Can We Reverse an Implicit Racial Bias?

Can We Reverse an Implicit Racial Bias?

I no longer believe what I was taught about Black men

A few years ago, a beloved friend died suddenly, leaving a gaping hole in my life and my heart. He was seriously ill, and we all knew his time on earth was limited. But no one expected it to happen so soon.

I flew to San Diego for his memorial service and burial, where I was surrounded by others who loved him. For three days we shared grief and stories of how this exceptional person had touched our lives. At the end of our last evening together, I checked in to a hotel that had shuttle service to the airport, so I could catch an early morning flight back home.

These events, although not directly related to my story, are important because they tell you something about my emotional state that night. By the time I’d gotten settled in my room, I was exhausted from crying. I felt vulnerable, fragile, and raw. All I wanted to do was sleep, only sleep would not come.

As I sat on the bed, trying to get my bearings, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day and suddenly I was starving. I figured as long as I wasn’t going to get any sleep, I might as well get some food. It was near midnight, but this was San Diego. There had to be someplace to eat nearby.

I went to the front desk, rang the bell, and waited a long time for the night clerk. When he finally showed up, he told me there was only one restaurant still open this time of night. It was a seafood place on the bay front, about six blocks away. He offered to call me a cab.

“No thanks,” I said, “I’ll just walk. I need the fresh air anyway.”

“I don’t advise you to walk alone at night in this area,” said the clerk. “Let me call you a cab.”

“No thanks,” I repeated. “I’ll be fine.” I wasn’t being brave and I wasn’t naive. I was just utterly depleted and not thinking clearly. I went out the door and headed for the restaurant, which I could see among the lights on the marina.

I was walking briskly, thinking about the crab cakes I would soon be enjoying, when a group of men come around a corner and toward me on the sidewalk. They were White and young. I could tell they were drunk by their voices and movements.

My throat constricted, and for a moment I froze. Then I looked around frantically for anything that might offer safety. On the opposite corner I saw a lone Black man standing by a bench that was partially hidden in the trees. I didn’t know what he was doing there and I didn’t care; I knew he would protect me. I ran across the street and straight to where the man stood.

“Could you please help me?” I asked him. “I’m afraid of those guys and I don’t want to be alone.”

“Ma’am, what are you doing walking around out here by yourself at night?” he asked. “You’re not safe.”

“Yes, I can see that now,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking. I’ve just been to a funeral, and I have a flight really early tomorrow morning, and I haven’t eaten anything all day, and that’s the only restaurant where I can get some food.” I was jittery and babbling at that point. I was pretty sure I had narrowly escaped danger. “Can I stay here by you until they’ve gone?”

“Let’s not stand around here,” he said. “Come on, I’ll walk you to the restaurant.”

And that’s what he did. I don’t remember if I asked his name or what we talked about. Maybe I told him my friend had died and my heart was broken. He walked me to the door of the restaurant and made me promise I would take a cab back to the hotel. The White men were long gone by the time I returned.

So why did I write about this experience? Because some of my White sisters have never heard a story like this one, and I want them to know it’s possible to reverse what we’ve been taught.

Here’s the thing: this fear we have of Black men is based not on actual experience, but on the lies we’ve been told. When we don’t have any actual experiences, we have no real evidence to disprove the lies, so we’re stuck with our racist conditioning.

But when we build relationships with many honest, kind, caring Black men, then that’s what we come to expect. That’s what I’ve come to expect anyway. I’ve been teased, threatened, bullied, and harassed by White boys and men since elementary school. I have never — not once — experienced any of those things from Black men. So where else would I go for safety?

Yes, I know there are other considerations, including different reasons why Black men are polite to White woman. I also know some of you are thinking my decision to walk alone at night was stupid. I’ll agree with that before you even say it. Then there’s the reality that many women feel unsafe with men, regardless of their color. And there’s the fact that they were drunk. It’s also true that there are plenty of kind, caring White men who would never hurt anyone. All of those are valid points, but they’re not the point of my story.

The point of my story is that even though we’ve been trained to be afraid, we have the power to turn that around.

The one thing I will add is that I possibly put that Black man in danger by walking with him. I went to him for protection without ever considering how it might look and what could happen to him as a result. That’s my White privilege. Does the fact that I was frightened of a group of White men make it okay?

I realize I’m taking a risk by sharing my experience here. I’m okay with that, as long as the story can be used to start a conversation or can help someone see things from a different perspective.

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

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