Several years ago, on a warm and sunny day, I was walking across a college campus. I was heading for a bus stop so I could go into town for lunch, when I heard some thumping music up ahead. As I approached a plaza in front of the “student union” building, I saw a large crowd, and I could see immediately that it was entirely black.
As I slowed down a bit, I felt something, maybe a mixture of feelings, none of which I identified at the time. I saw that the group, two hundred or so large, was having some sort of event or festival, with big audio speakers, and tables and food. A few of them were handing out flyers to people passing by, some were eating, and a few others were dancing together, though in a sort of reserved way. Everyone looked happy to be there.
I quickly resumed my normal pace during the twenty or so steps that it took to get to the bus stop, and then continued watching the crowd, which was now about fifty feet away. I felt curious, and I couldn’t tell what the event was all about.
As I stood on the sidewalk, a fair number of people were walking back and forth, mostly students with backpacks. Some of them stopped to wait for the bus. This was a public campus, the state’s main one, so the pedestrians were mostly white. What I soon found more intriguing than the crowd of black students were the faces of the walking white ones. In most cases, as they came closer and the event caught their attention, their faces changed. Most of their expressions went through the same set of stages—from normal pedestrian calm, then to a look of alarm, which was accompanied by a slower walking pace, and then to a look of relief. And then came, as they resumed their normal walking pace, a sort of wry smile.
As it happened again and again, that wry, almost bemused smile became especially interesting to me. Among the white pedestrians, both the men and women usually ended their quick appraisal of the black crowd with that same, semi-private smile. What did it mean? As I stood there and watched a steady stream of white individuals go through these same stages of reaction, I thought that smile looked almost . . . condescending.
But then, that may have been me, “projecting,” as Freud might have said. For one thing, this campus was deep in the American South. Since I’m from the Midwest, I had a sort of anthropological interest in discerning what I could about race relations while visiting this place. As a non-Southerner, I’d been trained in various ways to think of white Southerners as much more racist than white Americans elsewhere. So maybe that’s why I saw condescension in those smiles.
At the same time, I knew that white Americans in general still think, or else feel unconsciously, that black Americans are inferior. And that they’re dangerous--especially the men--and that white people better watch out and stay away when large numbers of black people get together. Thanks to repeated exposure to selected historical imagery, the word “riot” is more likely to conjure up black rioters than white ones. If whites imagine other whites doing that sort of thing, they’re “protesting,” not rioting. Whites may also fear black crowds, again perhaps unconsciously, because they suspect that blacks want revenge for having suffered so long at the hands of whites. We somehow learn that if that's true, then we'd better watch out for a group of black people with enough power over a white person to inflict that vengeance.
I think that white fears of black people in groups are common, and also that, like many other fears, they’re irrational. In Ruth Frankenberg’s deeply insightful study of racial attitudes and feelings among white American women, she points out that white fears of black people are an “inversion of reality”:
In general, people of color have far more to fear from white people than vice versa, given, for example, the ongoing incidence of white supremacist terrorism around the United States, which targets African and Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Jewish Americans (in addition to gay men and lesbians); and the problematic relationship with the police that leaves many communities of color with, at the very least, a sense that they lack legal and physical protection.
In many other ways, a black person has more reason to fear being outnumbered by whites than whites do the opposite. And yet, blacks are the ones who usually enter or live in largely white spaces every day, and very few whites ever do that.
As for me, I’d like to think that on that warm and sunny day, I was less afraid than the other white pedestrians of a large group of black people. But then, even after I saw that it was a perfectly innocuous, friendly gathering, I never thought to go over there and join them. Maybe by staying put, I missed out on a good alternative to the off-campus lunch I was headed for, among other things. Now I think white fear probably was a reason that I remained in place at that bus stop. If so, it was a feeling that I couldn’t quite acknowledge enough at the time to call it "fear," let alone a "white fear."
Also, as I walked toward that crowd and saw that it was black, and then slowed my own walking pace for a moment or two, maybe my mouth also formed a little semi-private smile. If so, it might have been a smile of relief, prompted by the realization that while this was a crowd full of black people, it was a safe, controlled crowd of black people.
I think the white reactions in this scene can be extrapolated to a more general, collective white feeling--a fear of black crowds that’s buried within the psyches of most white people. Those who investigate white consciousness often emphasize what amounts to the opposite, a lack of a collective white consciousness. Whites are said to be “atomized” instead, hyper-individualized by a steady barrage of social and cultural implications that their whiteness doesn’t have much of anything at all to do with who and what they are.
It does seem true that a conscious and embraced sense of connection to other white people was not something that I learned while growing up in a white Midwestern suburb. But I think most white folks do share a fearful, almost besieged wariness of black people. Most of us do not, for instance, venture into the “black” parts of town (assuming we or our ancestors haven't already retreated to a town that doesn't even have a black section). We claim that’s because they’re “dangerous, high-crime” areas; we usually don’t admit, not even to ourselves, that black areas, whether high in crime or not, are more frightening to us than white areas that we know have a high rate of crime. Black parts of town are also scary to white people because we’re used to being part of the numerical majority. The opposite makes many of us feel surrounded, and insecure.
A collective white consciousness can be tough to put a finger on and prove, and I don’t mean to say or imply that every white American is tapped into it, nor that all have this particular fear. But to me, it’s clearly there, and an unreasonable fear of black crowds is a part of it. If so, the intensity and the particular symptoms of this white fear no doubt vary in different parts of the United States; a complicated history, as well as our uneasy awareness of that history, put it there. Some part of us also probably knows that that history isn’t over, that it still affects the present, and that white America is still unfair to black people.
So I think that as I stood on that campus sidewalk, I was watching a collective white racial consciousness do its work. It may be that most of the white Southern students had a reaction to that black crowd that differed from my Midwestern one, and it would be interesting to observe white reactions to a similar event in American settings outside of the “deep South.” Nevertheless, this Midwestern white guy clearly shared some similar feelings with those Southern white folks, including what amounts to a common, unwarranted white fear. No matter how little we were aware of it, or how little we would admit it.