We’ve Been Taught To Be Afraid

We’ve Been Taught To Be Afraid

Where does racial fear come from?

Twenty or so people had gathered to hear me and my husband talk about race unity. At least that’s what the flyer said. The topic has a positive vibe—one envisions diverse folks coming together in love and harmony, which of course is the ultimate goal.

However certain things have to be addressed in order for that goal to be achievable. For example, White people need to understand and work hard to overcome our racist conditioning. But if we’d put that on the flyer, probably no one would have showed up.

We were gathered under a pavilion in a park in North Carolina. Our White audience had welcomed us warmly and listened intently as we told stories of awakening to our own unconscious attitudes. Encouraged by our transparency, several people shared how they were raised with racist ideas.

At some point during the talk, I spoke—as I always do —about racial conditioning. I claimed that as White people, we have absorbed this conditioning from the beginning of our lives, that it’s in the air we breathe. We have been told lies about those who are not White, and about Black people in particular. These lies, along with the emotions they generate, sit at the unconscious level in our minds and dictate how we interact with others.

I went on to say that we can free ourselves from our conditioning only by realizing it’s there and bringing it to the conscious level, where we can replace it with the truth. Though I don’t have notes from the talk we gave that day, I’m quite sure I said the same thing I usually say:

Freeing ourselves from this unconscious racist brainwashing is an act of moral courage.

When our talk was over, people came up to ask questions or share personal anecdotes. An elderly lady waited on the sidelines until everyone else had left, then approached me with a concerned face. [Note to my readers: this happened about 20 years ago, and the woman was probably around the same age I am now. So I use the term “elderly” loosely.]

She leaned in close to me, as if preparing to share a secret, and whispered, “I think I have unconscious racial conditioning.”

“Yes, yes! Of course! We all do!” I said out loud, and Hallelujah! I said to myself.

“I would like to get rid of it,” she said, more boldly now. “Would you please give me an assignment that will help me do that?” Perhaps she was thinking I would suggest a book to read or video to watch. Certainly she wasn’t expecting what I said next.

“Okay, here’s your assignment,” I said. “This is what I want you to do. The next time you step into an elevator by yourself, before the doors close, I want you to look at the people nearby. If you see a Black man, I want you to say, ‘Excuse me, sir, are you going up? I’ll hold the door for you.’ Could you do that?”

Her eyes got huge, and her body went rigid. Then she started trembling. “Oh my,” she said quietly. Then again, “Oh my.”

I said, “Wait, have you been attacked by a Black man in an elevator?”

“No,” she said.

“Do you know someone who’s been attacked by a Black man in an elevator?” I asked.

“No, I don’t.”

“Have you ever even heard of a Black man attacking someone in an elevator?”

“No, I have not.” she said, quite emphatically this time.

“Okay,” I said, “so that’s not actually your assignment. Do you feel what’s happening in your body?”

She nodded. “I feel terrified.”

“Yet you’ve had no experience that would cause you to feel so much fear,” I said.

She nodded again and looked very relieved.

“So here’s your real assignment: see if you can figure out where that fear comes from. Who taught it to you? How has it influenced you? What would have to happen for that fear to be replaced with attraction?”

“Okay, okay,” she said, “that I can do.” Then she turned abruptly and walked toward her car.

I wanted to hug her and celebrate her courage, but she was already gone. She probably wanted to get far away before I said anything else.

This is the first time I’ve written this story, although I relate it often. It gets told pretty much every time I give a talk about race. Sometimes I wonder if it was unnecessarily cruel to make the woman so afraid.

But here’s the thing. If our minds and bodies are flooded with fear, then the rational part of our brains are bypassed. We’re not able to choose our thoughts and actions based on our true values.

How often has a White woman called the cops on a Black person because she was afraid for her safety —not because she’s had an actual negative experience, but because she’s been taught to be afraid?

Bad things can happen to Black folks when White folks are acting on unwarranted fear.

So I will continue to use every reasonable means at my disposal to challenge that racist conditioning. I would love to hear my readers’ thoughts. What are your strategies for addressing this issue?

. . .

Photo by Ono Kosuki from Pexels

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