like to lose a little weight. I have a little dog, a five-pound toy poodle named Rikki, a rescue, and he’s afraid of me. I’m working on him, conditioning him to my touch and to being around me. His fear has brought out something curious in my own nature, something I don’t like. I get frustrated with him sometimes. I say to him, “I’ve spent lots of money on you. I’ve loved you. I’ve taken care of you. Why are you still afraid of me?” Actually I’ve raised my voice a couple times when I’ve said this but raising my voice or doing anything that would scare him is counterproductive. It’s up to me to keep my anger in check. He can’t help being afraid of me any more than I can help being afraid of a wild pack of wolves. That’s just an example. There aren’t any wolves around here.
I’m coming around to what I mean. It’s just taking me awhile. The point I’m trying to make is I hate it that Rikki is afraid of me. There is no reason for it and I’m doing everything in my power to be kind.
One more story before I get into what I want to say. Once I was coming out of a department store around Christmastime loaded down with packages. The door was heavy and I was having trouble opening it. I felt something coming at me at head level. It was coming fast so I ducked, sort of squatted on the floor surrounded by my packages like I was the pistil in a flower’s center and the packages were my petals. I looked up. It was a tall black man, well dressed, good-looking. He had reached over my head to open the door for me. “I’m only opening the door. I was trying to be polite,” he said, or something to that effect, and he pushed by letting the door slam behind him.
It took me a minute to sort out what had happened. He was being kind. My reaction—the ducking and squatting—had been instinctual but not instinctual in the way he had thought. I wasn’t afraid of him. My father used to roundhouse me when I was growing up. Dad never punched through. He slowed down enough at the end of the punch so that he just cuffed me. It was a stage punch; he never put his full weight into it. It had only been to frighten me and it had worked. I was afraid. I almost ran after the man. I was going to yell. It wasn’t you. My father beat me. But I was embarrassed to say those words out loud and it would have been hard for me to catch him. The moment passed and I let him go. I could see by his walk that he was angry. And I felt responsible for hurting him. The next time he was tempted to be nice to a white woman he would think twice. I’ve always felt guilty about him. Each incident is like an emotional cement block in a wall building it higher and deeper until it’s impenetrable—a wall of hurt and anger.
That brings me to a young friend. That’s what started this line of thought. My friend called me over Thanksgiving weekend in tears. While at a family event, she had expressed concern and sadness for Michael Brown and his family and had been attacked by a family member as a result. An aunt, a woman she loved, a woman who had always been kind and giving to her, spit out in a sudden rage that she was stupid, that Michael Brown didn’t deserve sympathy. That doesn’t make sense, does it? Sympathy for the Brown family and stupidity do not equate. That’s the point. Nothing about this is logical. My friend felt stung. How could someone she loved so much think so differently? Amen, Sister, I thought.
That’s what this is about. That’s what I want to talk about. I’ve felt the same way for years, ever since I was a little girl and my father would say mean things about people who had skin of a different color. I couldn’t see why he thought our skin was so great. Ours was pink and splotchy. Dark skin was beautiful. Why did he think it was ugly? I didn’t learn from my father. I learned early to pretend I agreed with him. It kept me out of trouble. But it was only lip service. I didn’t agree. Then one momentous day after I was all grown up, he started to tell a racial joke. I told him if he told the joke I was leaving. He did and I did. I thought the world blew up that day although all I did was get up and leave the table. After that, he didn’t tell racial jokes in my presence. It ended. That’s all it took. I knew how he thought, and it hurt to know. But I felt better, stronger and more honest. I breathed more easily.
I think my young friend felt pretty much the same way. How can someone you love so much have such screwy ideas? What does sympathy for the Brown family have to do with intelligence? I don’t know. It’s crazy and you can’t make sense out of crazy. I can’t say it’s a difference in opinion or a difference in perception. To me it’s right or wrong. It’s not perception. Is it just a difference in opinion?
How did we get this way? I participate in building the wall. When a young black man comes down the street toward me, I pull my purse a little closer. I lock my car door. I laugh at myself. I ask myself, What do you think is going to happen, you fool? but I do it. Is there a way out of this?
The point is that young black men grow up in fear but not only their own fear. They grow up in my fear, in our fear, in society’s fear. They don’t want me to be afraid of them. They want to be liked. They want to be admired. They want to be loved. How does it feel to be feared? I only know because of my little poodle and I know I don’t like it that he’s afraid. A white young man of privilege can make one, two, three mistakes, maybe more, but a young black man? If he makes one mistake, he’s finished. They throw away the key. That’s how I see it. Our system of justice isn’t fair. It’s lopsided and things need to change. We need to talk about it. We need to think about it. We need to give young black men the same chances we give young white men.
For you doubters here are some statistics:
“Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts – 21 times greater, according to a ProPublica analysis of federally collected data on fatal police shootings.
The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.”