Crommunist Manifesto has an excellent bit on what it means to belong to a group that is perceived as a threat. It is well worth a read, not only because of the depth of his perspective, but also the eloquence and precision with which he conveys it- both of which far exceed mine.
It did get me thinking, though. I obviously have no idea what it feels like to walk down the street as a black person, but I do know what it is like to walk that street as a man and as a huge scary person. I walk differently when I am alone than when I am in a group with people who look less scary than me. I didn’t notice most of these things when I first started doing them, but it strikes me as an interesting phenomenon and perhaps worth thinking about. None of these are hard and fast rules, just behaviors I’ve noticed as kind of odd.
1) I take back alleys more often than main streets. Most people avoid these, and I feel reasonably sure I am less frightening to people who are not there.
2) I often walk on the curb instead of the sidewalk. This keeps me arm’s length or more from most people.
3) I whistle alot. Sometimes I walk very lightly without realizing, but when I whistle people notice me before I get close.
4) I usually don’t pass people who appear not to notice me. Sometimes I take a different route home to avoid this.
As for why, it’s kind of hard to explain. Maybe this only muddies things, but I feel like this story might shed some light on the way I feel:
Walking home from work one evening last summer I noticed a group of young women walking behind me. I hadn’t seen them (or anyone else), so I was on the sidewalk and in no hurry. They started to catch up to me, so I quickened my pace a little. They quickened theirs. As I reach the intersection, I think to use the changing light as an excuse to speed up again without looking like I’m trying to get away. My usually not-so-bad knee slips my mind until it fails as I step off the curb and catch myself with an audible stomp of my good leg. So graceful. “Excuse me, sir!” The honorific is sharp and accusatory. Heart skips several beats.
Not enough time to make it across now anyway. The smallest of the group is standing next to me. She wants to know what I’m doing here (at a crosswalk). She wants to know where I work and what I do. She sees me walk home almost every day. I answer honestly, ineptly trying to make eye-contact with the space approximately a foot above her head. Her companions stay silent and back several feet. The thought that they know what I have done occurs to me. Only hours later does it occur to me that if I have done anything wrong, I don’t actually know what it is.
She wants to know my name, then gives me hers. I shake her hand stiffly, the light changes and we set off in different directions. I couldn’t feel the handshake and have no idea what she looks like or what her name was, but her voice indicates that she is happy with the conversation. The first time I was pulled over by a cop I was less nervous. I try to reason out why she cornered me like that and ultimately decide that a guy who looks like me walking by the same spot every day probably looked suspicious. This is her home too; maybe she felt uneasy with me and I wouldn’t want that. This was a good talk.