“I get nervous”: Thoughts on the tyranny of fear

By | October 25, 2010

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Young girls surprised by Indians, Karl Bodmer and Jean-François Millet

Last week, a senior news analyst, Juan Williams, was fired from NPR. This happened as a result of comments he made on the oft-reprehensible Bill O’Reilly’s punditry show on Fox News (a network that is also oft-reprehensible, and as my husband and I walked past Rockefeller Center whilst in New York last week, my husband favored me and the surrounding folk with a somber whistling of “The Imperial March”). O’Reilly, in a bit of stupidity that might be funny under different circumstances, was persisting in his belief that Muslims, in general, are responsible for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.* In response, the soon-to-be-unemployed Juan Williams said:

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb, and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous. “ (Source)

Yep. Yep yep yep. Here this guy’s just being honest, saying the shit everyone thinks and nobody says aloud, and he gets fired!** And he’s written about civil rights, which means he’s totally innoculated against bigotry! In solidarity with Williams’ dumb ass, I want to offer some other bigoted straight talk of my own:

When I see a male-appearing person on the street, I get nervous. Because he’s identifying himself first and foremost as a male, and most rapists are men. Therefore, he’s probably a rapist, and he may try to rape me.

When I see a Black guy out in public, I get nervous too. Because he’s identifying himself first and foremost as a Black person, and television and culture have conspired to teach me that Black men are probably going to rob nice white girls like me, or at least are on the verge of shooting someone.

When I see someone wearing a big old cross around their neck, I get worried, because she’s identifying herself as a Christian, and is probably out trying to prevent women from having abortions, and is certainly opposed to equal marriage.

When I see someone using a wheelchair or a cane or some other assistive device on public transportation, I get tense, because they are identifying as a disabled person, and I don’t know how to treat them, and I may be afraid that their disability is icky or contagious.

When I see a brown person at my place of employment, I get apprehensive, because he’s identifying as a Latino person, and I’ve been told that brown people are illegal immigrants who are taking over by having lots of children who don’t speak my preferred language.

When I see a woman in the supermarket wearing a headscarf, I get uneasy, because she’s identifying as a headscarf-wearing-person, and I assume she must be overly warm, or horribly oppressed, or both at the same time.

When I see a person who looks to be Native American driving a car, I get worried, because he is identifying as an American Indian and is therefore probably an alcoholic who is driving drunk.

When I see a gay-appearing man coming out of a public restroom, I get edgy, because he is identifying as a gay-appearing man and I figure he must have been hitting on some dude in there.

When I see a fat person in the waiting area of the doctor’s office, I get suspicious, because she is identifying as a fat person and I think she is using up all the healthcare and there won’t be any left for me.

When I see a child boarding an airplane, I get concerned, because I know he or she will sit behind me and either cry or kick my seat the entire flight.

Literally believing some or all of the above ridiculous examples is not surprising; these are things we learn to think about people who look or act different, mostly because of our culture, occasionally because of personal experience. Allowing these assumptions to rule our lives is more than a mistake, however — it is an egregious example of inhumanity.

The lithograph at the top of this post dates from around 1852, and depicts the capture of of three young girls by American Indians. Then as now, the fear of difference was critical to American culture. Indians were not thought of as proper people, you understand; they were heartless savages who would descend upon helpless young females — a symbol of the very future of civilized white folk — with no reservations. That these events did occasionally happen is less important than the vigorous spreading of this fear throughout the young United States, even without the aid of mass media. Fear is a powerfully American trait; fear is part of who we are, historically, as a nation.

Now for an uncomfortable truth: if you feel nervous when you see a person in “Muslim garb” on an airplane, then you are a bigot, according to the broadest definition of the word, that of “a prejudiced person.” Don’t get mad, though! We’re all bigots, to some degree or another, because we live in a culture that teaches and reinforces and rewards our bigotry with privilege. Being a bigot is not itself an unforgiveable offense, as for most folks this is practically unavoidable in one area or another. It’s true: you can even write books about civil rights and still be a bigot in other respects. What is unforgiveable is our too-frequent failure to fight these assumptions and stereotypes as they persist in our own minds, and as they manifest themselves in our shared world.

If I see a shady-looking dude who seems to be following me as I walk alone as night, I’m going to take precautions to get to a well-lit area with other people as quickly as possible. I do this because I’ve learned to fear rape. That said, I need to be vigilant in understanding the difference between fearing all men as possible rapists and only fearing the ones who act shady and may be a legitimate threat. No, the difference is not always clear, but I choose to not let that concern rule my life and my choices. We fight through these feelings and stereotypes and assumptions because that is how we can best try not to be bigots, and how we can not live our lives in fear.

More to the point: even if I may initially feel nervous when I see a person on a plane in garb that I may think of as being “Muslim” — and sometimes, if my guard is down, I do — I work hard to push past it, because I know that it’s bullshit and it’s bigoted and it’s wrong. I instead try to focus on my astonishment at that person’s bravery and conviction in wearing what they want to wear even in an environment where it may draw negative attention and overt derision. I wonder how many dark stares they’ve endured between the security checkpoint and the gate; I wonder if they felt the suspicious scrutiny on their backs as they passed; I wonder at the stress and the sadness and the unfairness of it all. Blaming a large and diverse group of individuals for the terrifying actions of a scant minority is wrong. Fearing people because they look or move or dress differently than you is also wrong. That fear is what keeps us apart; that fear is what destroys understanding and leads to arguments and fistfights and endless, endless, endless wars.

Don’t let this fear rule you; recognize it when it happens, accept that these assumptions exist within you, and learn to see the circumstances of it clearly. Why am I feeling this way? Where is the feeling coming from? Is my fear appropriate to this situation? Fear is kneejerk — it relies on adrenaline and a lack of critical thinking. It is best fought with compassion and an open mind.

Neither of which we are likely to find on Bill O’Reilly’s show, admittedly. But I think we can fight this battle without help from people like him.

* I do wonder where O’Reilly would stand on the laying of similarly all-encompassing blame on other groups for nation-changing social horrors — say, the blaming of all white people for colonial slavery.

** I ain’t even getting into the idea of “Muslim garb” as being a visible roadsign posted on all observant Muslims. Here is a Tumblr that addresses that better.

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