I fear white men. As I walk down Riverside Drive at 10 p.m. on my way to Carlton Arms, I'm wary of them. When a white man passes me on the street, my body almost subconsciously flinches on the side that is turned to him, as if anticipating some sort of physical aggression. I imagine he's going to whisper something to me, maybe as little as three or four words of hatred. That alone would be enough to send me running down the street as fast as I could.
It’s disheartening that my mind has conditioned itself to feel this constant dread, and immediately after these pseudo-interactions, I feel guilty for stereotyping. But, these days, how can I know for sure who hates me and who doesn’t? And how can I defend myself from any sudden attack if not through self-preservation and constant vigilance?
It’s interesting to think of this dynamic in comparison with the one I face back at home. In Brazil, it is pretty much the opposite: If I’m on the street at two in the morning and I see a black man wearing a hoodie and coming in my direction, my primary instinct will be to avoid being any closer to him than strictly necessary. This is very far from ideal—I, a black man myself, know it—but the ever-present threat built inside my head through the media’s portrayal of graphic violence involving that specific “profile” will always trump any attempt to uphold egalitarian, anti-racist values on a dark, deserted street with a stranger. That is the craziest paradox of my existence as a black man—mixed-race at home, but that’s another issue—in a world that constantly works with labels and typification. I am denying another black man his right to not be a criminal and, by default, subscribing to the notion that someone might do the same thing to me the next day, which, to no one’s surprise, has already happened.
But with white men it’s different. Maybe because I am not an American citizen, the constant internal warning to not get in any sort of trouble—even if not caused by myself—is the guiding force that deceives me into perceiving this fear as a “gut feeling.” Or it could be the alarming rate at which white supremacist movements are gaining traction on American soil as well as all over the globe.
In many senses, Columbia has intensified this fear of mine. With Columbia’s application process ostensibly attentive to social values and respect and with a number of initiatives aimed at fostering diversity and community on campus, any incoming student would not be entirely delusional to assume that white supremacy would be a non issue here. A year and a half later, however, my days spent here have furnished me with a host of extremely unpleasant—if not alarming—experiences marked by veiled racism and white supremacy. For someone who has been told that Columbia is among some of the most liberal spaces in the country, these experiences only enhance my fear of aggression outside these gates. What’s more, when the very institution that is supposed to protect me from this sort of primitive, disrespectful behavior does not, this fear cannot help but take over much of my social life.
Perhaps Charlottesville, Charleston, Newnan, and Columbia have instilled a fear in me that—although not completely unfounded—is to a significant extent larger than reality and is potentially unfair to most white men I pass by on the streets. Preconceptions have introjected prejudices in my mind as a mechanism of premature self-defense. Just as most people fear black men on the streets of both Brazil and the United States, I have grown to assume and expect the worst from white men on the streets of America unless proven wrong. Although rooted in a survival instinct, this mindset only aggravates tensions originating from misconceptions. If ignored, these tensions grow out of proportion, invariably resulting in aggression and self-segregation.
I now fear white men more than I ever have before, just as I fear other black men at home. I also fear myself for my prejudices. And for all of this, I am afraid of fearing so much.
Gabriel is a sophomore in Columbia College studying political science and Latin American and Caribbean studies. He struggles with the fact that social conventions determine 10 p.m.-8 a.m., and not 6 a.m.-1 p.m., as normal sleeping hours. You can DM him your late-night musings @francog53 and he will probably reply in under two minutes. A Persistent Flaw runs alternate Thursdays.
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