How to grow past my racist fears?
May 5, 2017 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I am afraid of groups of black men. This is something I refuse to keep hiding from or working around. How might I improve?

I'm male, 30, dutch-jewish, living in the midwest. Grew up with no black friends, no black kids at church. Went to very white highschool and colleges. Was raised conservative. Parents didn't espouse direct racist beliefs but my peer group did.

I've discovered a certain type of racism within me that I dislike.

Basically, I am afraid of groups of black men, especially in public. When I walk down the sidewalk and a porch on the street has 3-5 black men, the hairs on my neck stand up and I start to tense up. Other triggers include walking past black men sitting in doorways or on stoops on the street, or the groups that congregate around the shelters downtown. I had a lot of difficulty last summer when I was walking around down town after dark, seeing black men in the shadows or walking towards me.

I worry about being assaulted. I worry about being killed, or stabbed.

I've never had any of these experiences come true.

I have been assaulted, followed, threatened, and put in very dangerous situations by white men. And I don't seem to have a fear of them.

As I've gotten older, I've found that different fears of mine have become more debilitating. Fear of heights, fear of screwing up at work, fear of dogs. This fear feels very similar to those, but the difference is that this doesn't just inhibit me - it has a direct impact on the lives of people in my community.

I try really really hard to "act normal" but people I'm with have commented - "Are you ok?" "Hey man, what's up, you just got all tense."

I am determined to move beyond this, but I don't know how.

I would especially appreciate hearing stories from anyone else who found themselves in the same or similar situations.

(similar question previously, not me)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Your story reminded me of this. You might find her answer helpful.
posted by monologish at 8:09 AM on May 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think it's good that you've identified this issue, and clearly want to resolve it. Certain biases are deeply ingrained because of the way society portrays different groups of people. I think it's possible to change. I've listed a few ideas here, and am interested to see what others recommend.

Perhaps it would help to try some exposure therapy? (I am not a therapist so maybe that's not what this is called.) Start by nodding hello when you see black men, or groups of black men. Move on to saying "Hi, how's it going." Seek out more activities that attract a more diverse group of people so you can develop some relationships with people of color. Listen to what different groups have to say without asking them to explain power and bias to you.

I'd recommend reading "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria" to better understand the experiences of the people of color.
posted by violetish at 8:14 AM on May 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

So this isn't going to go away until you actually spend time with folks who are black. You could move to a more diverse neighborhood or volunteer your time in said neighborhood. I got it easy in that regard - I haven't got a lot of money so I live in a diverse community, and I don't have to spend a lot of time teaching my boys that people who aren't white are people, too. I'm like, "you know how your friend who's black is a person, and your friend who's a Muslim is a person too, right? Fantastic." Still have the uphill battle about not objectifying girls, though. Wheeee.
posted by turkeybrain at 8:28 AM on May 5, 2017 [13 favorites]

This is fixable. Go out of your way to find ways to interact with groups of mostly black people in normal life, possibly for several months. I am white but grew up in a country where both black people and white people were a tiny minority. I got a job working in an American city where many of my clients and coworkers were black. It took a while for my automatic thoughts on seeing some black guy on the street to be an association with my boss or colleague or friend vs some movie, but it did happen. In the meantime, since you recognize that you're biased, make a conscious effort with your actions towards black people to be kinder, more generous, etc.
posted by redorangeyellow at 8:35 AM on May 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would also try consuming more black media. Read books, blogs, etc, watch movies by black men. Try to get as much daily reading in from black voices as white ones. You realize that an element of white supremacy is letting white media tell you that black men are scary (in a bunch of implicit ways), one of the best ways out is to stop listening to (as many) white people.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:49 AM on May 5, 2017 [52 favorites]

I have been in a similar situation. For several years I had repeated experiences of very aggressive sexual propositioning from black men. It is part of the local culture where I grew up.

Spending more time around people of color was helpful to teach me that not every black man will make me afraid they want to rape me. I also educated myself on this particular cultural practice because it boiled down to a culture issue not an issue of violence.

So, experience and education. As much as you can get.
posted by crunchy potato at 9:03 AM on May 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you need to start with teeny baby steps here's what I suggest. Start with the baby step of normalizing the African-American people you see every day in ordinary situations. Don't demand anything from them or invade their space--they are human beings who don't owe you that--but start really small. Smile and nod hello at the African-American people you pass in the aisle of the grocery store. If there are only three empty seats left on the bus or in the lobby, pick the one next to the African-American guy. Practice not crossing the street. Got a question at the Home Depot and there's an African-American employee right there? Ask him your question. At work and need assistance with a project and there's an African-American in the office who works on that stuff? ask if they can help.

Read Sarah Kendzior's View From Flyover Country

Then move up to nodding hello or saying "good evening" to those guys on the stoop. You don't have slow down or make conversation. Just say hello and keep walking. And start reading things things like Negroland: a Memoir and Between the World and Me and the Warmth of Other Suns.

Then start cultivating friendships with the African-Americans around you. A neighbor. A friend of a friend. Or just a friendly chit chat with a bartender at your local pub or the regular Saturday waitress at your diner. It sounds insulting and facile, but you get over this by training yourself to see the African-American people around you as wholly and only people. Not as "black people are people too" but "This is a person." It's a process and it's shocking that it's a necessary process, but when you're raised in an environment that does not see black people as people and which carves out exceptions for specific black people, you have to unlearn that and learn the other thing: that a person is just a human, like any other human. You can do it.
posted by crush at 9:05 AM on May 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

You need to purposefully spend time with black people. You've done some good legwork in terms of identifying your fear and also seeing it as irrational and something you should work on, so now you have to start.

To start out in a way that will keep you feeling super safe, try exploring something that has an aspect of things you love that also is made by and/or features black people and includes aspects of culture you're maybe unfamiliar with. For excellent laughs watch Key & Peele, or make a point of learning more about current black artists working in the midwest and go to gallery showings, or indulgein incredible music in a genre you love made by black musicians. Pretty much every delicious "American" food comes from black cooks - and nothing humanizes other people quite like food. I think it might help you feel more comfortable with your fear to know consciously that there are many things made by people just like the ones you're scared of that you have enjoyed and been enriched by.

Then of course you get out there and interact with people. Start out easy, maybe go to a few restaurants predominantly patronized by black people, live shows in diverse neighborhoods, etc. But if possible see about volunteering at that shelter you mentioned. If there are community events try to attend and be a part of them so you familiarize yourself with the faces of your neighborhood.

Really listen to what black people say and pay attention to their body language and actions - think about it consciously. A lot of insidious cultural racism stuff can be cleaned out like cobwebs by taking a metaphorical broom to it and replacing assumptions with real experiences and clear perceptions. Like, a lot of the fear you feel, although the fear is real, the cause is imagined. "Scary black guys" are seldom actually acting scary or doing scary things. It's like a veil of unfamiliarity and institutionalized racism that you can pull back with mindfulness and welcoming black people into your life as actual fully realized individuals.

Going by the tone of your writing it seems like you have trouble with anxiety and maybe some shame or guilt about that and your fears. If you have the means, a therapist is the perfect person to help you work on that in an environment where you won't be judged or feel like, as you have here, you need to be anonymous. Try to find ways to lower the barriers you've built for yourself - therapy could definitely be part of that in addition to all the other good advice in the answers above, and can help you build good habits so future fears don't crop up unexpectedly for you.
posted by Mizu at 9:15 AM on May 5, 2017

Speaking of increasing your education to override the racist messaging you have been exposed to, there are some good resources on this issue here.

In case no one else tells you, I congratulate you on working on a thorny issue and asking for help. Many people do not want to look at their bias or they assume they do not have one. Or they assume because they are not consciously racist, there is nothing at a subconscious level. In my experience this is a dialogue that needs to happen frequently because there is always something we can learn about ourselves and our human family.
posted by crunchy potato at 9:18 AM on May 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

Try making friends with black people.
posted by USAsian at 9:26 AM on May 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

If part of this is "groups in public" and you grew up around white people in the Midwest, you should also realize that hanging out in public groups is much more acceptable and benign in other cultures. I know, for example, when groups of new immigrants move to small Midwestern towns there's often tension because white folks are like "Why are they hanging out on the street ARE THEY UP TO NO GOOD why would someone do that anyway?" and the groups on the sidewalks and street and porches are like "this is where we socialize with our friends".
posted by Hypatia at 9:31 AM on May 5, 2017 [21 favorites]

It's awesome that you've identified this in yourself and you want to work against it! We all have racism (and sexism and etc) inside us, thanks to the racist (etc) air we breathe, water we drink. It's not our fault, but it IS our responsibility to engage with.

I found it very useful to take an anti-racism course with a specific component for white folks to talk to each other about a) acknowledging this stuff in ourselves, and b) to share things that have helped us move past it.

Things that have helped me include:

1. Consuming a lot more black media, especially news, movies, and TV shows, but also writing and music. Basically, finding ways to engage with black folks directly without making any individual black folks have to navigate my fumbles.

2. Specifically looking for feel good stories about black men. So much of the public narrative about blackness paints them as monsters, so having daily examples of their human goodness has been very helpful in giving me active examples to nurture in my mind.

3. Meditation has helped me get distance and perspective from my instinctive thoughts and feelings.

It's a road with a lot of steps, but it's an important road to be on.
posted by spindrifter at 9:52 AM on May 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think it's wonderful that you are addressing this head on. So many of us liberal-ish white people are afraid to admit that we have racist thoughts, and it hobbles us from trying to address the problem.

I agree with starting with consuming lots of black media. This is because I think it is work for black people to have to interact with white people who are trying to address their racism, and I think getting to a different baseline before you try to cultivate real world relationships is a good idea.

So binge on black media: movies, TV, comics, podcasts, books, radio shows. Not just shows with black actors, but media created by and for black people.

Another idea is just checking out places where you're going to encounter more black people: whether it's a concert or restaurant or whatnot. There is really no way to address this without immersing yourself in an environment where you're around black people more.

Finally, get into a setting that's more interactive and that is racially diverse where you'll have the opportunity for one on one interactions. For example, if you want to get more exercise, you could check out your local boxing gym. My experience with boxing is it's an incredibly racially diverse mix of folks who are there, and it's got a really warm and supportive atmosphere where you can feel relaxed and get to know people in an environment where everyone is focused on the same goals. As a plus, boxing in specific may help you feel more of a sense of confidence in public, given your anxieties and history of being assaulted.
posted by latkes at 10:12 AM on May 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have the same problem, actually. The city I live in (DC) is majority black, and I've had a few experiences of being mugged (once at gunpoint) by black young men. This, unfortunately, shaped my fears, and I still tense and clench up when passing a group of black men/black teenagers. Of course, there are nuances – i.e., if a black man is walking a dog, or is very nicely dressed and carries himself in a professional or casual demeanor, I don't tense up as much (if at all). It's unfortunate, and I think the constant crime reports that almost always have "black male" as the main criminal doesn't help at all.

I'm working on trying to unpack my thoughts and see what I can do to break down a situation and to understand better why I'm feeling so fearful – what triggers me? Their movements? The unpredictability?

It's definitely a challenge, I'll give you that. I wish I had a better answer, but I just wanted to share that I, too, am going through the same struggle as a white male, and trying to unpack really does help. I think it just takes time and more experience, maybe even some risk-taking.

I hope this helps.
posted by dubious_dude at 10:35 AM on May 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Jesse Jackson rather notoriously remarked that
There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved….
There's also a widely repeated anecdote about Jackson crossing the street in Harlem when he saw three black teenagers coming toward him on the sidewalk on one occasion, but which I couldn't find a source for, and am inclined to think is apocryphal.

This isn't to say your fear isn't rooted in bias -- it certainly is.

But in our society, very few can claim to be entirely free of that bias.

I've also found my fears of heights and spiders and a few other things intensifying as I get older.
posted by jamjam at 11:02 AM on May 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think the first step is breaking through the shame you have about this. Don't make it a point of pride, but realize it's out of your control right now and it does not make you a terrible person. If you feel tense and afraid, you feel tense and afraid. Thats really the only problem (unless of course you're in a position of power to deny services or assistance to black men). You're not some monster racist. You're a person struggling with an irrational fear.

I'm always suspicious of "immerse yourself in something you find terrifying" recommendations. It's a little too close to "one weird trick to cure..." To get over your fear of heights do you plan on climbing more or leaning out of open windows? Using black people to get over your fear of them feels wrong to me. Whenever possible, try to avoid using people as tools to overcome personal issues. And reading books about and by black people will not really fix this because you already know your fear is irrational and it's not their culture you're afraid of.

So, I'm not sure the "make friends with black people" and "immerse yourself in black culture" is necessarily going to do the trick. That's not to suggest you shouldn't do those things (more diversity in your life is always good!), but you already know this anxiety is irrational and you've even provided a list of your other irrational fears that are getting worse as you get older.

Therapy is probably the way to go. Or at least something more structured than shame driven confrontation.
posted by AtoBtoA at 11:45 AM on May 5, 2017

The best advice, as other people said, is to be around more black people and make friends. I had some of the same subconscious fears until I started working with black men. Of course I knew intellectually that black men were not dangerous, but upon working closely with highly educated, intelligent men it became an automatic instinct that "random guy on the corner" could be a lawyer for all I knew. Appearance is no indication of anything. I'm a white guy who wears a hoodie, track pants and a ballcap when I walk around my neighborhood and I'm positive you would never look at me and think "thug." I'm an IT project manager.

I recently watched 13th, which very clearly outlines the propaganda that associated black men with "criminal" in the popular imagination, and why that propaganda exists. It may help you to see how your fear has been manufactured out of whole cloth, and how that fear benefits the white supremacist power structure in which we live.
posted by AFABulous at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

People have covered the racism angle.

So I'm gonna ask, since your other debilitating fears are also increasing, are you getting treatment for them? Because if this is part of a wider, and spreading pattern, getting phobia under control seems like the best approach.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:32 PM on May 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

Here's a good counterpoint to the white media Good Black News. It has lots of links to resources and podcasts and history and much more. Seems like a nice balance for your mind to consider.
posted by MovableBookLady at 1:49 PM on May 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Other people have said it, but I'll say it again: engage. Say hi to the groups of scary guys on the street if any make eye contact, and nod or smile. It's not enough to counteract years of learned implicit racism, but it is enough to realize that they're probably just normal guys. Or maybe they are sketchy, who knows? But it's one small way of actually addressing the root of your fear: you actually find out if it has any basis in truth. In my case, as a white woman who's lived in low-income, mostly-Black neighborhoods, when I find myself feeling anxious and suspect it's ingrained racism rather than legit gut feeling, I talk to people more--and sure, some turn out to be shitty, but I always end up getting to know folks in the neighborhood better and ultimately feel safer.
posted by tapir-whorf at 5:09 PM on May 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Irrational fears are irrational, so no amount of education on the history of racism and microaggressions will do anything to help you manage these uncomfortable sensations. You need cognitive behavioral therapy where you do homework assignments that teach you how to manage your fears and self-soothe, regardless of what the stressor is. It would be a lie if I were to tell you I was never afraid of driving after I did CBT for driving anxiety. Sometimes the old fears will still peek out and say hello, especially if I have other shit going on. The difference is that I can now recognize the warning signs and stop the fear cycle before it blooms into panic and/or avoidance. Most CBT involves exposure therapy, which goes along with the "make black friends" and "consume black media" type of advice you're getting above.
posted by xyzzy at 8:53 PM on May 5, 2017

Nth-ing the suggestion to spend more time with black people, and seek out situations where you're in the racial minority. It will be uncomfortable at first and then the discomfort will ease off.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:04 AM on May 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

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