By Caroline Brewton
Columnist for the Record
When I was a little girl and afraid of butterflies (of all things), my dad would comfort me with “Caroline, he’s more afraid of you than you are of him.”
I thought of that today when I saw a Facebook post that said “White people are scared of black people. Black people are afraid of white people being afraid of them.” We’ve seen that time and time again lately — for instance, in the shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a member of a police force that was found to be profoundly racist. Brown’s death became the springboard for a national examination of race relations, challenging the status-quo discomfort around people of color, especially men, and bringing awareness to what tragedies can unfold when that discomfort leads to fear and someone’s death.
Most recently, Michael Slager, a white officer, shot an unarmed black man named Walter Scott in the back. Slager has been charged with murder and fired. The officer claimed he was afraid for his life — much like in the Brown case.
These killings point to something more insidious than the modern inability of police officers to de-escalate what they view as hostile situations and reframes the discussion around race and hostility, and how it affects the way we behave in the public sphere, which — white, black, brown, or purple — we all share. In the end, whether Slager is guilty of callous disregard or simply an unconscious fear of black people, the result was the same.
I will confess to you: I was not always socially aware. I’m a small white woman; I was raised to fear everything. According to the adults in my life, rape was in every dark
corner and unlocked car door. Every single man I saw on the street was a potential aggressor, every hunched shadow filling their car with gas just waiting for an opportunity to strike. What (or who) you didn’t know was the worst.
What kept me in the dark was the insularity of my community. We were all alike. We were all afraid.
As I grew, I had opportunities to get to know people from different backgrounds. Apart from the fact that the increasingly diverse circles I moved in contained brilliant and loving people, those friendships showed me I didn’t need to be so afraid of the world. I could move in ways and places I didn’t feel possible. Despite being raised to believe the world was out to get me, I found I could take the subway, travel with my friends, or go to the grocery store without an entourage. These were revelations. Not every stranger was a rapist. In fact, the people I passed as strangers seemed intent on their own lives, completely uninterested in me or stealing my pathetic wallet.
I exercise caution. I don’t loiter alone in unsecured spaces and often bring my dog when I go out, but I don’t feel the sort of terror I did as a young girl. I am aware my own fears could cause a situation that results in tragedy. Or: I am not only careful for myself. I am careful for others. And I’m trying to talk openly about it.
I work a night shift. Sometimes, when it’s dark outside and the parking lot is empty, a black colleague walks me to my car. I am not afraid, but he waits until I’m safely in my car. “Whatever’s out there is going to be more scared of me than you,” he said. I’ve realized he just might be wrong.