A seemingly harmless question about safety can mask deep-seated racism. Sometimes “Is it safe?” or “That’s not a good part of town,” are code words for “I’m afraid of [insert black or brown-skinned minority] people.”
I recently came across an article by Brian Dahlen (a White brother) entitled, “Is It Safe There?”, where Brian states exactly what I’m describing…
You can read the rest of the article here.
I Held the Same Wrong Beliefs
Truthfully, even though I’m Black, I held the same attitudes Brian describes. I was warned growing up about certain places and parts of town. Over time I formed negative opinions about those in poverty, many of whom were Black. Before long I was afraid of certain classes and even people within my own race.
Only spending several years living and working in a high-poverty community transformed my fear into fellowship. It took a stream of almost constant contact with low-income minorities for me to get over my uncomfortableness. Gradually, and with good input from some trusted community members, I began to understand that the people there were just that…people. I got over my fear, and I even developed an appreciation and love for low-income communities and their residents.
Segregation, Safety, and Racism
The problem is most people don’t get to spend years in an unfamiliar context to help them hurdle their fear. For some Whites or other affluent people, it’s not uncommon for their most informative interaction with minorities and the poor to come through television or the check out line at the grocery store. The result of racial and economic segregation is whole sections of the majority who know almost nothing about minorities and then begin to ferment an illogical fear of them.
Just to be clear, not all concerns about certain neighborhoods or some groups of people are unfounded. There are legitimate safety concerns attached to some locations. And oftentimes poverty, crime, and violence fall along racial lines. But poor and Black are not synonyms. Injustice of all kinds is a result of sin. Both systems and individuals are out of accord with God’s standard of justice. If a person begins to equate Black people with much of what is negative and undesirable in society he or she is well on the way to racism.
Our concerns about “safety” could really mask damaging stereotypes about certain races or classes of people. When we’re unfamiliar with particular groups of people they become so foreign to our own experience that we don’t know how to engage them. So we make up generalizations and caricatures that justify avoiding them. We even push our racist fears on others like our children or people from our own “tribe” who dare to step outside of our culturally-comfortable boundaries.
Understanding Fear, Engaging the “Other”
The only way to deal with the fear that masks racism is to face it. Find the source of your beliefs about a particular group of people. Does it come from firsthand knowledge, an isolated experience, or what family and friends have told you? Do your opinions apply to all people of this group? Are the generalizations you hold attributable to race or some other aspect like education and family situation?
As you learn to understand your fear of the “other” you’ll begin to develop more compassion for them. You’ll gain the wisdom to realize that not all the parts of town with Black people are “dangerous.” You’ll gain the confidence to interact with those who are different from you and view both positive and negative experiences based on their own individual circumstances instead of forming stereotypes. You’ll not only disarm your phobia, but you’ll begin to advocate for the well-being of others. You’ll become their friends, allies, brothers and sisters.
The fears that cover racism are not unique to Whites. Any person of any background can form negative stereotypes about whole groups of people based on limited knowledge. But knowing our own tendency to unfairly stereotype people may help us to pause next time before we ask, “Is it safe there?”