On Race and Fear: The Power of Context


I’ve been reading the new, thought-provoking book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

It’s a long letter that he wrote to his teenage son.  It’s not easy reading, and I don’t always understand what he has in mind. But this book has me thinking about race differently than I’ve ever thought about it before.

Lack of Fear: An Unearned Privilege

Coates comes back again and again to the effect of pervasive racism has on people of color. They, unlike people who think of themselves as white, live in fear of bodily harm. They can’t assume that they will be safe…that they will not be beaten or shot or otherwise assaulted. And that constant fear shapes their world.

Viewed through the lens of Coates’ book, lack of fear is a primary privilege of being white.

The Corrosive Nature of Persistent Fear

I’ve never before thought of how corrosive nature of living in chronic fear, or about how my lack of fear is an unearned privilege of being white.

It’s this lack of fear that enables me to say hello to the people I see on my morning walks at St Mary’s Park.

My lack of fear enables my easy smile that people respond to in kind.

My lack of fear enables me to think expansively — believing that it is in my power to do most anything I set my mind to do.

And perhaps, most importantly, my lack of fear sets up the belief that if I fail or if trouble comes my way, everything will still be fine. Because I trust that even if I screw up, people (my family and friends and neighbors and even the police) will come to my rescue.

Less Fear = More Opportunities

Because I’m not afraid, I’ve taken risks and tried new things and opened doors that have shaped the course of my life.

People who live in fear experience life in a different way. They set up protective barriers between themselves and the world. They are always ready to defend themselves. And they can’t assume that anyone else will take care of them if things go wrong.

Coates’ book highlighted for me how pervasive fear of bodily harm shapes a life. And with videos of people of color being attacked and shot and abused by police in the news nearly every night, I understand better how scary life must be.

A Very Small Antidote for a Very Big Problem

While I can’t undo the root causes of fear that so many people experience, I can ease them in my own little way — by saying hello to people, by offering a support system for my friends like Clemetin, and by being kind and consistent in my daily interactions.

It’s not much, I know, when looked at in the context of long-term and pervasive injustice. But it’s what I can do.

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Consider How Fear (or a Lack Thereof) Shapes Your Life

While fear is a natural and important response, some people have more of it than others. On a scale of one to ten (ten being the most), how you would rate the fear in your life? Does it shape what you do every day? Or is it just an occasional feeling?

Think today about how being afraid (or not) has shaped your life. What can you do to reduce pervasive fear both in yourself and in others?

What’s your fear number?

Please share it with your thoughts about how fear has shaped your life in the comments below. Or, head over to Facebook to leave your comments.