Saturday, October 6, 2007

Why am I afraid of black people?

Last week I moved into a new apartment in the Shaw Garden District in the City of St. Louis. In my new zip code there are 20,351 residents, fifty-three percent of whom are African-American, reporting a median income of $28,604. These figures are almost eight years old and are certainly shifting as more white people (like me) have been buying and renting homes or apartments in the area in response to rising property values, retail development and the various charms of living in a historic urban district.

My parents’ current home and the one we lived in during my middle and high school years are both located in St. Louis County, in the cities of Des Peres and Kirkwood respectively. The demographic there is, on average, more than twice as wealthy and predominately more freckled and susceptible to sunburn. According to the 2000 census, these communities are over ninety percent white.

When I first considered writing this post, I felt a gripping in my lower abdomen, the way the back of the throat responds to a pungent drink. I was already exhausted by the thought of all the qualifications I would feel obliged to make before letting go of a single unguarded thought or feeling.

One of these modifying statements is that St. Louis is not a black and white city. There are Latinos, Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Arab-Americans, West Indians and immigrant groups from Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics (notably, over 50,000 Bosnians).

For the past two years, with the exception of situations in which I was required to speak or if someone bothered to take a good look at me, the sense of ethnic anonymity that comes with sharing the majority’s skin color was available to me and often comforting. Over eighty-four percent of St. Petersburg’s population is ethnically Russian. The few black people I saw were almost entirely African university students, who were clearly the objects of curiosity if not hate and violence—the extremes being a young African man paid to wear a white wig and Victorian costume while welcoming visitors into the Museum of Chocolate and the two (at least that I heard of) racially motivated murders that occurred during my stay.

If I, as with the majority of white people, were asked, “Are you racist?” I would respond, “No.” At the same time, three truths seem to complicate this answer: I have never been close friends with a black person. Many of the privileges and opportunities I enjoy in my life are enabled, either in part or directly, by my inclusion in the dominant majority. When I encounter African-Americans in public contexts, usually on the street and particularly with young black males, before I have the chance to consider or correct, my body expresses fear.

Rather than ascribe this feeling to the influence of media or an isolated experience in sixth grade when two black kids extorted my lunch money in the school’s bathroom without even touching me and then offered to return it as I was leaving to which I replied, “That’s cool. You can have it,” I decided to first consult with people either living or working in and around my neighborhood.

The first person I saw was a young black man, probably seventeen years old. He was walking toward me, then turned at the intersection I was approaching. I hesitated, then followed him quickly until I was about ten paces back and said, “Hey man. Excuse me.” I had never approached someone for a man-on-the-street interview, and he looked at me as if I was a lost tourist salesman.

“I’m a writer, but not for a newspaper or magazine. I’m writing an article about racism,” I said, though I’d planned to say “internalized racism.” “Could I ask you a question?”

“Naw,” he said and walked away.

After that, every person or group of people agreed to talk to me and have their statements recorded. Some people provided their full names and humored me by slowly spelling them into my microphone. Others gave me a first name or pseudonym and after three people said they didn’t want their picture taken, I stopped asking. I talked to seventeen people (five white, twelve black) of different ages.

My first conversation was with a white man in his forties named “Red” and Charles Cousins, a black man in his mid-twenties. They work together at hardware store nearby and were waiting for their ride home.

I asked them, as I would with everyone else I talked to, “Do you think white people are generally afraid of black people?”

“Hell yeah they are!” Red said. “If you ain’t raised around black people, you come from a different town or something, hell yeah you’re scared of them black people.”

“There’s black people scared of black peoples,” Cousins added.

“It depends on what you’ve been brung up around,” Red said. “I was raised in North St. Louis. I was raised around black people, went to school with them. I ain’t scared of none of them.”

“It’s definitely taught to you,” Cousins said. “You don’t just wake up one day and you’re that way. Racism is taught to you.”

I asked Cousins, who is a big man, if he’d experienced white people responding to him with fear.

“Once I walked down the street where an older lady was coming this way and as I got closer, she kind of moved over. So I guess she’s got this fixation in her mind that I’m gonna try to take something from her. All black people are not that way, regardless of what you see on the news.”

“She’s probably just scared,” Red said. “She don’t know who to trust. And maybe she is racist, so she don’t trust black people. There’s some people that’s not racist, but they’re just scared of black people. They ain’t hating them, but they’re just scared of them.”

The next people I talked to were eighteen year old African-American identical twins named Randle and Randell. I approached them as I’d approached the first guy, like a store clerk trying to return a forgotten wallet, and they agreed to talk to me, even though I’d managed to stop them in the middle of a drive-thru ATM lane.

“Sometimes I would say [white people] are afraid of black people because of the way they act,” Randle said. “They cross the street or tend to look away from you. I don’t mind it too much. I just look past it and keep going, you know what I’m saying, just move on with myself. I just say forget it, that’s just how they feel.”

“I don’t take it as they’re racist or anything,” Randell said, “but they are somewhat cautious of us. Sometimes I look cautious at people too.”

I then asked Randell where that response on the part of some white people might come from if he doesn’t ascribe it to racism.

“The way black people portray theyselves to be. You know, thugs, gangsters and all that. Doing all that stuff, you know what I’m saying. Being in trouble all the time. I mean us being the majority of people going to prison. Basically it’s black people giving a bad name for ourselves by the way we act.”

To my follow up question, “Do you think black people are accurately portrayed by the media?” Randle responded, “Yeah, we are.”

“It’s up to us to change it,” Randell said. “We’re the people doing it, so we can change it ourselves. We just have to build on that and our self-esteem instead of looking at ourselves and saying, ‘Aw, we ain’t got this and we ain’t got that.’ Well, we go to school, we’ve got schools."

"I mean I’m not one to say. I dropped out, but I go back to GED classes trying to do something with myself. I can get myself out of this situation just like you all can. I know a lot of people who’s in this situation who’s white and they pulling theyself out of it just like I can, living in the same neighborhood I’m in. There’s just more of us in this neighborhood. That’s all that is.”


In the middle of Randell’s comment, two young white men in their twenties pulled up to the drive-thru ATM. The passenger leaned out of his window and asked, “Are you guys selling something?”

“We ain’t even good, though, man,” Randle said.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“That wasn’t nothing,” he said. “Just people passing.”

I walked down Grand Avenue and crossed the Arsenal intersection to a bus stop where several people were waiting. I chose to approach three black men probably in their early to mid-thirties, one of whom was dressed in hospital scrubs. I told them that I was writing about internalized racism and, specifically, how white people respond to black people. Their names were Mr. Stacey Horner, Busy Bee and Antoine Roberts.

“Racism is alive and well,” Busy Bee said. “You know, we don’t have to deal with each other per se, but if we see a person in need—black, white or whatever color you are—we quick to help.”

“But we experience a whole lot of racism,” he said, “just walking down the street, who you are. You black, let’s go the other way. Lock your doors. Everybody ain’t crooks. I get a lot of it. They can pull up right here at the traffic stop. You can hear them doors clickin’. Clack, clack, clack. I know. I experienced it.”

“Even our own kind act funny towards each other,” Roberts said. “So it don’t matter. It all depends on where you’re at, where you go. It’s really how you carry yourself, how you present yourself.”

“I think the only reason you walked up to us is that our clothes ain’t sagging off our ass,” Horner said, “so you didn’t feel afraid. You know what I mean. Because you see a little maturity in all of us, you know. I don’t think you would ask a bunch of twenty year olds what you’re asking us now. I don’t think you would approach three twenty year old black boys, because they scare me and I’m a black man.”

“But we know, from our experience,” Horner said, “that white people teach they kids to hate black people just because we black. That’s some shit ya’ll been doing for years. We can’t fix ya’ll issues. Those are ya’ll issues.”

“You think it’s about parents specifically telling their children black people are bad?” I asked.

“That’s where it all starts,” Horner said. “You take a white baby and a black baby and let they ass go play, I bet you they don’t give a fuck.”

“I’ve got some neighbors,” Busy Bee said, “some Mexicans, whites and I’m black and there’s a black family over there and they’ve got three little girls. They playing with each other, and a little white boy, Mexican boy. Aw, they having a ball. But as they get older, that’s gonna end. I asked my wife, ‘How long you think that will last?’”

I tried to make a distinction between white people who are consciously and willfully racist and those who do not identify themselves as racist.

“Them the ones I’m most afraid of,” Busy Bee said.

“They smile in your face and got a knife at your neck,” Horner said. “That’s the scary thing about you white people. We don’t know how to trust ya’ll. I don’t think all white people are bad. I just hate the ones who’ve been taught that bullshit. It’s not ya’ll young ones’ fault. That’s what ya’ll parents teach you.”

Busy Bee also asserted an inequality of acceptance between the white and black communities in the example of interracial relationships, as well as other boundaries white people maintain in their social interactions.

“All day at work you see me, you know me by name. ‘Hey, how you doing, Byron? How you doing, Sarah?’ Come across outside that job. ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Shit. They don’t know me.”

“I work in a hospital,” Horner said. “I deal with white people every day. And no matter how nice of a demeanor you practice, in my subconscious I know you hate me. Just because I’m black. No matter how good a gold I am. You don’t see me. All you see is my exterior. My interior is beautiful.”

“Our biggest question is, ‘How come when racism pop up, it’s always got to be black people and white people?’ Don’t nobody ever talk about the Chinese. Them foreign motherfuckers they keep letting over here, blowing our shit up. They penalize us for every motherfucking thing in the world. You know what I mean?”

“All we want to do is be economically viable. That’s all we trying to do. A black man want to fucking be able to go the bank and get a loan. Get a house. Fucking live. Like ya’ll.”

“There go my chariot,” he said. “You see a black man catching the damn bus. I’ve been working all my life, can’t even afford a car.”

I understood that my investigation was incomplete. I needed to talk to more white people to find our how they think about and experience manifestations of racism or potentially doubt its significance.

I met Ashley Murphy, a white woman in her early twenties, outside a coffee shop. She allowed me to speak with her as she walked to the local library where she works.

“What are you doing this for?” she asked. “Am I going to come off really bad or something?”

I explained my purpose and described some of the interviews I had already conducted.

To the question about white fear she responded, “I guess it depends on where you go. Generally I don’t think [white people] are afraid of [black people]. Without realizing it, you might like... I think it’s more of like a… I don’t know. That’s hard. I’m sorry.”

“I live around here and I work at the library up there. So I guess it’s like, if you’re not in a place where you have interactions with people, I think you’re more aware that someone is of a different race, so you’re trying to give the appropriate response. I think you notice it more.”

“There’s times when if I’m walking down the street and there’s a big teenage kid and he’s coming down the street, I might go to the other side, but that’s mostly because I’m kind of shy. I do that with other people too, though, so it’s hard for me to think it’s because…”

“So it’s not always dependent upon race,” I said.

“I guess,” she said.

I tried to clarify if she saw a connection between the aversion a white person might demonstrate towards a black person on the street and racism.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess people are kind of suspicious. Maybe if you were in a different neighborhood or maybe like in the Central West End or something, maybe you wouldn’t think about it as much, because you think most of the people around here, whatever race that they are, are probably of a certain type of person and so am I since I’m down here and we’re all in the same neighborhood together."

"But then with a place like this where, I mean, from block to block it’s so different, like the socio-economic lines are so blurred wherever you go, I think you all get thrown into something together and everybody’s kind of different, so you don’t really know if like, ‘Well, is this person just some kid or is he somebody from a few blocks over who’s trying to come over here and maybe see?’ So I think that might be possibly unique to this neighborhood. I don’t know really.”


“I guess people don’t want to be na├»ve, maybe. If you are kind of like, ‘Oh, maybe this person is gonna have something to say to me or want something from me.’ Regardless of whether they do or not, if you’re uptight, then you don’t even open that window up to have yourself be taken advantage of. Maybe it’s like that. Or if you’re like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ and people are like, ‘Oh yeah, this person is a sucker, or whatever.’”

“Sometimes I’ll be walking and be like, ‘Dude, don’t ask me for change,’ and then that’s not even what they’ll want. They’ll just be like, ‘Do you have a light?’ or something and then I’ll feel like an asshole.”

Further down the street, I met two white men and a white woman, probably in their forties or early fifties, standing outside a pawn shop, looking through the viewfinders of two antique box cameras. At the end of the interview, I would ask them for their names to which one of the men responded, “I’d rather be anonymous,” before providing me with his first name, John. The other two were Chris and Angie.

“Do you think that white people are generally afraid of black people?” I asked.

Five seconds ticked by before John said, “You know, I’d actually say, probably yeah.”

“I’d say, yeah,” Chris said.

“Believe it or not, even in this day and age,” John said. “You wouldn’t think so anymore. We like to think we’re all modern and enlightened, but human nature being what it is, in general, and it’s hard to speak in generalities. There’s always acceptance and, in effect, it may not even be true in the majority, but maybe a significant minority of whites probably consider themselves reticent.”

“I live in Kirkwood,” Chris said, “and I recently bought a flat down here, a couple blocks over. You know there’s blacks in Kirkwood and I got along with them great cause they’re affluent, but I rented to a bunch of blacks and when I bought the building it was all full of blacks. There were four black families in there and these people were desperate. And they were on drugs, they were selling drugs and I was threatened by them, by one of them, anyway. So, yeah, it put fear into me about people that are desperate. I don’t know if they had to be black or not.”

“It’s a combination of economic and race,” he said.

“I lived in other cities with large black populations,” Angie said, “and I definitely get a different impression here.”

“St. Louis is very unique, I feel. I think it’s got a ways to come. I know that a Sixty Minutes-type, investigative show did a piece on racism and it was in St. Louis. I think they sent a white guy in to buy some shoes or something, followed by a black guy and they watched how the merchant treated color, and it was kind of eye opening. And that was St. Louis. My impression of St. Louis is that it’s a little behind.”

In light of Chris’ negative personal experience, I again asked what factors might explain the fear that some whites demonstrate in their public interactions with African-Americans.

“Well, there’s a lot of young male blacks that are in prison because of crime they commit,” Chris said. “I think about black men forming gangs and being in activities where they sell drugs or whatever and claim territory and defend territory to do that and turn to violent activities to make money. I mean rappers sing about it all the time.”

“Do you think that these expressions of fear and apprehension on the part of white people…do you think that white people should be more accountable for that, or should the black community be accountable for that because of these examples?” I asked.

“They should be more conscious of it,” John said.

“Who should?” I asked.

“Everyone, black or white,” he said. “When it happens unconsciously, then I think it’s always more dangerous than if it happens consciously. I think what drives that kind of behavior is just basic fear and fear of the unknown, fear of what’s not known. Often, what’s thought of as not known is actually made worse in the mind of someone who thinks they’re afraid of what it is they don’t know or don’t understand.

“When something like that happens completely unconsciously, then it’s so deeply rooted that it can lead to…I mean, that’s the wellspring of prejudice. That’s the wellspring of behaviors that don’t have any basis in reality any more. And that’s what leads to trouble.”

“I suspect that any human being is susceptible. The key to the whole thing is consciousness. I would say that lack of consciousness about the motives of our behavior is the greatest threat. It’s a greater threat than violence or crime or anything else you could think of.”

On my walk home, I passed a car parked in Tower Grove Park, inside of which Doc Mayberry, a middle-aged black man, was reclined in the driver’s seat. During our conversation, he brought up his experiences growing up in South Mississippi. He was once refused service at the front of an ice cream parlor, but Doc also cited examples of how racism continues today.

“As long as different races exist, people are gonna flock to their own kind,” he said.

“You know I used to raise chickens. Certain kind of chickens, they stuck together. You know what I’m saying. The Domino hens, they stayed together. The red hens stayed together. I never really seen them intermingle like that. The rooster didn’t care of course.”

“But I think that as long as the races exist, until we develop as a human race, develop our mentality to the point where we can accept another person for what he is, how he treats you, rather than the color of the skin…until we do that as a whole, I don’t know how many years it’s gonna take, then we’re going to continue having those kind of incidents [referring to the case of the “Jena Six,” which we had been discussing]. You can believe that.”

Before I left, he cited the “I Have a Dream” speech that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered forty-four years ago: “…a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Obviously the people I spoke to were only representing themselves and their own opinions. I’m grateful that they were willing speak with me.

As I walked the rest of the way home, I passed a black man who was probably about my age (twenty-seven). He was dressed athletically and was wearing glasses. In the mixture of feelings I experienced as our shoulders brushed—apathy, curiosity, self-consciousness—I know there was fear.

7 comments:

Edan said...

Thanks for being so honest and thorough and compassionate in your reporting here, Ryan!

alana joy said...

Amazing. It is hard enough for most people to discuss these issues amongst friends, let alone with people in the street. I would love to hear more opinions. Maybe I´ll conduct some internalized racism interviews in Mexico City...okay, maybe not. Seriously though, thank you for taking the time to do this. When the St. Louis big wigs read this you will get a CEO position for sure.

Molly said...

Thanks for writing this, Ryan.

katie brad said...

Incredible honesty. It is so important to write about issues that no one wants to confront- it is a key way to promote change.

lyfestile said...

St. Louis is a veeery segregated city. Interesting to see what people had to say.

Analise said...

This is great info to know.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm 14 and black, 14 year olds have short attention spands so I didn't read the entire thing. But what I "skimmed" was really interesting. Even though white people have there opinions about black people doesn't necesarily mean we don't have a view of white people that are pleasant, it's good to know how the other side sees us. But at the same time I believe the race barrier should be broken all together. We should not be referring to each other as blacks and whites. We're just people.