On existential fear while being black

On our way home from Chicago, on a road trip before we were married, my (white) fiancé, now husband, was driving and he was going a little fast. I told him it was night time, we were in Arkansas, and he should slow down. Soon we saw the lights behind us, and I was frightened.

I put my hands in my lap, visible. I made sure my engagement ring was visible so there wouldn’t be a question about why I was in the car. I put my purse down on the floor. I didn’t talk. I didn’t move. I looked straight ahead and froze. The officer came to the window, said “good evening.” He asked how my husband was doing and my husband said, “We’re fine, how are you officer?” They had a conversation. (!) The officer let us off with a warning and a “Merry Christmas.” I don’t know if he saw me.

When we drove off, I told my husband I was afraid, and he said, “But it’s just a traffic stop.”

Well, we had some conversations about that.

My husband is brilliant and sensitive and so he understood very quickly the difference in life experience between him and I, in fact I would not have married him had he shown an inability to do that. And he is one of my greatest champions. But part of the joining of our lives together, as it is with any couple, is a comparison of life experience, and I don’t think either of us realized quite how different life in general had been for the both of us. Chief among those differences is fear.

Like most African Americans I know, I have an innate distrust of the police. (Wait — this is the point where I have to stop and say that I’m college and grad school educated and have never had any sort of record and don’t know anyone who does. And that yes, I have met some good and compassionate cops. And since I finished this post as coverage was coming in of the police shootings — *of course* I condemn what happened in Dallas.) One of my earliest memories of the police is being a little girl in the back of the car when the police officer pulled us over so he could tell my father our car was “too nice” for people like us. One of my most recent interactions, just a year ago, is being screamed at by an officer who didn’t like the way I walked to my car. He screamed so loud that I didn’t know who he was talking to, so loud that it was obvious his goal couldn’t have been anything other than my subjugation.

The thing that’s difficult about being afraid of the police is the helplessness — if the people who hold the power of law will not support you, who will? But the fear extends beyond this.

When we travel, I try to watch where we stop because there are some areas where I’ve had some trouble. When we have flown together, we (well, I) have nearly been denied rental cars and airline seats because the people in charge didn’t believe we were “together,” in at least one case after we had shown ID (with our matching last names and addresses). So I worry about getting separated and stranded somewhere far from home. When I go to the doctor, I prepare myself for whatever demeaning thing will be said to me, and worry whether my complaints will be taken seriously. If I apply for a job, or get a new job, I have to wonder how race will affect things and how much time I’ll have to spend being some coworker’s diversity coach. And in the years that my husband and I have been planning for children, we’ve had many conversations about “the talks” we will have to give to our son or daughter.

There’s a level of fear that I think all African Americans carry with us as part of our burden. Much of the time things are fine, but there is an undercurrent of worry and cautiousness in everyday life that my white husband will never have to know. It’s different from regular every day anxieties; it’s more like a cloud that surrounds the world.

When people are failing to understand why we’re protesting, when people are just baffled that anyone would be angry at cops; when people say “well if you’re not doing anything you have nothing to fear,” when they tell us to just work harder and get a job, they are failing to acknowledge that the difference isn’t in skin color or in cultural history but that our very lives are different, and that they are different because of racism. They are gaslighting us, and they are not acknowledging our daily fight.

 

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