Though the fear of black men by white people is based on racist stereotypes, black women’s fear is rooted in a lifetime of experience.
Black masculinity is a site of contradiction: a stigmatized and subordinate racial identity paired with a dominant gender identity. As a member of both privileged and disadvantaged groups, learning to navigate can be difficult.
Recently, I was in a class taught by my advisor, and it was my week to facilitate class discussion. My advisor sat next to me and told me that he wanted me to practice being a professor, that I should project my voice more. He said that even though I have a deep voice, when he sits at the opposite end of the table he can barely hear me. I told him that I choose to speak a little softer because when I project, my deep voice coupled with my 6’3” 220 pound body frightens white people. They think I’m angry, and angry black men are scary. Though he turned my comment into a joke, he didn’t say anything else about voice projection.
This experience is one that is unique to black men. Our perceived hyper masculinity, supposedly outstanding physical prowess and abnormal aggression, makes us scary and intimidating to white people. This isn’t new, and it’s something that we’ve learned to deal with. The purse gripping, refusals to join us in an elevator, white women scurrying around corners when we walk behind them, have all become a part of life that we simply accept with little power to change. In the course of growing my dreadlocks, I was even told by a supervisor, a really nice and supposedly liberal older white woman, that my hair made me look “more dangerous,” implying not only that I looked dangerous before I began to grow my hair but that my new, “black” hairstyle increased the level of threat attached to my body.
That is the life of a black man in a white world, one fraught with stigma and fear, but certainly returning home to our own communities would allow us to walk around freely without frightening those around us. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as we go from being subordinate in white spaces to dominant and hegemonic in black spaces.
A few weeks ago, I recall having a conversation with my girlfriend where I told her I was annoyed at the tweets of a black woman that I was reading. The woman ranted for almost an hour about her fear of black men. She said that she was afraid of individual black men, black men in groups on the street, and being alone with black men. It bothered me because I felt as if she was stigmatizing us in the same way that white people do, imbuing our bodies with inherent criminality. I expected her to feel differently.
We live together, in the same communities, in the same houses. We are natural allies in the black freedom struggle. Black women are our mothers, sisters, and cousins; they couldn’t possibly fear us. Somehow, though aware of the terror inflicted upon black women by black men, I managed to ignore their valid reasons for being afraid of us. I know that black men are like other men toward the women in their communities: violent (physically and emotionally) and entitled, but I naively assumed that black women would look upon us as individuals and gauge our potential for violence before assigning us the label “frightful.” Certainly, I, an “enlightened” feminist man, who doesn’t slut shame or participate in rape culture, wouldn’t be lumped in with the rapists and street harassers.
But how can we expect to be looked upon as individuals when we fail to extend to them the same luxury. I look just as threatening standing on a street corner as any other black man who may whistle at a black woman as she walks by and call her a bitch if she refuses to respond appropriately and deferentially. I look just as threatening at a house party as any other black man who may get a little too friendly while driving a black woman home after she drank a bit too much alcohol. We can’t expect black women to be unafraid when black men give them ample reason to be afraid.
Unlike white women, and white people in general, who are very rarely victims of the crimes of black men, black women are on the front lines being abused, raped, and harassed. Though the fear by whites is based on suspicion and irrational, racist stereotypes, black women’s fear is rooted in a lifetime of experience and hurt. We have to learn to separate the two and not be hurt by the fear we’ve caused. We have little power to alter whites’ perceptions of us, but we can combat the fear that black women have developed by refusing to perpetuate as system of domination and hegemonic masculinity that excuses and encourages behavior that makes us frightening.
We have to meet it at the source: our friends, cousins, and uncles. We must be brave enough to tell them not to yell at that woman across the street and push back when they suggest getting a woman drunk so they can have sex with her. We have to rid ourselves of the idea that because we aren’t the guys hiding in the bushes women shouldn’t fear us, and learn to own our privilege and frightfulness and fight to make our communities safe for black women so that we can also feel safe. If we want black women to be our allies, we have to stop positioning ourselves as the enemy.
Image credit: alainlm/Flickr