October 20, 2008 at 9:18 am
I was standing on an unfamiliar porch, holding a stuffed animal from a Maurice Sendak children’s book, when I saw a man smoking a substance I wasn’t entirely sure was legal walk around the corner half a block away. He was black, so the fear I suddenly felt made me feel like a racist white girl. Sure, I was in a questionably safe part of town and, sure, his manner of dress and body language would have provoked suspicion even if he was white, but he wasn’t white. He was black, and when I’m scared of black men I feel racist even if my fear is justified.
I’d taken the Wild Thing with me on my trip to North Carolina for my friend Elise’s blog project, Where the Wild Thing Is. All I had to do was pose the adorably scary creature amongst local landmarks, snap a picture, and submit a journal entry. I had to return the plushie before the weekend so he could travel to some other semi-exotic locale. Elise kindly emailed me her street address, which I kindly forgot to write down.
I knew what intersection her home was near, so I headed for that direction and parked in front of a house with numbers that seemed vaguely familiar, like a high school locker combination. I tried texting her and got no response. I walked up to the door and knocked, waiting for someone to let me in. I felt hopeful when I saw a forwarding address reminder on the mail slot for the previous owners, knowing that Elise had just moved into her house. I felt less hopeful for my safety since I knew this was a transitional zone between the bad neighborhood and the good neighborhood.
After a minute the man started approaching.
That’s when I stuffed the wild-eyed, hairy creature into the mail slot and walked quickly for my car. I hoped I had the right address, otherwise someone was going to be awfully confused when they sorted through their bills that evening. I slid into the driver’s side door and flipped the lock manually so the loud “CHUNK!” of the automatic lock wouldn’t broadcast my fear and bigotry all the way down the block. Just as I started the ignition, the man knocked on the passenger’s side door. I gave him a dumb wave and smile and pulled away towards the north side where the white people live, wondering whether I’d ever really been in danger or if I’d just made the whole thing up in my head.
I do not regret trusting my intuition. I read The Gift of Fear and I know that my intuition always has my best interest at heart even if it’s not always right. There’s nothing wrong with going with your gut, especially when your safety is involved. When listening to my intuition in this case, the worst case scenario was that I offended an otherwise upstanding citizen. If I hadn’t listened to my intuition, the worst case scenario involved bodily harm or mugging. I’ll take being rude over being assaulted any day.
I doubt the man would have mugged me or harmed me. He probably would have asked for a dollar or tried to sell me something. Whether I was in danger or not, these scenarios force me to look at an unpleasant side of myself, the part that is more afraid of black men than white men, the part that is a little bit racist, the part I otherwise like to ignore.
Several years ago I was waiting at a corner in the dark for a friend to pick me up. Her husband stood with me, a large man who could easily be a linebacker. The lack of streetlights and the fear of what I couldn’t see made me nervous. I mentioned as much to my companion and he laughed, “No one’s going to give a big guy like me trouble.” And I realized he was right. And I realized that it’s different being a girl. You have to be nervous on street corners. You have to worry about strangers walking down the sidewalk. As Gavin De Becker says in his book, at worst a man fears that a woman will humiliate him, but at worst a woman fears that a man will kill her.