Wednesday, December 10, 2008

fear black crowds

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.


  1. I'm glad that 1) you recognized this and 2) you were willing to talk about and examine it.

    It's always been a curious thing to me, the idea of "white fear." As a black woman, I'm always wondering... what exactly are you afraid of?

    It reminds me of my senior year in high school. I'd just gotten accepted to Howard University (a historicall black school), and two of my white friends were congratulatory about my acceptance. But then they both said (at different times)...

    "What if I came to visit you? Would I get beat up?"


    Despite what some people might think, most black folk don't spend their time conspiring over ways to make "the white man pay."

    Needless to say, I was 17 and INCREDIBLY confused. I'm 25 and still am.

  2. I think the fear of black crowds is rooted in stereotypes about how black folks are somehow more violent which is ironic considering how minorites in general have historically more to fear from all-white crowds.

  3. i'll tell you what i fear. man. one day i was in queens with a friend and we walked into the park and halfway through i suddenly realized i was suRROUNDED by police. we had actually walked into the midst of a huge cop convention. believe it or not i turned around and we walked back out. terrifying to be in the midst of such an ocean of potential violence.

  4. I agree with Kat that those stereotypes play into this. They become part of what's embedded in that general white psyche Macon's talking about. I especialy appreciate posts like this one. They help me monitor what's white about myself.

  5. I've always regarded police as a threat to my personal safety, or at least, I have since i was a child. I'm white, by the way. Where I grew up, everyone of my social class knew that the police were capable of violent crime upon innocent people. I'll confess something: when the Rodney King story broke, my first reaction was to think, "I'm not surprised; this is what the police are, this is what they do." It had to be pointed out to me by a friend that King was black, that the "right" way to read the event was as a racially-motivated event.

    We've got a serious problem with the police in this country. They pose a threat to everyone who isn't a cop.

  6. i'm glad you wrote about this. i was beginning to think that white people failed to recognize this behavior in themselves. i went to high school where being white made me the minority, and ultimately had a culture shock when i went to college and the majority was white--i had just never been around enough white people to know how to act around them

    this also made me think of my own grandmother who distrusts black people because she was robbed once by someone who happened to be black (so now an entire race has to pay).

    and i like that you mentioned the difference between white protesting and black rioting--they are two very different images unjustly attributed to each race, one painting a more noble picture...

  7. I went to a comedy show in my area. My Illinois hometown is divided on a straight line between black and white.

    This was a black comedians-only show, which I did not know until I walked into the auditorium and was faced with 400 black people looking at 2 white people. I was stunned, and I stopped walking.

    My dad grabbed my by the arm, and calmly said, "You're making an ass out of yourself." We sat down.

    I think what arrested me is the STRANGENESS of it all-- I had no idea what to expect from a situation where my race was outnumbered. I'd never had it happen before. I was safer in that crowd of black men than I ever would be at a frat party, but I felt confusion, fear, and hesitation.

    I also felt like I was "representing" whiteness, because if I acted like a jackass, it wouldn't reflect on me, but on all white people.

    I sometimes wonder if this is how black people feel every damn day.

  8. I have spoken about the ridiculousness of white fear only to be called a racist. I did find your point about discomfort about being outnumbered when one is used to seeing only those of your race interesting. As a POC even thouough I must daily interact with white people can say that there have been many occasions when I have been the only POC in a room and found it to be disconcerting. No matter how many times it happens it is always uncomfortable. I find that in these situations there is always someone to remind you of exactly how different you are.

  9. I also felt like I was "representing" whiteness, because if I acted like a jackass, it wouldn't reflect on me, but on all white people.

    I sometimes wonder if this is how black people feel every damn day.

    yes that is exactly how it feels to be black in America

  10. To put a less cynical spin on what you were observing on the faces of the white people who saw the gathering, the wry smile could have been a realization of their initial reaction. I have come to accept that I too have reactions based on unconscious or socially-programmed racism. When I recognize that some behavior I'm doing is based on that, rather than my conscious desire to treat everyone with respect it invariably makes me feel rueful, and I probably express that with something on my face.

  11. Oh, lawd! I have seen this with my own eyes. I was in Seattle, WA for a comedy show, which happened to be Black Comedians, so the audience was mainly black. When the show was over around ten or so, many headed to the parking garage a few blocks away. As we were all waiting for the elevator, which was coming down, the doors opened. I swear, the look on this white woman's face was priceless. She literally jumped and held on tight to her boyfriend/husband. I thought she was going to scream.

    All we did was look at her like she was crazy, some of them laughed at her reaction, as if she'd just landed in the much talked about "black revolt".

    No one said anything, because she was already embarrassed by the reaction she had. It was so instinctive. I don't think it can be helped. It's a natural reaction!

    All I could say was... "Wow!" and shake my head as people allowed her to go by and entered the elevator.

  12. The other point about fear of black crowds is white people's fear of Black pollution as if being surronded by Blacks would somehow contaminate them--either because it is assumed that we are often dirty either becuase of drugs or STD's, but also because of our insidious perception of violence. This socially acceptable fear seems to be programmed as something as instincual as being afraid of bugs or heights.

    Thus, I am never ashamed to seek out organizations for blacks or majority Black neighborhoods, etc. I feel far more comfortable around Black people then having to perform and be "on" when I am in a sea of White or non-black faces.

  13. That 'fear of Black crowds' probably played a major role in the decision to move the only gifted and talented high school in Houston off the predominately African-American campus it was housed on to a separate campus in 2002.

    The time I was at Jones, the white parents we constantly expressing concerns about their children's 'safety' when Black kids had far rougher times in these programs on predominately white campuses at the elementary and middle school levels.

    It was also interesting to note their were waiting lists to get into Vanguard programs for white kids at VG campuses in elementary and middle school, but not at the only VG high school in the district.

    They finally got it moved, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. It got moved to a former elementary school a few miles away and still in the 'hood.

  14. OK I'm a white woman from Houston, Texas, born and raised here with short stops in Louisiana, Illinois and Kentucky (father was in construction). I think I was about three when I noticed the Whites Only signs on bathrooms and drinking fountains and thought it was just kooky and crazy.

    I'd be the last person to say no whites are afraid of blacks -- in crowds or otherwise. Seen too much of it. On the other hand, I object to the idea that ALL whites are. The only time I ever felt afraid of a black person was due mostly mostly to the large handgun he was pistol-whipping his wife with in my car (I had picked up a woman and a toddler outside Houston on the highway and given them a ride home, unaware she had walked away from her husband). I think when the barrel of a gun is pointed in your direction, fear is a reasonable response. I dare say I'd have been afraid of a white person under the same conditions. I talked him into putting the gun away and into not beating her up as well. In 55 years of life, this was one of only three negative experiences I have had with black people. Believe me when I say that I have had a great many more negative experiences with white people.

    Before someone says I have led a sheltered life, let me note that at 17 I was alone in the DC bus station at 3 am, and that I have been in Houston's Fifth Ward to visit friends many times -- including on weekend nights after dark. I have been nearly the only white face in black nightclubs. I never felt afraid.

    I find the belief that "all" or "most" white people are afraid of blacks, or even that they are "racist but in denial" one of the most distressing comments I have heard repeated during this election cycle. When I was a young teen listening to Dr. King, I took to heart the phrase about judging a man (or a woman) by the content of the character. To persist in the belief that way down deep inside ALL white people harbor deep prejudices that they aren't admitting to is not only a slap to Dr. King's dream, and to the very notion of a "post racial America" but to the many whites who have worked against the injustices in both large and small ways since black folks arrived on these shores in 1619. It certainly doesn't give me any "hope" to hear/read such sentiments coming from people I have never regarded as anything but fellow members of the human race (the only race I recognize).

    That being said, I think it's high time we all realize that it's time to move beyond thoughts that start with "all" or "most" or even "the majority." Such statements are generally prejudices or worse, bigotry.

    Reading through the comments, I have to agree that I suspect the look on the white faces is sometimes chagrin at their own reaction. Sometimes it may be discomfort at being stared at --speaking for myself, I don't much care for being stared at, regardless of the skin color of the starers. I can walk into a party or a restaurant of white folks where I'm under- or over- dressed and feel just as uncomfortable. sometimes it may be as the poster attributed it. Sometimes it may be something else entirely.

    I have always drawn a distinction between "racism," "prejudice" and "bigotry." "Racism" to me -- and I hold a Sociology BA with a concentration in Race/Ethnic Relations, Gender Roles and Demography (which all sort of tie together) -- has a component of power. The power of an institution to affect an entire group -- such as denial of admission to Harvard and other high-powered schools, or red-lining a neighborhood, differential applications of punishments, or lowering a credit score by 100 points just for having dark skin. "Prejudice" is an attitude one grew up with, but one is willing to be educated out of. I think it was Charles Barkley I recently heard repeat the old "We have more black males in prison than in college." This was at one time, I believe, true, but this world has changed, and Charles, particularly if he plans a political run, needs to be educated out of that old belief. I have faith he can and will be. "Bigotry" however, is a belief that someone clings to because of some psychological need, and no amount of evidence will ever change the mind of the bigot. It may feed a deep need to feel superior to SOMEONE because of one's own failings one doesn't wish to admit to, or it may feed a deep need to retain a group identity from which one draws emotional courage. I'm not here to determine why any given individual is bigoted; I'm here to plead that none of us, whatever shade of skin we come packaged in, allow prejudices to become bigotry and prevent us from achieving King's dream or Obama's post racial vision.

    We are all human. Moving forward requires that we recognize that even non-racist, non-prejudiced, non-bigoted people are not going to see the content of another person's character exactly as we might. Which of us over the age of 18 hasn't had two friends we like a lot who can't stand each other for reasons we don't really understand? At the base of all of this lays one inescapable truth. We ARE individuals, and we look at others with our own unique set of values, preferences for personality traits, etc. I certainly don't like all white people or relate to all of them. I don't expect to like all people with other skin tones, and am puzzled by those who think I should embrace one particular person I don't really care for "if you want to prove you aren't a racist." Does anyone really expect me to believe all Blacks like each other equally or that all Hispanics do or all Asians, or all Native Americans do? So by what logic am I supposed to like all people with some other skin shade?

    I found that a good number of Obama supporters simply could NOT understand why some other voters did not see him the way they did. Some of them then decided it was "racism in denial." A few of them got very ugly with other people about it, harrassing them in blogs with "you're a racist you just try to rationalize it" or used the argument that "more people agree with me than with you therefore you are wrong." I found this deeply disturbing and totally opposed to Obama's own comments.

    I don't relate to John McCain or Sarah Palin. They don't share my views of the way this nation needs to be run. I also didn't relate to Obama, not so much on the basis of his stated policy views but on what can best be summarized as a combination of personality and approach issues. I think the man is intelligent and I wish him well. He was not my choice in the primary, and I still don't feel all warm and fuzzy toward him. I'm waiting to see what he does. I did not vote for him. I voted for Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards in a write in. In Texas, my vote did not affect the outcome of the race, and given my health, I wanted to vote for a woman beofre I die.

    I have always expected to see a black man elected to the Presidency within my lifetime. I am deeply sorrowed that I will not see a woman that I admire and respect elected within my lifetime. I was also ticked off when Obama was asked if he would support Senator Clinton, and he answered that he was sure Senator Clinton's supporters would vote for him but he couldn't guarantee his supporters would vote for her. Here's why it ticked me off.

    1. He avoided saying what he personally would do. This evasion is a character issue to me.
    2. I expect someone seeking the leadership of my party to unequivocally express support for the person the party members nominate. It's a leadership issue to me.
    3. He took my vote for granted. I know there are many people reading this who can relate to how I felt about that!

    That moment is when I decided that if he got the nomination, I would NOT vote for him. I had other reservations based on his resume and voting record, but that was the deciding moment.

    I chose to write in two women who came along too soon to even have a chance at a viable candidacy, and whom I had the great honor to know, in honor of the many women who have been discounted, dismissed, denied and disparaged for reaching outside the box this society puts women into.

    I was deeply saddened thie election cycle by not only the sexism I heard from the press and from Democrats, but by the attitude that my identification with my gender was somehow less honorable or worthy than seeing a black man elected. Why would I not feel the same joy at seeing a woman elected that Oprah expressed over seeing Obama elected?

    Do I "resent" or "fear" Obama's victory? Not in the least. My reservations about him have nothing to do with his skin shade, and everything to do with the fact that I am still not sure where he is going. A great deal of that reservation has to do with the fact that I'm not moved by inspirational speakers, televangelists, marketing campaigns, or popularity as much as I am moved by feeling someone really cares about me and my situation in life. Somehow, I never got that feeling from Obama. What many see as "cool and calm" I see as detached and a bit arrogant. I'm not sure that his drive to unity won't mean he won't compromise away too much that I value. I was deeply disappointed with his failure to enact a credit rate cap (which really hurts minorities and women), with his wanting to "expand faith-based initiatives" (which I completely oppose), with his voting to give telecom companies immunity for domestic spying, and with a host of other smaller choices he has made.

    I could be totally wrong on what his character is. He may please me greatly with his actions in office. I'm just not there yet. I'm waiting. What I'm not doing is "quaking in my boots that a black man will be President" or "a bitter old hag who can't get over Hillary's loss" or a racist. For those of you too young to know, Barbara Jordan was black, came up out of Houston's Fifth Ward (when Harvard was still segregated), gave speeches that outshone Obama's for eloquence, and never seemed aloof or detached. If Obama had ever reached me the way she did, I'd have voted for him too.

  15. I did not vote for him. I voted for Barbara Jordan and Ann Richards in a write in. In Texas, my vote did not affect the outcome of the race, and given my health, I wanted to vote for a woman beofre I die.

    what happened to judging on character and not appearance??

  16. Honestly I think Black people make it a bigger problem than it is. I mean I have been made fun, hit, pushed you name it by black people. I remember this one time when my best friend (who happens to be black) got in a fight with this girl. Obviously I stuck up for my friend and yelled back at the girl. We went on walking w/ the girls boyfriend in front of us. I continued to keep talking about how wrong that was and the guy turned around and pushed me. Then he went up and down the hall high fiving every single black person in the hallway. They were all laughing and everything. That right there made me see how African Americans really have dug themselves into this hole. The civil rights movement is over. Blacks are now equal to whites. Slavery is over as well yet blacks still talk about it like it was yesterday. You will never get anywhere if you cant let the past go. When black peope make comments such as "A black man cant make it in a white mans world" ,which by the way I have heard living in the south, then that just kinda makes whites angry. I kinda feel that if your so negative and you really believe that then your damn right your not gonna make it in this world. Also....Obama is president now. Thats the highest ranking job in the United States. Obviously black people can make it. The difference is the way Obama holds himself. He speaks properly and he doesnt butcher the English language. He doesnt walk around with his pants down past his butt. Blacks really do degrade and devalue themselves. I've met alot of great African Americans but they've all been clean cut and classy. They are the people who get somewhere in life. Whites dont have a fear...we just have high standards. Coming from someones whos family name is stamped all over American History I know I do. And I know I want more for this country and that wont cut it. So If you'd like to not be looked down on then dont devalue yourselves or go to another country where they dont have those standards. Black people do make the "fear" that is there in society and its your job to change that.

  17. Macon? When did you start recruiting comedians for comments?

    I'm just saying...

  18. Yeah, absurd, eh? Surreal, almost. Such comments become part of the mix, but I sometimes don't answer them, since the writer rarely comes back. Some, like this one, teeter on delete-ability (and others, like those calling for a racial holy war and so on, cross the line, and so never appear).

    Stephanie, if you do come back, please make a point of reading posts more carefully, and their comment threads. That might help to prevent you from spouting off less patronizing, racist nonsense.

  19. Imagine what it must have been like in the south yrs back for a lone black man to see a crowd of young whites afar off sporting duck tails, with their cigarettes rolled up in their t-shirt sleeves; and feel the same type of apprehension. Knowing that Jim Crow was in full-effect and that he had to watch his steps; remembering to defer to the white men in a manner that would render him non-threatening. But he also had to bow his head in a sign of submission, and refer to the men as sir- only when and if he was addressed. (Usually as Boy- no matter his age or his standing in society.) He had to fear that not only would the n-word surface but that it would be accompanied by violence by a bunch of bored white men. Some white people simply forget what it was for blacks so long ago.

  20. I really love this site. Really. It reminds me to thank my mother for my upbringing. I always went to black schools or "minority" schools, lived among blacks and other cultures - so much that I stopped noticing how different I looked or how I seemed to have no culture whatsoever in comparison to them. I just got into whatever it was that was going on and didn't care. I can easily say that after that, after being one of three or so whites in my classes, that I don't feel the least bit out of place when I walk up to a black crowd. I didn't feel out of place walking into black night clubs during my teenagehood. I don't feel out of place anywhere these days. I can also say that I don't feel like I "belong" anywhere either, but the nice thing about that is that I don't "not belong" at the same time.

    I get the feeling that a lot of white people think that anyone cares where they go or that they're different in crowd settings when really - MOST people don't care. You being white is not a novelty to black people. They've gone to school with you, they've shopped at the mall with you, they've seen your whiteness their entire lives. They are neither impressed nor offended by your presence. Either get into and pay attention to what's going on in that crowd or be on your way.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code