The Fear That We Do Not Name

In an essay about the construction of “whiteness” in the black imagination, I wrote about black people really being fearful of white people, and how it’s become a cliché or a “no-no” to talk about having that fear.  I gave this paper recently at a university, and a young black man who was my host said that my paper really disturbed him—finally he had realized that he really did feel a certain fear of white people, without ever having thought about (or faced) that fact.

-bell hooks

This passage from bell hooks’ 1994 book, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, hit me like a ton of bricks on a bus ride from Washington, DC to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recently. It was a sort of validation to read those words.

This is because I have spent the last 7 years dealing with the fear I felt of white people in my adolescence.

From the time I was 12 through the end of high school at 18, I was one of a handful of black people in small town Central Pennsylvania. Having come from very nurturing black communities of the inner city, this new life was almost immediately distressful on many levels. I found that I had to immediately “represent” black people. Initially, it didn’t bother me to explain why Ice Cube was such a profoundly important figure in contemporary life, why Tupac Shakur was, in so many ways, speaking my thoughts better than I ever could and all they (the white folks in this new place I was now living) need do is listen, no, hear, what he was really saying. I thought it was what one should do.

However, I quickly tired of that burden and sought to challenge the locations of those who found my burgeoning radicalism as amusing, as “angry black man” posturing. Seriously contemplating issues I raised at that time, from the dearth of information on the Black Power Movement to the private terrorization I suffered at the hands of the high school’s administration, was far too difficult for many of my peers and many of the teachers as well. I was constantly told to “relax,” to “stop calling attention to racism,” to “stop making everyone uncomfortable.”

I don’t remember ever being aware of being afraid, or rather; I couldn’t see that the instances where I held my tongue were a manifestation of a real “fear” of white reproach. I told myself I was picking my battles, saving the passion and rhetoric for issues that white people were “ready” for.

Interestingly, I think I realized later that black people who have experiences like the ones I experienced are put into a position of “representation” and know that it is hard, but never think about the ways in which that representation forces those with whom we come in contact to interrogate the nature of their fear of us. For 6 years, I constantly challenged representations of blackness as fear and never thought seriously about the instances of fear I had of my white peers. And consequently, that radicalism was compromised by intermittent occurrences of debilitating fear.

And in one extreme instance, my inability to name my fear resulted in one of the most humiliating—and simultaneously liberating—experiences of my life. My musical director brought me a musical that he wanted to produce at school. There was one black character and he wanted me to play it. The character was a porter on the railroad during World War II. The musical, Over Here, was propagandist-war-is-good-America-is-the-best-country-on-earth drivel. I loathed the play. But big band jazz music served as the musical backdrop and that excited me. However, my initial reaction was to say “no” immediately. But in my egotism, I thought I could be subversive in my performance. In reality, it was my fear. If I refused, I knew my director would be disappointed in me for not having the “courage” to find ways of subverting the character, even if he wouldn’t have said it. I believe now the fear was the biggest reason for me taking the role. I mean, to him, if I refused then I wasn’t taking the opportunity to “educate for critical consciousness,” as bell hooks would say. I would loose credibility in white eyes.

And it was terrifying.

I had no way of knowing–but perhaps given my previous experiences should have known–that I would be asked to play the role as stereotype. I would come on stage just to remove dishes or to sweep up. My director told me he wanted to “beef up” my time on stage, to “call attention” to my character’s class position. But nothing I did in rehearsal or in performance was truly subversive. I played the character straight. And since I had never had nerves or sickness before, the very fact that I vomited on opening night right before my first scene was a strong indication that I knew I was compromising myself for a chance to really act a leading role. In high school, mind you, high school. It was less about me wanting to be a star than it was about, for me, spending 2 hours not being myself. Playing someone else’s existence. I remember there was no joy in that experience, however. I think ultimately it may have been one of the reasons I gave up on performing. I was terrified that, faced with white disapproval, I would compromise again. I never did anything like that again. And at that time in my life, I was beginning to really see the complex way domination works in our society. I began to see the holes in liberal ideology, not just conservative ideology. That musical liberated me fully because from then on I knew where I wouldn’t go. What I wouldn’t do. I knew what could happen if one wasn’t vigilant and aware of how domination works, even in people who are well-meaning.

One of my very best friends is a white girl that I met during that time. Our initial interactions had us playing very much the roles we thought we were supposed to be playing. She was the white girl lusting after the big, strong, sexual black man who pissed off–and scared off–white authority figures. I was that man. The fact that we were both searching for a real connection and chose to look outside accepted social mores was something we learned of each other over time. I think that ultimately what was unique about our relationship as it grew was how we interrogated our various locations. I learned that she was more than just a middle class white girl and she learned that my anger and my radical views were borne from more than just a desire to distance myself from the white mainstream. But–and I’ve never told her this–I was terrified of her. I was terrified of what she represented. I was terrified that if I interrogated her on every thing I truly wanted to interrogate her on, I would lose her friendship.

This is the fear that black people do not name. It is the fear that now that we are “on the same level,” maybe we won’t measure up. It’s the fear that any thing we do might give away the fact that we are “black.” Black being sexual. Black being less concerned with money. Black being anything that white folks don’t approve of or anything they stereotypically believe is “black.”

And it’s the fear that at any time, all bets will be off, and our lives can be forfeit.

This is not irrational. It is rooted in history. From the times we let our guard down and ended up swinging from a tree. From the times we thought Jim Crow would be over and white people blocked the doors. It is that fear that perhaps white people will not live up to their moral responsibility and will simply revert to past behavior.

You see it when you say something that makes white folks uncomfortable. For a second, you become less human in their eyes. And then the shame. The anger at being made to think about what happened in the past. About our shared history. They hate it.

That is the fear I’m talking about.

I never wanted to see it. And so I never felt truly close to anyone. There was a profound loneliness I felt in that time, even though from the outside I looked the part (friends, athletics, good grades, etc) of a well-adjusted young man. But listening to the music that moved me at that time would paint a much different picture. I recently found an old mixtape of mine from that period and I was shocked at the evocations of loneliness and sadness. Janet Jackson’s Lonely, Patti Labelle and Gladys Knight’s glorious I Don’t Do Duets, Rahsaan Patterson’s Tears Ago and others were on this tape; one that I remember vividly playing in my car for friends. I think now the looks on their faces held far more worry than ire. I marvel at not noticing it at the time. It seems so clear now. I still have an affinity for songs that are about sadness, loneliness, despair. Some of my favorite stuff is just heartbreaking to listen to. I believe this affinity was borne from that time, those experiences.

Later, when my friend lived with me in Pittsburgh for six months, I really began to break open my fear of her. I was in college and my reading of bell hooks and others gave me the language to seriously interrogate the world around me. And, suprisingly, I lost very few friends over my constant discussions. And that emboldened me. It made me want to confront what I felt was holding me and her back from truly being friends across our differences. I felt that what we had was one of those friendships of appearance, that makes white liberals feel good about themselves. They have a black friend, but they don’t really relate. They don’t communicate and love across the differences. They merely ignore them.

And that fear of her was crippling. I never told her of my cynicism regarding her preference for “thug” type men. I never told her that her “aping” of black colloquialisms sometimes hit my ear “wrong”. And I never told her because those are the things you don’t discuss with your white friends. It’s like a tacit admission that you think too much about race. And white liberals don’t like that.

But she was going through a really rough time in her life and we fell into a wonderful relationship in those six months where we really talked. I told her of my fears in high school. I told her how even though I was known for always challenging the status quo that I was deathly afraid of calling attention to the interracial relations (both sexual and platonic) that abounded as our little town became more integrated. I told her how it bothered me that there seemed to be a pattern in the black men she chose. We discussed the romanticism of the “dangerous” black man, the reverence for a white woman’s purity, etc. She told me that she was tired of the way the men she had previously dated had treated her. She was open about how, for a time, she blamed all black men and went through a brief period where she wanted to only date white men. I talked with her about why she felt that she needed a black man in the first place, why she “went back” to black men after this sojourn in “whiteness”.

In that time, we found new ways of relating and our friendship deepened to a level I currently only share with her.

So upon reading this passage by bell hooks, I was struck by how much more work I have to do to get through this feeling of fear. It feels irrational, though it is not. It’s debilitating at times. But I think that the growth I’ve done in my 20s as a person unafraid to be really honest about the way in which I feel disempowered in this culture has been limited by my inability to name my fear. There has always been a time in my radical life, particularly in college, when I would freeze up around a white person when I felt “invaded” or when I felt we were going down a discursive path that would lead to them saying some variation of “you need to get over it.” Because those paths exist.

Once in college a friend of mine was talking about how he heard Alicia Keys for the first time and marveled at how melodious her music was. He was a huge Beatles fan and he made pains to equate her talent as some derivation of the monolithic talent and influence of the Beatles. I suffered such a rage and fear at the same time. I couldn’t put words to my thoughts about how the Beatles were so much a derivation of the black rhythm and blues artists of the 50’s. I couldn’t discuss how the way in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney saw songwriting was gleaned from the work of powerful musicians like Sam Cooke. It felt pointless. I allowed my fear to get the better of me.

That moment resonates, as do many more in my life. It is hard work, doing the work of decolonizing the mind. The rootedness of self-hatred and fear of white people is omnipresent in our lives. I feel very much like this space I’m in now is yet another one on the journey to true self-actualization. It is not enough to be radical in appearance and along race and class lines if we don’t talk about the ways in which our location in day-to-day life can bind us.

In any given day, I have to check myself: “It’s okay to speak my truth in this moment.”

And that simple statement is what reminds me of the fear that we do not name as black people living in an integrated society. We must understand that the fear doesn’t make us weak. It means that we must understand that there are limits to what white liberal theory (the idea that if black people have what whites have, which is access to money and status, then they will be “equal”) can really do to end systems of domination. Liberals want you to be like them. Appropriate behavior is still considered “white.” They still undervalue “blackness”. Whiteness is still the norm. Think about how many of your white liberal friends say things like “Well if they just worked harder. Well, it’s easier now.” This is deflection. And it breeds fear in black people. We don’t want to tip or rock the affirmative-action provided boat.

But we must. Fear is real. It’s also something we must admit to feeling, work through, and not allow to bind us.

Originally written on March 28, 2005