I walked home from work today, good for me. I passed a young man in a hoodie and got to thinking about Trayvon Martin. Poor kid. Fucking tragic. Minding his business, out for a walk. His stroll to the 7-Eleven was suspicious enough to George Zimmerman that he felt compelled to shoot an unarmed skinny kid in the chest. Seventeen years old. Convicted and executed for walking while Black.
I walk home through a stretch of Baltimore right at the edge of the White Stripe, past the in/famous Lexington Market. You know the White Stripe, the belt of fluctuating breadth on either side of Charles Street all the way from the harbor to the County. Where all the banks, prosperous businesses, best restaurants, and "cultural" institutions are, where average income is higher and average family size is lower, where crime happens seldom and when it does it's less deadly. Where I live. If we're friends, it's probably where you live too. I don't know that many people in those other neighborhoods, the ones that make up the majority of our city. Save for some work-related exceptions, I've never even been to them.
It's twilight and I'm a little nervous while I'm thinking about that kid Trayvon. I'm keeping an eye open. Head up, purposeful stride, don't play with your phone, duck into a covered doorway to move your wallet from back to front pocket. Cause I'm near where drug deals are known to happen. I'm well west of Howard Street, which up by my house is my boundary between definitely safe and sketchy. Some girl got stranger-raped in the street near here last month.
As I pass other pedestrians, probably 50 or 60 people on my way home, I realize I'm scanning them for threat. As I always do, as I was taught to do as a little girl. I habitually swivel my neck to check out who's behind me, too. Each person I assess gets dumped into their slot: Safe, UNKNOWN (potentially lethal), and Panhandler. Panhandlers are almost always Safe but sometimes aggressive. And just passing a hobo slumped in a doorway makes me feel a little bit bad about myself. Safe but itchy for the conscience. Avoid.
So, who finds their way to the Safe category? Women. I learned as a pup that Beware of Strangers really means Beware of Men. The occasions when I see a woman as Dangerous are rare. Who else? Old people. Children. Someone with an observable disability. Dog walkers. Asians. Anyone wearing a uniform—cops and security guards, hospital workers in scrubs, Starbucks employees, Downtown Partnership sweepers, construction workers, all categorically Safe. Anyone who has a clear reason to be there, like a shopkeeper or people waiting for the bus. White men who are over 30, not obviously homeless or being loud. Pass.
Those are easy and automatic, I barely notice them. Beyond those folks it gets individual. This is where the scan comes in. Scan: Student. Scan: Business Douche. Scan: Hipster. Scan: Musician. Scan: Working Stiff. Scan: Nerd. Scan: UNKNOWN.
And my spine stacks up straighter, and I bend my steps just slightly toward the street, and I think about whether I already moved my wallet.
I make a second inspection, for details I have trained myself to spot. These are mostly related to ascertaining his socioeconomic status. How new are his clothes? How low are his pants? How tidy is his hairdo? Does he have all his viewable teeth? What's the tattoo situation? Does he make eye contact? How old is this guy? How big?
By process of elimination, I know you have cleverly deducted that UNKNOWN is pretty well known. Young White dudes in groups, able-bodied Black or dark Hispanic men between 12 and 80 years old. Right? The usual suspects. Literally.
It is emphatically clear that my scan system is miscalibrated. How did I get to the point where I'm methodically preparing to run when I encounter Black men? As a class, as a default impulse? In Baltimore, females will totally jump another woman for money or revenge or kicks. I'm certain that someone of Asian descent has jacked up a passerby sometime in our city's fair history.
The reason I let them pass without suspicion is that it's so exhausting to carry all that suspicion around. In order to leave the house I have to create a system where most people are Safe. In order to live in Baltimore City, ever boxing Detroit for highest murder rate, I stay aware that some people are Dangerous.
The way I have worked that calculation out is by using my racism. As did George Zimmerman. As do you. Don't you?
Here's my racist origin story in snapshots:
I learn about Afro-Americans absent a context of actual Black people. None of my teachers are Black. No one at my church is Black. None of my neighbors, none of my schoolmates (ok, one kid. And his little brother.), just a handful of my parents' coworkers. My kind White Liberal family taught me They are just as good as I am and we should be sympathetic and extra nice to Them because of Their hardships.
From progressive White people I learned that Blackness equals anxiety. Because someday I will say something racist. Someday I will, even though I'm trained to be as polite as the Queen and use my best manners around Them. They are super-sensitive, too. I'm terrified I will blurt out something horrible. I will speak the unspeakable-word and make monkey noises. I must be vigilant with my words and never relax within Black hearing.
Safe but itchy for the conscience. Avoid.
The wider world carefully taught me that Blackness equals threat. On the news, police are always looking for a Black male about 6´ with no distinguishing marks. When I see Black men on TV they are in a mug shot or handcuffs or noble fictional slaves or a Cosby. White teachers taught me that hip hop is a ridiculous kind of "music"—aren't they just talking, basically? And those rappers cuss so much, and kill police officers. Thugs and gangstas. In the movies, the ex-con or the killer is usually Black or maybe sorta gay. I learn that jail is full of Black men. They are Criminals. And in my city, in Pittsburgh, Black equals poor. I learn that poor people commit a lot of crimes too.
Way down in my brain stem there's a dark spot where those imprints are hardwired, welded into place. The lizard brain is detritus from an earlier point in evolution, but it's still operating and there is no off switch. I've searched and searched. Pre-thought, lizard brain injects these residual images into my better mind and washes them with fear. It rings an alarm that has never, ever been practically useful to me. I have had no personal evidence in my entire life that random African American strangers are a legitimate danger to me. Yet on the earliest setting, my lizard brain alarm was triggered just by being in the company of any Black person. That's hard to admit. But true.
When I moved to the east side of Pittsburgh and started working at the shelter I muffled that alarm with regular exposure to Black folks. It's just not practical to panic that much of your day. If I passed a Black man on the street, he would almost always say "How's it goin." This happened so reliably that I reckon most little brown boys are taught by their mothers to nod and greet any White woman if she's walking alone. How's it goin is the password, code for Not a threat. Sometimes the guy looked resentful, but he'd still say it. And it worked! It still works! If I get the nod, that guy goes into the Safe bin. But it doesn't really happen on the East Coast, not too much, I can't depend on that.
I moved to Blacker-than-Pittsburgh Cleveland and I encountered a Black middle class. I made a few Black work friends. I had neighbors and the people who rode the bus with me. When I first got there, the lizard brain warnings were still quite strong. Not a Danger alarm anymore, but an uncomfortable hyperawareness. I am the only White person on this bus, I would think. I'm the only White person in this restaurant. In this elevator. One of three in this grocery store. Gradually I forgot to count. I didn't realize I had ever had those thoughts until my mother visited. She remarked "I noticed there are a lot of, um, there are a lot of Black people in your neighborhood. It's fine, of course, I just...I just noticed." I noticed that I'd stopped noticing.
And now I live in a 70 percent Black city. It's pointless to count fellow White-looking people, and the urge has passed. I have to be comfortable with ambient Blackness. And I am, honestly am. I share authentic intimacy with a spectrum of people across the African diaspora. I engage anti-racist ethics in all my thoughtful choices. I am as good a White Ally as anybody, I try to own my privilege and educate other Whites and be consistently conscious that I show up White (and therefore, Cherubs, unavoidably oppressive) in any mixed-race space. These tactics have helped me get a grip.
And still, the lizard brain just won't die. I've come to accept that I can merely be aware of the influence and try to work around.
So I'm walking home. Scan: Gym rat. Scan: Weekend Dad. Scan: Eating a hot dog, neutralized. Scan: Missionary. Scan: UNKNOWN.
And the awful, repulsive, hideous truth clangs like a prison door inside my chest.
Trayvon Martin: UNKNOWN.
George Zimmerman: Safe.
Hard call, but probably. Lighter skin. Confident. Out on official Neighborhood Watch business.
Scanning the streets for Danger.
Walking home, I wonder...
Walking home, I know.
Just like me.
Just like me. ■