Rational or irrational fear?

Some time ago I saw a comedy sketch by Richard Pryor in which he held a press conference to announce to the police and residents of Beverly Hills that early the next morning he would be going jogging along the streets. Like much of Pryor’s humor, it had a sharp edge, highlighting the fact that a black man running in a predominantly white neighborhood tends to alarm people.

Is such a reaction racist? The Crommunist Manifesto reflects on this question using his own personal experiences as a black man who also has to take precautions so that people are not alarmed by his presence. Most people do not realize that black men routinely make an extra effort to make those around them feel comfortable in their presence. You can imagine how unpleasant it must be for people to feel that they have to constantly prove to others that their presence is benign.

It reminded me of an experience that I had written about a couple of years ago about the role of race and class in society, and how people like me benefit from it. Here is a pertinent excerpt from that post.

I recall once a conference presentation in a hotel meeting room that I made together with my African-American female colleague. After our session, we cleared up and took our stuff out to make room for the next presenters. I picked up what I thought was my colleague’s expensive-looking coat (she is always well dressed) but it was only later after relaxing in the lobby and getting ready to go home that she said that the coat did not belong to her and I realized that it must belong to the people who had been setting up after us. Her boyfriend was also present and he started to take the coat back to the room to return it, but then stopped and asked if I could do it because he said that it would be awkward for him to do so as people ‘might not understand’. The problem was as clear as it was unspoken. It did not matter that he is a very distinguished-looking and impeccably dressed man who could easily be mistaken for an ambassador or college president, while I was my usual nondescript self. The basic fact was that he is black and I am not, and that made all the difference in whether we would be presumed guilty or innocent of theft.

Crommunist’s post is very thoughtful and well worth reading.


  1. P Smith says

    The hardest part about not displaying bigotry (especially where one is or has been bigoted in the past) is how to treat people of the group in question. I won’t say which people, but growing up where I did, bigotry towards a certain group was common and I was guilty of saying it myself, having heard it spoken openly by my parents and in the community. Some of that ignorant mentality still stays with me to this day, but I admit it’s my failing and I try to be aware of it.

    As an adult, I kept having to check myself on how I treated the people in question. It boiled down to three rules:

    (1) If I’m treating them worse than other people, I’m being a bigot.

    (2) If I’m treating them better than other people, I’m being condescending.

    (3) If I’m treating them with the same respect as other people, it’s the right thing to do, and I probably won’t have to apologize for it.

    Note that I said kept, not keep. I’ve been living overseas for several years and have experienced bigotry and racism from the other side, though I’m in no way comparing the two. I can always leave if I don’t like it.


  2. Mano Singham says

    I too struggle with having my brain (which rejects bigotry) control my gut, which has absorbed the many prejudices that are all around us and get absorbed as we grow up.

  3. jamessweet says

    That is an impossible conundrum you describe, one which I think pretty much all of us experience in some way or another (although some of us like to deny it). I think all you can do is to try and do your best. Even just acknowledging there’s an issue, and that fair or not, we all have a responsibility to try to get it “right”.. that’s more than most people do, I’m afraid.

    My dad has cerebral palsy and has been confined to a wheelchair his entire life. It used to drive me nuts as a teen when I’d be wheeling him through a public place and people would do the look-then-quickly-avert-your-eyes thing. I don’t think it bugged my dad too much, but I found it really frustrating.

    But I do the same thing when I encounter someone with a disability, to this very day. It’s entirely natural to notice when there is something different about a person. But of course you don’t want to treat them differently, so you don’t want to look like you noticed. But all of this takes place so fast, of course everybody involved saw what transpired.

    The same happens frequently, I am sure, when a member of a majority group (or anyone, I imagine, for that matter) encounters someone of a minority group in an unexpected place. Even if you couldn’t care less that they are a part of whatever minority group is in question, the fact that it is out of the ordinary makes it almost impossible not to visibly react, even if it’s in the most subtle way.

    It sucks. All we can do is try our best.

  4. BillyJoe says

    I’ve had the experience of frightening the life out of a woman when I walked up behind her on a walking trail. I was walking fast because that’s how I walk. She suddenly rushed off frantioally into the scrub as I approached. I made some harmless comment, smiled, and kept walking in an attempt to minimise the unexpected distress I’d just caused. After three years I still feel sorry for that woman. In retrospect I should have said something friendly and calming as I approached.

    (BTW, I’m only 5’5” and 63kg (10 stone) and I’m not black)


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