Bobbi Wilson is African American who had the police called on her by a white neighbor. She is nine years old. She was trying to participate in her city’s campaign to rid itself of lanternflies. She learned about a spray that she could make that would help her to immobilize the lanternflies on the trees and then she could capture them. She made the spray and went out into her neighborhood to use it. She was spraying the lanternflies as she found them and catching them.
Gordon Lawshe, her white male neighbor, happened to be at home that day, saw her and wondered what she was doing. So, he promptly called the police dispatcher telling them, “A little Black woman is doing something. I don’t know what the hell she is doing, but it scares me.” First of all, why does a nine-year-old little girl look like a woman to him? Then he confesses to being scared because he doesn’t know what she is doing. I wonder why it did not occur to him to simply ask her what she was doing. Afterall, they live in the same neighborhood, and she is a little girl, even though he referred to her as a “little” woman. If I became curious about a child in my neighborhood doing a task such as this, my first thought would be to speak to the child regardless of their race. It would never occur to me to call the police.
Whites inability to see Black children as children is reflected in many arenas across our land and this is especially true when the Whites have roles of authority that require them to make responses to Black children engaging in any behavior other than what they deem as “normal.” Research shows that when white law enforcement people have to guess the age of Black people, they usually guess that that they are 4 to 5 years older than they really happened to be. There are many instances where this misperception has led to tragedy. The projection of Michael Brown as older than his eighteen years, or Tamir Rice of his twelve years come to mind immediately. A part of the reason that both of these young people were killed lies in the assessment of them being older and more dangerous than might have been imagined if they had been seen more correctly. In the case of Tamir Rice, he was shot over a toy gun without any effort to determine whether the gun was a toy or not. He was shot in a few seconds after the police arrived because he was deemed older and dangerous enough for the officer to shoot him before asking questions. Perhaps seeing him as a twelve-year-old child could have saved his life.
What is the underlying cause of this deep-seated fear which is causing so much danger to all Blacks but even more to young Blacks than to those of us who are older? This is not a question with a simple answer. It is amazing how pervasive this fear-based energy is in the interactions between Whites and Blacks. There are cases where Blacks are totally unsuspecting of the fear that their white colleagues hold toward them in the professional arena. Actually, there have been times when a white person has found the courage to confess their fear of me that I was totally blindsided by their confession because there was nothing in the day-to-day interaction with the person to support the fear. Many of my Black friends have shared similar stories of learning of Whites fear of them and their surprise when hearing those expressions of fear because they thought that they had a good relationship and it never occurred to any of them to be afraid of the white person.
Some of the problem with this type of underlying long-term fear is that there is no way to arrive at any place of trust in relationships that are built on such a foundation. While relationships with anyone can be difficult, this type of unwarranted fear makes honest and sustainable relationships impossible. Of course the truth that must be stated is simply that the person making the confession of such fear has to be believed and their willingness to tell the truth has to be respected. But the Black person who is hearing it can choose to continue to engage with the person or not, and the truth will have served to set both parties free even if it results in the effort at relationship building coming to end. Thus, telling the truth is always better than pretending. However, there are hardly enough spaces which are brave enough for such truth to be told and for there to be honest interrogation between Whites and Blacks to begin to explore the foundation of the fear.
This pervasive fear originates deep in the psyche and while much of it is learned, it is not easy to track it and even harder to name it at times. But the work of tracking and naming is crucial to the enterprise of creating sustainable, open, honest relationships with anyone who is deemed as the “other.” White people who find themselves afraid of Black people and who have any interest in being truly free and well need to spend time paying attention to the narratives that have shaped their lives. Whether those narratives were loud and clear or very low key and subtle, they helped to create that energy that is being expressed as fear of Blacks and it is grounded in the psyche. That negative energy is often reinforced by the culture to the extent the bearer of it begins to believe that it is alright. As long as it is allowed to go unquestioned and to enjoy a place of acceptance, the more dangerous it becomes as we have seen in American culture for centuries now. White fear is dangerous because of its unconsciousness and the ways that it is layered on all facets of systematized racism.
Additionally, it is sprinkled throughout the daily lives of Blacks and Whites and begins to manifest as fear of nine-year-olds catching lanternflies and little boys playing with toy guns and others who are simply going about their way trying to make sense of their life on this planet.
One other contributor to the fear is the myth of white supremacy which is often woven into the fear causing messages. Any thoughtful White person can soon conclude that white skin does not make one superior to anyone and the effort to live in that fictional bubble can be a source of great fear and anxiety.
There is but one remedy for all of this, finding the courage to interrogate the fear and the falsehoods and trust for a new way to see that leads to wellness and freedom. The path to such freedom is open to everyone.