“To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.” – W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
As I watch white passerbys in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I feel a sickness to my stomach. I watch them clutch their purses tightly, look down at their feet, increase their pace, as though this is the most normal response one could have to being in the presence of black and brown bodies. Though I often cannot see the eyes of the passerby (my view is often obstructed by the presence of dark, hipster, bug-eyed sunglasses), I can tell that they fear for their safety, that they deem those bodies a problem. But as we discussed in a blog entry, fear, no mater how genuinely felt, can very much be informed by fucked up assumptions re: race, class, gender presentation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.
Merriam Webster defines safety as “the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss” and safe as “free from harm or risk,” or “secure from threat of danger, harm, or loss.” The question I pose is this: how does one assess whether there is a threat of danger, harm or loss?
Fear obviously plays a tremendous role on what makes us feel safe and unsafe. You fear crocodiles and the threat of being eaten and tossed around, so you safety-plan by not swimming in Florida’s swamps. You fear being injured or capitated in car accidents, so you make sure the driver is calm, lucid, and skilled. You fear being sexually assaulted by a black man, so you clutch my purse, run away, and/or find a white man to walk with you.
One of these is not like the others.
The next question I pose is this: how does one assess whether there is a threat of danger, harm, or loss, when the only available identifier of something/someone to be feared is physical appearance?
Fear and Desire are FUNKYTOWN
I pair fear and desire into the same group of funkytown concepts and practices. We are often extremely uncritical of what (who) we fear and what (who) we desire because to us, these are instinctual and primordial. God, what can be more natural than wanting to escape death or harm? What can be more primitive than our desire to fornicate with a desirable mate? But it is exactly for these reasons that unchecked fear and desire are tremendously powerful and dangerous – assumptions, stereotypes, and tropes run free, eat free, and grow freely and begin dictating behaviors and feelings. Are white women instinctually afraid of black men? Are white male vigilantes instinctually afraid of young and hooded black bodies? Are Americans instictually afraid of people we perceive as Muslim? To answer these questions, it is important to think about what facts, opinions, images, and re-imagined memories assemble to inform our visceral, cerebral, and involuntary reactions. My father tells this funny story about his experience in high school. After recently migrating from S. Korea, he joined a high school in NJ where the students were convinced that he was not to be messed with. Why, you ask? Because they thought that he somehow inherently had mad ninja skills. Hilarious? Yes. Informative and illuminating? Yes. True? No way.
So the exercises for today are: (1) To think about how our imagined, constantly reassembling thoughts inform our fears and ideas on what it means to feel and be safe; and (2) To evaluate how our fear of the Other dictates our behaviors, our feelings, and our body’s response to “threat”; and (3) To ultimately realize that many of our fears exist only to reinforce a system that purposefully disenfranchises certain communities. And if you want to be particularly self-deprecating, you can ask yourself this: How fragile are our psyches, if we unknowingly try to dismantle any semblance of the Other, of the “problem” by involuntarily raising our heart rates, sweating our brows, shortening our breath, when we see something or someone we fear?
Subject-Object Problem: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?
One way to penetrate the massive problem of fear (in all its gory and messy glory) is to think about where these “truths” come from. Arguably, the world consists of objects, or entities, which are perceived or otherwise presumed to exist as entities by subjects, or observers. In this dichotmized world where only the subject can be the one to define the object, we can see a clear problem, one where knowledge, and even the acknowledgement of another’s (an Other’s) existence, relies upon the good graces of the subject.
The major issues within this dichotomized understanding of how humans relate to one another are twofold: (1) How do we know that something (to know) exists?; and (2) How does one know what one knows? Regarding the first issue, think about this: Exactly who has been determining what should be known about the Other? What was known and discussed about slaves and their humanity in the 1600s was limited, to say the least, because the subjects (slave traders and owners) decided there weren’t any more things to be known about the slaves (objects) other than their ability to produce and reproduce. Regarding the second question, think about where we learn our truths. Where do we learn that black and brown people are scary, that they will rape and hurt our women and children? Everywhere. TV shows, movies, the news, laws, practices, parents, friends – structural and cultural reifications that ________ community is fearsome, violent, and dangerous. In other words, the subject is always identifying what is known and what should be known, and the object is always being defined by the subject. Think deeply about who the subject and object are in our country. And then, as I’ve mentioned in my blog entry “The Color of Fear,” think about who has the most to gain in constructing realities where _______ community is fearsome, violent, and dangerous. The subject-object problem is one informed by power and one falsely mitigated by the subject.
So what happens when we marry the subject’s ontological (concerned with the essence or nature of being), epistemological (concerned with the nature of knowledge, its presuppositions and foundations, and its extent and validity), and hermenutical (concerned with methodological principles of interpretation) assumptions with fear and desire? Life. Life, where songs like “Asian Girlz” are supposed to be “ironic” in a hispter way, but reinforce assembled “truths” that make the eroticization, fetishization, and objectification of our bodies, minds, and souls justifiable. Life, where a majority of white people believe that Zimmerman’s verdict was fair and just, and that Trayvon Martin was the aggressor on trial. Life, where stopping and frisking is considered a necessary procedure, to ensure the safety of city’s children and families. Life, where transgender people are beaten for using a bathroom of their choosing.
In a series of unpublished notes to his friend, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze (who famously co-authored Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia with psychoanalyst Felix Guattari) explains that desire is never a “natural” nor a “spontaneous” determination; rather, that it is always a process of assemblage (whereby power is an important component) that is historically assignable. He explains, “For me, desire does not comprise of lack; neither is it a natural given; it is but one with an assemblage of heterogenous elements which function; it is process, in contrast with structure or genesis; it is affect, as opposed to feeling; it is “haecceity” (individuality of a day, a season, a life), as opposed to subjectivity; it is event, as opposed to thing or person.” I would argue that fear is a similar assemblage of elements that are never “natural” nor “spontaneous,” and they come from places of powerful historicity. Read the fascinating and interesting text here.
Experience & Statistics
Sometimes people will point to their own experiences (or the experiences of people they know) and statistics to justify their fear of a certain community. I was robbed by ______ or I heard that __% of violent crimes happen at the hands of _____ community or __% of terrorist attacks are orchestrated by _______.
To this, I say HOGWASH. Not because survivors and victims of crimes or violence aren’t or shouldn’t be triggered by certain behavioral signifiers, but because almost every time someone is scared of a community, the fear is determined by race, gender presentation, sexual orientation, or nationality. Take for instance, that in the United States, a white person is almost six times more likely to be killed by another white person than he or she is to be killed by a black person. Given that, do white men and women and children’s hearts skip a beat, do they sweat, does their breath shorten, when they are around white other white people? The fear of black violence and culture is an irrational feeling, and an imagined reality, when statistics show that white people are way more likely to be assaulted, murdered and raped by another white person. Men in turbans are to be feared at all times, but Adam Lanza or James Holmes are treated as outliers, as aberrant individuals whose mental illnesses and home lives and social awkwardness drove them to commit their crimes. When black men commit crimes, people point to “essential” violent, hedonistic, and primitive genetics or culture. But whenever a mass shooter is white, no one uses Moynihanian fingers to point to failed white fathers, white families, or white culture . As this article on theroot.com states,
“The crimes of a James Holmes, or a Jerry Sandusky, or a Timothy McVeigh, or a Ted Bundy are never attributed to some inherent defect in white culture or a failure of white people to police their own, yet their crimes are no less representative of ‘whiteness’ than a Chicago black youth’s drive-by-shooting is representative of ‘blackness.’”
So, going back to the subject-object problem: the white subject has created the entities of blackness, coloredness, terrorism, only to reify their power. The dark object remains the imagined reason for all bad things we fear.
So fine. Let’s racialize crime and violence and culture. You want to play? I’ll play. Let’s discuss why a white person is six times more likely to be murdered by another white person than by a black person. Let’s discuss why in 2011 more whites were murdered by fellow whites than blacks were murdered by other blacks. Let’s talk about the pathology of white families, and how it leads to mass shooters. Do people not understand numbers? Would trainings on basic math help our society see that their fear for safety around certain people and communities are not statistically sound?
But we know it ain’t about statistics.
So yes, your experience of fear is real. Your heart is pounding, your adrenaline is pumping, but the question I will always ask is this: Why?
Unsafe vs. Uncomfortable
When I was doing community organizing and public advocacy work around domestic violence in LGBTQ relationships, I participated in many interesting conversations, especially regarding inclusion of LGBTQ survivors in domestic violence shelters. One of the biggest issues discussed was the inclusion of transwomen. Some counselors and advocates argued that the presence of a penis made all the women in the shelter feel “unsafe,” regardless of how the transwoman identified. Of course, thinking about how a survivor is triggered and supporting them in working through these is an incredibly important piece of counseling. However, if someone is triggered, at least in part due to their fear of a type of person, the situation is a bit different, because that has more to do with discomfort of the unknown and the Other. A counselor and advocate should and does gently and lovingly help a survivor identify specifically what their triggers are, what behaviors and actions scare them and make them feel unsafe. And then they should and do help them safety plan and experience empowerment. However, they should try not to encourage survivors to continue utilizing physical markers to identify fear.
A transwoman should not be denied shelter because of her appearance and should not have to inform intake staff as to whether she is pre-op or post-op. She shouldn’t have to prove that she does or does not have a penis. A transwoman should be able to use whatever bathroom she chooses. I think sometimes we conflate safety with comfort – if someone is uncomfortable with the idea of living with a transwoman, because they do not understand nor want to understand what it means for this person to be living their life, that should not preclude the inclusion of a transwoman in the shelter.
This is the real issue. We are uncomfortable with a transwoman because we do not know what it means or looks like to be a transperson and it is easier to hate someone than to take the time to learn about difference. We are uncomfortable with young black men because we do not know what it means or looks like to be a young black man, except for what we see on TV and movies and the news. We are uncomfortable with our own privilege, and feel guilty that we have access to a type of safety, and project onto Othered communities in order to justify our privilege and power. We are uncomfortable with undocumented immigrants because we don’t want to address how we feel similarly dispensable, replaceable, invisible, and exploited by the government and corporations, and we utilize racism and xenophobia to socially distance ourselves from the reality that our lives and livelihoods are concretely connected. We are uncomfortable with our stringent understanding of masculinity and lash out at gay men and transpeople for making us rethink everything. We are uncomfortable with our own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism, so we make ourselves feel better by turning our opinions into truth. But folks – the prioritization of our privileged comfort is killing lives. Literally. So let’s get it straight, ok?
I’m not saying that safety-planning isn’t a real and important need. I’ve been in several situations in my life where safety-planning was necessary for me to avoid harm and injury, and I know it’s been life-saving and changing for survivors of violence. But in order for anyone to safety-plan properly, it is incredibly important to be very accurate and specific about what we fear. For example, I was afraid of a man with mental health issues who stalked me for weeks, and heavily bruised my arm twice. I was not afraid of all black men or all people with mental health issues – just this guy, because he had hurt me. And I relied on the kindness and dedication of the young black men in my neighborhood with whom I became friends. They alerted me when this man was around. They suggested certain walking routes for me. They made sure they were around on these routes during the times I would walk home from work. They did some investigating and found out whether this man was going to continue living in the neighborhood. And I gave them information on free mental health services in Brooklyn, in case they wanted to pass that along to the man.
So next time you are afraid for your safety, ask yourself, always ask yourself: Why? Find all the “facts” and evidence and opinion and maxims that made your fear real and visceral and see if you are actually fearful or if you are uncomfortable. You likely won’t like the view, but it’s not too late to change.