She hurried to the other side of the tunnel when she saw me walking toward her. She clutched her purse. She put her head down and she rushed past me.

I didn’t do anything to startle her. Why is she afraid of me? I had only greeted her with a faint smile. Why is she threatened by me? I had just gotten off the train and on my way to study at the library. I have no intention of harming her. Why is she suspicious of me? Is it because I am Black?

I was raised to make myself as least threatening as possible. I was taught to disarm strangers with a smile. I was instructed to speak in a respectable fashion. I was told to never get a tattoo. I was advised to stop wearing bandanas and durags in public. I stopped wearing my pants below my waist. I stopped dressing like a ruffian.

I was not dressed like a thug in the tunnel. I was not wearing a bandana. I was not wearing my pants below my waist. I was wearing my dark skin. That is what makes me threatening.

She isn’t the first White person to perceive my skin colour as a threat. The tunnel isn’t the first place where I’ve been treated as a threat. I have been a threat to White people in elevators, school hallways, parks, streets, and in the back of a police car.

But is it because I am Black? I didn’t even answer the question. What does all that have to do with that girl? Why am I forcing past experiences into this tunnel?

Did she clutch her purse because I am Black? Did she put her head down and rush past me because I am Black? Did she assume the worst of me because I am Black? Maybe. I don’t know. But I know that I assumed the worst of her because she’s White.

I am so conscious of what being black might mean to others, but so ignorant of what being White might mean to others. I speculate over how a White person perceives me, yet I am indifferent to how I perceive that White person. If being Black means being a suspected criminal, being White means being a suspected racist.

My heart is deceitful above all things. How can I trust it? Maybe she wasn’t afraid of me because of my skin colour. Actually, now that I think of it, maybe she was simply doing what I had told Nadia to do when she is in the tunnel alone with a man.

Maybe If I weren’t so selfish, I would have considered her feelings as more important than mine. If I weren’t so prideful, I would have considered her perception of me as less important than her safety.

If she wasn’t White, I wouldn’t have assumed the worst of her. Maybe she isn’t a racist. Maybe I am.

  • jesse hearndon

    I had the same experience as a white guy in Japan and Korea. Everytime I sat on a bus or train there was always empty seats around me. It was so hard to make friends here that I started to think everyone was racist. Then I started to realize that my sensitivity to it was causing my isolation as I would become depressed and bitter. Went talking to asian language exchange partners I would complain about the culture and comment how I felt racism. This lead to them avoiding me. It was a visious cycle that I have to break almost everyday. I have to also be carefull of stereotyping others.

  • Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing this struggle. I am a woman, and I know that “clutching my purse” is a reflex of self-protection, not racial. But, it has been implied, that when white women do this, especially when Black men are present, we are racist.

    Your comment, “Actually, now that I think of it, maybe she was simply doing what I had told Nadia to do when she is in the tunnel alone with a man,” is right on! This needs to be the key of understanding what women face all-the-time. Sometimes we are unaware of our subconscious actions, but it’s more than likely it’s based on protecting our being, not a color of skin. I tend to do this around any man when I’m alone and people aren’t around.

    I don’t know that we will ever have a simple answer to this struggle, but being able to share openly and honestly is so very helpful to gaining understanding and sensitivity to others. Thank you for this post.