“Is It Safe There?”: Code Words for Racism?

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.”

Photo Credit: Anonymous
Photo Credit: Anonymous

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…

So what did my white friends mean when they asked whether the South Side [of Chicago] is“safe”? I believe they were unintentionally revealing a truth among many white people in America today. Deep down, we’re scared of black people.
Yup – I said it. Many white people today are afraid of black people. And they’re either too embarrassed to admit it, or have convinced themselves otherwise. It’s the reason so many white people quickly lock their car doors when there’s a black guy in the crosswalk. It’s the reason white people clutch their purse or walk the other way when they encounter a group of black teenagers at the mall.
What’s the cause of the fear? Is it ignorance? Perhaps it’s a lack of familiarity with African American culture? Could it be a conditioned response based upon negative portrayals of African Americans in the media? Or maybe it’s a subtle underlying feeling learned from parents and grandparents? I know my grandfather was an unashamed racist and anti-Semite.
Ultimately, it’s probably a combination of all these factors.

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?”

15 thoughts on ““Is It Safe There?”: Code Words for Racism?

  1. Hey Jemar, were you just listening in on a conversation I was having with a friend? He was talking about where some of his business accounts were located in Atlanta and I mentioned that I knew the neighborhoods and was always careful to finish my own client visits quickly and “get out of Dodge.” He and I both knew what was implied and we chuckled about it without naming our phobia or fears. And of all things, I was speaking to him a few minutes later of my relationship with Christ . Now, I read your post and the sense of hypocrisy in me rises to the top. Well, it’s my attitude that needs a check and also there will be some work for me to repair the impression I gave my friend. Thanks for the article. The Lord has used you to convict this guy. Blessings!

  2. David T.,

    Your transparency is humbling in itself. I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing this experience.

    Be encouraged, brother! All of us harbor some unexamined beliefs that lead us to act less than lovingly toward our neighbors. I went through a similar process of conviction and repentance as I realized my own shortcomings in this area.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m excited for you to share this wisdom with your friend next time you talk!

  3. A consequence of the Fall is that we naturally fear “the other”. People, cultures, and races that are noticeably different from our own tend to elicit in us a defensive, judgmental stance. This can result in our judging the other as better than us, but more frequently as inferior, dangerous, and something to be avoided. If we are honest with ourselves, this fear response is a result of our own insecurity–both in our own skin and in relation to God’s watch care over us.

    As we think about racial and socio-economic barriers to Gospel fellowship and social justice, we must remember that this dividing wall of hostility-inducing fear is only overcome by the grace of The Lord Jesus Christ. Self-examination and “enlightening” ourselves to our latent prejudices is simply moral therapeutics, and it increases our self-righteousness. Self-righteousness grows to feed yet another kind of prejudice.

    Additionally, I want to say that fear is not in itself sinful or racist. It is an emotional response to either the unknown other or deep-seated thoughts. Fear also frequently accompanies feelings of helplessness and insecurity. To be blunt, equating fear with racism hurts the racial conversation. Fear can lead to racism or result from it, but the two are not the same. Racism is at its heart hateful and condemning. That being said, and returning to an earlier statement, there is no fear in love. If fear of the other controls us, even fear of “other-occupied” locations, it prevents us from being instruments of grace in society and the church. And thus, while fear is not the same as racial prejudice, it ends in the same net result: we avoid meaningful interaction with the other. The only way to overcome this is through a Gospel-oriented impulse to reach out to the other as equals before God.

    1. Trey, the Gospel is certainly the ultimate answer. The questions included in this post simply provide some practical ways to uncover possible sinful motivations. This is only a start, though. We need to put our faith in Christ to dismantle our fear of “the other.” Only in this way will we avoid the self-righteousness of which you speak.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  4. “”So what did my white friends mean when they asked whether the South Side [of Chicago] is“safe”?””

    I’ll translate, since I’m white, “Hey, is it safe to go in that part of town? Am I gonna get robbed, shot, etc.?”

    This has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with ones own safety from others who might do him or her harm.

    1. Nathan,

      It’s not always racism that motivates these questions. But sometimes it is. This post sheds light on fear as a potential guise for racist attitudes. As I mention in the article, however, “There are legitimate safety concerns.” No one is saying that racism is always behind questions of safety. We also shouldn’t say racism “has nothing to do” with such questions.

      Thanks for sharing.

  5. The hard part about this issue is the reality of co-existing truths. The race/class based fear that exist and is sometimes not realized and other times knowingly embraced. Also, the reality that there are very dangerous “parts of town” with very high crime rates and these areas are often low income and have high numbers of minorities. The harsh truth is this…racism is still as deep in our(Central MS) neck of the woods as ever. The good news is that it is not socially acceptable to be open about it anymore. But beliefs like, “they just have something different in their blood” is still a common belief. And yes, that was direct quote from an educational administrator who is a b-ivocational minister who would genuinely deny that he had a racist attitude. We have in the south today far more than a few code words. We have developed an extensive code language. And racism is defined as being directly hateful, violent, or openly oppressive to someone. As long as your being nice and letting others live their lives “freely” then you are not a racist. That’s just the way it is behind the curtains in white christian culture in the south. We’ve come a long way to be sure. But behind the facade is the harsh reality that “attitudes about race” have changed very little. The only significant is that the freedom (socially and legally) to act out those attitudes has substantially changed. And to be fair, the vast majority of people do genuinely reject physical and violent expressions of racism. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that our peaceful social existence reflects significant reconciliation.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Perry. These are indeed co-existing truths. I also appreciate your awareness of the “harsh reality that ‘attitudes about race’ have changed very little” in some regions and with some people. I hope you get many opportunities that build awareness among others in your network.

    Thanks for reaching and commenting.

  7. Someone has to be the devils advocate so…

    First I am black second i was raised in Detroit, shouldn’t need to say that but there you go. For one why wouldn’t someone be afraid of the areas that have the highest crime? That’s seems like a logical fight or flight reaction to having to enter an area with a high rate of crime, especially murder and robbery. If that’s a logical reaction then why are you labeling that reaction “racism”? The more you misuse the term racism the more you strip it of its power, you do realize that don’t you? Isn’t the labeling of all white people and their reactions to all black people.. well in this case not all black people just those who happen to live in the most violent areas of America .racist or at least prejudice?

    We toss terms around without ever defining them is one problem:

    “racism, also called racialism , any action, practice, or belief that reflects the racial worldview—the ideology that humans are divided into separate and exclusive biological entities called “races,” that there is a causal link between inherited physical traits and traits of personality, intellect, morality, and other cultural behavioral features, and that some races are innately superior to others.” source Britannica

    There is another term that I think would have been more appropriate that you did not use in your post that’s prejudice.

    ” preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge”

    or

    ” an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics”

    Every racist is prejudice but every prejudice person is not racist. To assume all white people who are apprehensiveness about going to high crime dysfunctional areas must be racist is prejudiced. To assume white people suffer from racism more then others because they are white is racist. Everyone is prejudiced to a point including black people, I grew up hearing all types of racist and prejudice comments in the black community towards others. If racism is immoral then its equally immoral for black people as it is for everyone else. The same with irrational prejudices, having conversations about how all white people think and why is prejudice.

    Finally what about black people’s responsibility to stop violence in their own community or are black people to mentally cribbed to be expected to have any responsibility in this area? Political correctness is the foolish worldview that says you must pretend the sky really isn’t blue so some people won’t get offended, That’s not a real solution to any problem. Besides making some sensitive black people feel good, what will a call to political correctly pretending that the south side of Chicago is not incredibly violent accomplish? Black people commit a large amount of the murder and other crimes in America that’s a fact, for a long time now we have been following this liberal mindset of keeping our dirty laundry hidden(or at least pretending to) and demeaning white people pretend the violence is not that bad and fearing black lower income areas is irrational..when rational thinking says, no it is rational to fear the most violent areas of the nation.

    The first thing a Doctor does when you go for a exam is give a diagnosis, thank God Doctors are not politically correct or we would forever remain in our sicknesses.

  8. CL,

    You raise a lot of issues. Not sure you interacted with my post much, though.

    Simply saying that racism CAN be a motivation doesn’t mean that it always IS the motivation. And, I agree, the term “racism” can be abused and misused, like any other word. I did not, however, accuse all Whites of being racist. I did not say there weren’t sometimes legitimate safety concerns.

    I DID say that sometimes racism can lie behind questions of safety. I also gave some questions that we should ask ourselves before we make comments about safety so we understand our underlying beliefs better. I don’t think any of those points are at odds with what you seem to assert.

    Thanks for reading.

  9. @ Jemar Tisby

    Your view is a popular one among black people I just do not think its based in reality and can be prejudice itself. Yes the post acknowledged some white people may be apprehensive about entering high crime black areas just because of the crime…but that’s the problem… you don’t seem to see that something is wrong with that assumption. If only “some” white people are sincere when asking such questions that must mean many aren’t, You are thus making a judgement about the motivation of peoples words and thoughts based on their ethnicity and that’s prejudice. Since its wrong to make assumption about peoples motivations based on race if they are black then its wrong to do that if they are not black. It makes much more logical sense to assume people are afraid to go to the south side of Chicago because its one of the most violent places in America, not because they are secret racist. And whats the excuse for all the non-white people who are ask such questions about high crime low income black areas? Asians, other blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Africans etc don’t many of them ask the same exact questions? But your article is not why do some “PEOPLE” ask is it safe its why do white people(singling out white people) ask this. Why did you single white people out for being racist ? Are white to be presumed to be racist and motivated by racism?

  10. ” 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.”

    So why would they be afraid of black people? If a certain place is violent and chaotic and you fear the people there because.. well who else would you fear besides the people in that violent chaotic place? You wouldn’t fear the buildings or the sidewalk or the tree’s you fear crime and crime is being committed by people, and if the majority of the people in that area are black again who else would you fear? Old Jewish ladies? White mom’s? Black woman ? no most likely you will fear the people who are committing the majority of the crime in that high crime area.. young black men. Is that racist? ???? that’s the million dollar question.

    If you would have asked me 5 years ago I would have automatically said yes …it is racist but now…mmmm maybe not. Its only racist when it because a irrational unwarranted fear like if someone gets afraid seeing a normal average black man on a escalator at the mall. But fearing a black man or group of black males in the middle the Compton or Detroit that’s not unwarranted or irrational… that’s smart because at that moment the chances of being a victim are higher then any other place or time… that’s just a fact.

    You make some good points in your article but I do not think the answer to this issue is shaming people for being afraid of the ghetto. I do not claim to know what the ultimate answer is.

  11. Jemar,

    I want to encourage you. Thanks for sharing this.

    Several friends of mine have been led by the Lord to move to South Dallas because we have a heart for a specific neighborhood. I have learned first-hand that walking with people daily disarms your fears, removes misconceptions, and puts deep love in your heart for others. I can speak from personal experience that if you just spend time with anyone, after a while you will see that it’s not so “scary.”

    I think we truly fear the unknown. Fear breeds an unwillingness to walk into a place or people group that seems scary, when the reality is that is exactly what needs to be done to remove fear. When you put faces and skin on those places, you realize what God has to show you through the people in the “bad part of town.” What I have learned is this: my neighbors have much more to offer me, than I do them.

    I lovingly encourage anyone who has fears of a certain area, to wisely try to spend time in those areas, and see what God might do. Who knows, you might end up moving there!

    Also, as a white person in a primarily black neighborhood, sometimes I feel a small piece of any rejection they my feel when friends or family ask me things like “is it safe” or “are you scared.” No, this is my neighborhood now, and my friends. Best thing to do is celebrate with me!

    In Christ,
    Natosha

    1. Natosha,
      Its sounds like you’re having a rare and powerful experience. I admire the example you’re setting by moving into that neighborhood for what some people call “incarnational ministry.” I am confident that as you share your insights with others they will come to lay down their fears and take up the call to go wherever God is leading them. God bless you and thanks for reading!

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