Wednesday, May 27, 2009
This is a guest post by swpd reader Chris Diaz.
I'm a fairly large (5' 11", 230, broad chest and shoulders) Mexican-American male. I dress in a "bland" style (shorts, t-shirt) way. Not that it should matter, but I don't have any tattoos, piercings, etc.
I know mothers are ever-protective of their children (as they should be). However, it has been my experience that some white moms' protective measures go from prudent to paranoid when I, or another man of color, am near their toddlers in a public space.
I realize the myriad of doubts that may arise in response to this post. People may wonder, "Are you sure you're not the one being paranoid?" or "What are the circumstances?", and so on. Certainly, where one lives and the local culture play roles in how cross-racial interactions play out. The purpose of this post is to draw attention to a disturbing phenomenon unique to men of color in America.
I am not questioning the effectiveness of white mothers' protective behaviors toward perceived threats to their children. I am instead saying that, for some white mothers, their distorted perceptions mean that the skin color of a man is either 1) a threat in and of itself or 2) lowers the bar for what constitutes a threat. I am stating that, all else being equal, their internal "alert systems" have a much lower threshold when the man near their toddlers is a person of color. I am saying that their that their "alert" systems are set off by irrational fears arising from stereotyping and ignorance.
This is a phenomenon that I have been forced to notice over the years; it's impossible not to. I didn't go looking for it; it came looking for me. To ensure the validity of my perception, I have bothered to observe the phenomenon from a distance, involving other men of color. Roughly 1/2 of the time, the phenomenon replicated itself. I have also spoken with other men of color who have affirmed my perception.
So, what does this situation look like in real-life? I'll give two quick, fairly common examples from my own life.
My doctor works in a family clinic in a hospital. There is a long sidewalk that leads to the entrance. So, say I'm leaving an appointment heading down the sidewalk back to my car. If I take the time to observe, I can often see, in the distance, a white mother walking along, looking comfortable, with her toddler jumping around happily on the sidewalk in front of her. I can watch white men pass by, and mom usually doesn't take notice in any explicit way. Then, I can observe, say, an African-American man approach the mom and toddler on the sidewalk. I can't hear the words, but I can see the mom mouth something to the child, then the child comes back to the immediate space of the mother, and the mother may then grasp the child's hand. For me, personally, the mothers in question may, as soon as they notice me, say something like, "Katie, get over here," in a fairly anxious and stern voice. The child then comes close and mommy grabs her hand, and maybe mom then averts her eyes.
In a store or waiting room, toddlers naturally get bored and exercise their curiosity about the world. So, the situation might be something like what follows. Maybe I'm at, say, JC Penny. I'm walking up to a department, say, housewares. I see a little toddler running around, talking to strangers who, understandably, find the cuteness to be uplifting. Mom is shopping, keeping an eye out, but certainly not worried looking. White adult men in the vicinity smile at the toddler when she/he runs by or says something to them. It is just a low-key casual interaction; the overall feeling is tender-hearted, with cautious optimism from mom.
So, anyway, I can be looking at, say, toasters, and not paying attention at all. Then, here comes, say, the little male toddler in this case, running by saying "hi!" or some other funny thing that makes adults smile. A significant amount of the time, white mom will IMMEDIATELY be like, "Mikey, come over to mommy," and repeat herself quickly and repeatedly until Mikey obeys.
So, white folks, take from this what you will. Again, I realize that location, time of day, attire, etc. all play a part. But, again, I am not questioning the actual protective behaviors white mothers' employ when they sense a threat. I am saying that, for some of them, the color of a man's skin is part or all of the perception of threat, regardless of other considerations.
If there are any men of color who have an opinion to add, I'd like to hear what you have to say.