Imagine a World Without Irrational Fear
by Ted Miller
(originally published May 2018 in Tumbleweird)
Imagine you are a fourteen-year-old freshman in high school. Your father is deployed to the Middle East and your mother isn’t home yet from her night shift at the hospital. You oversleep and miss the bus. You don’t want to be in trouble, so you decide to walk to school. You take a shortcut through the neighborhood, but you are soon lost. You go up to a house in your neighborhood to ask for directions to your high school.
You knock on the door and step back. You know you are going to be in so much trouble for missing the bus. You hope your neighbor can help. A lady opens the door and yells, “Why are you trying to break in to my house?”
“I’m just trying to find my way to school,” you innocently reply.
Suddenly a man comes running down the stairs yelling and aiming a shotgun at you. Heart pounding and fearing for your life, you turn and run. Gunfire rings in your ears.
The shot misses.
You scramble into some nearby bushes to hide, sobbing in mortal fear. You remember the many lessons your mother taught you about how to avoid looking like a threat, how to be nice and respectful, how never to make a sudden move. You wonder what you did wrong. You wonder if this is what your life as a black man is going to be like.
Fourteen-year-old Brennan Walker doesn’t have to imagine this. On April 12th, this story was his reality.
An innocent young high-school freshman sparked an irrational fear in this white woman and her husband. To them, young Brennan Walker was a threat. Why?
On the home security video from that morning, the woman clearly says, “Why did these people choose my house?”
Does she mean the neighborhood high school kids?
No, she means scary black boys.
She couldn’t imagine that this was just a kid looking for his school. Black people are “those people.” Her primeval reaction was that he was a threat. Because he was black. You can’t convince me that if he had been white, she and her trigger-happy husband would have reacted with the same irrational fear.
These incidents of imagined threat and irrational fear happen every day. Too many of them end in the death of an innocent black person. Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Jr, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, and countless others whose names didn’t make the national news.
There is something in our human DNA that causes us to divide others into friend or foe, and appearance is a powerful trigger for that instinct. But we can overcome our irrational fear of people who don’t look like us. We have to internalize the fact that we are all human. We all have the same human hopes and aspirations for a better life. We love the same, laugh the same, and live the same. In this country, we all have the same rights, but for those of us who don’t share the same skin color, we don’t all receive the same treatment.
We need to work much harder at acknowledging the depth of this tragedy in our society. In particular, those of us who are white must accept the facts of this disparate treatment. Rather than rationalizing how each incident wasn’t about race, we must try to understand how race almost always plays a factor.
Last week I heard an interviewwith poet Kwame Dawes that describes how imagination and empathy can make a difference. In responding to a question about how hatred and racism are predicated on a lack of imagination, he said:
I think, fundamentally, empathy represents the idea that I can imagine what somebody else is going through. In my humanity, if I can imagine that, I can understand that pain … because I wouldn’t want to be hurt myself. So, the act of empathy is fundamentally an act of imagination.
When somebody says to me “Kwame, I can’t imagine what you go through as a black person,” I’ll say, “Try.”
Because in the act of trying, you’re going to imagine. And if you don’t practice imagining, then you don’t practice empathy. And if you don’t practice empathy, then fundamentally you are building a circumstance in our world where that lack of empathy creates wars, creates violence, creates racism.
So, I do believe that very often those pernicious things, racism and so on, are a failure of the imagination. A failure of being able to enter into somebody else’s experience and, therefore, to act in love, and act in compassion.
Imagine a world where young black men don’t have to live in fear that a wrong move will cost them their lives. Imagine a world where young black men aren’t feared just because they are black. Imagine a better world for all of us, and work together to make that world a reality.