I’ll never forget reading Brent Staples’ “Black Men and Public Space” for the first time. I was in the eleventh grade, doubling up on English by taking AP Lang as an elective in addition to English 11, and Ms. Owens assigned it out of a Norton anthology with a fluorescent yellow cover. It was September, I was sixteen years old, and I felt my world changing as my eyes stayed glued to the pages. The essay opened up a worldview that my place of relative privilege would never allow me to experience. Not only Staples put into words something I had long since noticed, but he also offered an intimate window into an experience that I, as a white woman, will never have. The question of privilege versus authentic understanding is one that is debated endlessly.
And yet, I’m in this essay, too. I am the woman hurrying down the street. And I do the same with any man. This summer alone, I’ve had unpleasant encounters while walking home at night. “Hey, sluts!” a man on the corner greeted Hannah and I on our way out of The White Spot earlier this summer. “ARE YOU GIRLS WALKING OR WORKING?” some jackass yelled out of a car window at Winnie and I as we arrived in front of my house. What if they had stopped the car? I wondered later. What would I have done?
In both cases, the men were white, but I’ve been heckled by men of other races, too. “Holaaa! Guapaaa!” a construction worker called to me from where he perched working on a roof when I was on a midday run in my neighborhood last summer. I felt my face color, and not from the Virginia heat. A piercing whistle was followed by laughter. I come from a Hispanic family and have spent my life loathing the racism with which Latin Americans are treated in the U.S., yet the way that encounter fulfilled the negative stereotypes common thrown around in my suburban landscape left me feeling nauseated. To me, this was one individual who chose to violate my comfort zone — I would have been, and HAVE been, made uncomfortable by similar interactions with men of other races, from the African American man who habitually sings for money on the Corner and tells me that my eyes are beautiful to the drunk, white U.Va. bros who cruise around at night yelling out of car windows — but it was disturbing to experience an episode that not only played to my discomfort around men unknown to me but forced me to confront racial stereotypes. The whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the day, and I started running on the treadmill in my basement or driving to a nearby bike path until the construction was finished.
These encounters in public space have made me wary — for women of my age, these negative expectations are also known as being “smart,” “proactive,” and “defensive.” It’s unfair to me, and it’s also unfair to the well-meaning men who would never dream of harming me, yet whom I reflexively fear.
I’ve wanted to post about gender and race for weeks now, but each time I start, the topics swallow me up before I know what to say. Hostility is bred between members of different races and different genders in a variety of intangible ways that seem to sprout from inherently similar places. I wish that I was the edgy type of writer who could write words that punch racism and sexism back. But honestly, I’m frightened by the fact that the U.S. has struggled to treat its citizens humanely since its creation. Institutionalized racism and sexism and all sorts of other terrible -isms boil down to me seeing a man eying me on a bus and assuming he means me harm instead of entertaining other possibilities, like he’s staring into space or wondering what I have in my shopping bag. I’m inherently implicated, aren’t I? Fear isn’t a sentiment that I find directly represented in the media very often — outrage, disgust, and hate all swim in the same ether — but it’s one that is at the root of all of these -isms.
This isn’t to say that I don’t live with the conviction that civil rights and racial/gender equality must be fought for and defended. Of course I do. Like everyone else who opposes the various destructive -isms I mentioned, I recognize my power to set an example for those around me by refusing to tolerate hateful speech I encounter and by treating those around me with equal kindness regardless of race or background. But often, it doesn’t feel like enough. It feels so small, such a tiny energy in a world where darker forces are at work, as we’ve seen in the news recently as historically black colleges and universities struggle to stay open, the Voting Rights Act was struck down, and George Zimmerman walked away without even a manslaughter charge. Not to mention the Paula Deen scandal that buzzed in headlines for weeks and heated debates over rape culture (an unsettling turn of phrase in and of itself — rape is barbaric, the farthest thing from culture).
My work this summer has focused on interviews with 50 black leaders who shaped America for the better. Nearly all of them mention the millions of unsung heroes who lived quiet lives, supporting equality and integration every day. Last November, my grandfather shared a story at his 90th birthday celebration that left us all moved to tears; he told us that when no hospital would hire a dark-skinned, Spanish-speaking anesthesiologist from Colombia, a young white doctor in Annapolis actively demanded that my highly qualified, educated grandfather be hired as part of his staff. These connection-makers, these healers are out there, and they’re doing wonderful work. In an onslaught of discouraging headlines, I wish I could hear about them instead. Surely collectively they’re making a quantifiable difference, but as it stands now, false claims that we live in a society that is suddenly, miraculously colorblind (and therefore measures such as the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary) threaten their good work.
I don’t like to knock my own writing in a post, but this time, I’m sure I’ve stumbled through some of these thoughts and associations. The fact that I’m so nervous to share my views just goes to show what a tricky, charged topic I’m dancing around — it’s like walking through a minefield where any false step could thrust me to either side of a dilemma aptly described by Nikhil Pal Singh in Black is a Country:
Today, to see antiblack racism as something that still generates social inequalities marks one at best as oversensitive, with suspect judgment, and at worst as racist, still invested in an invidious logic of race.
The same sentiment applies to a range of other issues. But instead of keeping quiet, waiting until I somehow felt “ready” or “qualified,” I wanted to contribute my own tiny solution. The best thing I can think to do is to share this powerful essay in the hope that it can affect other readers the way it moved me. I’m still finding my voice and my own way of dealing with racism and sexism in life and in writing. I thought about analyzing passages and mixing them in with my own opinions, but I found that I couldn’t bring myself chop something so important to me into separate parts. It needed to be shared as a cohesive whole. Brent Staples said it best.
BLACK MEN AND PUBLIC SPACE
My first victim was a woman-white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man-a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shoved into the pockets of a bulky military jacket-seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds she disappeared into a cross street.
That was more than a decade ago, I was twenty-two years old, a graduate student newly arrived at the University of Chicago. It was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into–the ability to alter public space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse. Suffering a bout of insomnia, however, I was stalking sleep, not defenseless wayfarers. As a softy who is scarcely able to take a knife to a raw chicken–let alone hold one to a person’s throat–I was surprised, embarrassed, and dismayed all at once. Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny. It also made it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto. That first encounter, and those that followed, signified that a vast, unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians–particularly women–and me. And I soon gathered that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard in itself. I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened, armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an errant move after being pulled over by a policeman. Where fear and weapons meet–and they often do in urban America–there is always the possibility of death.
In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughly familiar with the language of fear. At dark, shadowy intersections, I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver–black, white, male, or female– hammering down the door locks. On less traveled streets after dark, I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people crossing to the other side of the street rather than pass me. Then there were the standard unpleasantries with policemen, doormen, bouncers, cabdrivers, and others whose business it is to screen out troublesome individuals before there is any nastiness.
I moved to New York nearly two years ago and I have remained an avid night walker. In central Manhattan, the near-constant crowd cover minimizes tense one-on-one street encounters.Elsewhere–in SoHo, for example, where sidewalks are narrow and tightly spaced buildings shut out the sky–things can get very taut indeed.
After dark, on the warrenlike streets of Brooklyn where I live, I often see women who fear the worst from me. They seem to have set their faces on neutral, and with their purse straps strung across their chests bandolier-style, they forge ahead as though bracing themselves against being tackled. I understand, of course, that the danger they perceive is not a hallucination. Women are particularly vulnerable to street violence, and young black males are drastically overrepresented among the perpetrators of that violence. Yet these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect, a fearsome entity with whom pedestrians avoid making eye contact.
It is not altogether clear to me how I reached the ripe old age of twenty-two without being conscious of the lethality nighttime pedestrians attributed to me. Perhaps it was because in Chester, Pennsylvania, the small, angry industrial town where I came of age in the 1960s, I was scarcely noticeable against a backdrop of gang warfare, street knifings, and murders. I grew up one of the good boys, had perhaps a half-dozen fistfights. In retrospect, my shyness of combat has clear sources.
As a boy, I saw countless tough guys locked away; I have since buried several, too. They were babies, really–a teenage cousin, a brother of twenty-two, a childhood friend in his mid-twenties– all gone down in episodes of bravado played out in the streets. I came to doubt the virtues of intimidation early on. I chose, perhaps unconsciously, to remain a shadow-timid, but a survivor.
The fearsomeness mistakenly attributed to me in public places often has a perilous flavor. The most frightening of these confusions occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I worked as a journalist in Chicago. One day, rushing into the office of a magazine I was writing for with a deadline story in hand, I was mistaken for a burglar. The office manager called security and, with an ad hoc posse, pursued me through the labyrinthine halls, nearly to my editor’s door. I had no way of proving who I was. I could only move briskly toward the company of someone who knew me.
Another time I was on assignment for a local paper and killing time before an interview. I entered a jewelry store on the city’s affluent Near North Side. The proprietor excused herself and returned with an enormous red Doberman pinscher straining at the end of a leash. She stood, the dog extended toward me, silent to my questions, her eyes bulging nearly out of her head. I took a cursory look around, nodded, and bade her good night.
Relatively speaking, however, I never fared as badly as another black male journalist. He went to nearby Waukegan, Illinois, a couple of summers ago to work on a story about a murderer who was born there. Mistaking the reporter for the killer, police officers hauled him from his car at gunpoint and but for his press credentials would probably have tried to book him. Such episodes are not uncommon. Black men trade tales like this all the time.
Over the years, I learned to smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal. Not to do so would surely have led to madness. I now take precautions to make myself less threatening. I move about with care, particularly late in the evening. I give a wide berth to nervous people on
subway platforms during the wee hours, particularly when I have exchanged business clothes for jeans. If I happen to be entering a building behind some people who appear skittish, I may walk by, letting them clear the lobby before I return, so as not to seem to be following them. I have been calm and extremely congenial on those rare occasions when I’ve been pulled over by the police.
And on late-evening constitutionals I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension-reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. Even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax, and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.