It’s no mystery to me what happened in that Philadelphia Starbucks last week. Two black men were arrested after a few minutes of calmly, quietly sitting in a place that famously welcomes people to come and sit a while.
What happened is white fear entered the room. Those two people in the store somehow became frightening to the manager. Not because of what they did but because of what she saw. Witnesses—white ones!—say nothing happened to make the manager grow fearful, but white fear is so powerful it justifies itself. For some reason, the manager felt a need to get them out of her store as fast as possible. Because two black men were calmly, quietly sitting there, waiting for a friend.
White fear is a powerful force. Once in the bloodstream it can make calm black customers look scary. It can even make little black boys look scary. Ask Tamir Rice—well, you can’t literally ask him because he’s dead. He was 12 when he was shot and killed by 26 year-old police officer Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland in 2014 in a public park where he was playing with a toy gun. People were so scared of him that they called the police. He was killed within a few seconds of Officer Loehmann’s arrival. Officers said they thought he was 18. They saw him as a nearly grown man when he was a little boy. That’s what white-fear goggles can do.
You can literally ask Brennan Walker, the 14-year-old who just last week got lost on his walk to school outside of Detroit and knocked on a door to ask for directions. A woman answered and began screaming, which led to her husband, 53-year-old Jeffrey Ziegler, grabbing a 12-gauge shotgun and firing at the boy who, again, was asking for directions to school. Ziegler missed. He was arrested and charged with assault with intent to murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
I don’t know if the Zieglers or Officer Loehmann or the Starbucks manager are racist every single day in every interaction with black people but it would be fruitless to conduct some sort of forensic accounting of their lives to see if there’s exculpatory evidence. Do they have black friends? Have they ever done anything demonstrably racist before? Have they seen Black Panther?
The question is not: Has this person been racist in every moment of their life? The question is: What did they do in that moment?
Did they perpetuate a racist society or lean on their white privilege? Did they react out of white fear?
The reality-distorting goggles of white fear led Ziegler and Officer Loehmann to see a kid as a monster who needed to be shot right away. They led the Starbucks manager to call other men with guns and badges to respond to two men sitting in a sitting place.
Why? Well, there’s a lifetime of programming that feeds into white fear. It says black bodies are to be feared. A series of 2014 studies found “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” meaning “the attribution of supernatural, extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities to humans.” The study notes that while this may seem positive, it’s not—it’s a path to dehumanization.
And in many cases, it seems a path to destruction. When many white people see blacks as far more physically powerful than them and combine that with hoary stereotypes about blacks as being more aggressive and more prone to criminality, well all of that makes for a dangerous cocktail. It gives white fear of black bodies all of the strength—and self-justification—it needs. It makes dialing 911 seem necessary even when there’s no need for armed help.
The overwhelming majority of black people have never and will never commit any significant crime. But white-fear goggles can make anyone look fearsome.
I live in fear of white fear.
If you think that all I need to do is follow the law and I’ll be fine I point you to Philando Castile, a licensed gun owner in a car with his family. He calmly informed an officer that he was armed. Castile was dead seconds later. John Crawford was holding a toy BB gun in a Walmart. Officers rushed in and shot him dead. I could go on.
White fear is irrational and potentially fatal. It’s like my skin is a timebomb and white people hold the button I never know what will make them push it and set off the explosion.
That’s a long way of saying I don’t really know how to avoid white fear. I’ve seen white people leap to call the police over small interactions where no crime was being committed. If white-fear goggles can make sitting in Starbucks look like criminal behavior what chance do I have to make it through the rest of my day?
I’m scared out of my mind right now.