Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fear of a Black (with) Hat?

In case you haven't been following along for the last couple of months, I live in Africa.  Everyday, everywhere I go, I am surrounded by black people.  This is not the first time I've lived in Africa, and I also spend plenty of time at home around black people.

Hold on.

I'm not going to go into one of those so-see-I'm-not-racist tirades that often come after someone explains that they have a black friend or two.  I am just trying to explain that I am used to walking down the street and seeing black people, and they don't scare me.  Not saying not racist, just saying not scared.  Got it?

Ok, still think I'm heading down some sort of racist/prejudiced path?  Maybe I am - and that's the problem.  That's why I'm writing this.

The other day I was walking to an American-styled (and priced!) internet cafe on the other side of town.  It's about an hour walk down some pretty busy streets.  I passed lots of people, people carrying things on their heads, people pushing wheel barrows of sugar cane, couples out walking, groups of friends, and the occasional chicken (actual poultry with feathers and stuff).  Some people I greeted, some people I just passed, but mostly, if their presence affected me, it was because a greeting had made me smile.  Even though it was dusk and these were all strangers, I wasn't scared.  I was just walking.

Then, something happened. As I headed up one of the last stocking capmain   streets, I saw a man wearing a stocking cap approaching my path.  Immediately, my heart started pounding.  My eyes darted around, looking for an escape route.  My legs wanted to freeze and run at the same time.  My body was automatically going into panic mode, adrenaline was flowing.

All these reactions happened before my mind had a chance to think.  Something had triggered my flight-or-fight mechanism.  Luckily for me (and probably for the guy, too), my mind quickly regained control, and I kept walking towards the cafe.

But as my heart started to calm down, my brain started going.  Why did seeing a black man in a stocking cap cause such immediate (and irrational) fear?  Would I have reacted the same way if he had been any other race?  Am I afraid of knit hats?  Maybe just headwear in general?

Clearly, I didn't react that way to anyone who looked similar but wasn't wearing a stocking cap.  I have to admit that I really doubt that just anyone wearing a stocking cap would make my heart race like that.  And I know that seeing people I know, of any color, in a stocking cap doesn't scare me.  It has to be something about the combination.  But why?  What has programmed my body to fear stranger+black+stocking cap so strongly?

Thinking back to an account by one of my friends, I can only comfort myself with the fact that I'm not the only person with irrational fears.  Great comfort. :-/

At least this made me laugh:

"Are the majority of black people messed up or is it just where I live?

I live in Oakland, California..."

(Well The Legend, that may explain why that Asian lady yelled at you...)

[*Fear of a Black Hat; Photo from]


Wendy said...

When I first saw the title, I thought the post was going to be about a black cat wearing a hat since black cats are supersitiously scary. (how do I spell check my post?)

MaryRuth said...

Isn't it really hot there? I would look twice at someone wearing a stocking cap in hot weather.

goldenrail said...

@Wendy, use a browser with built in spell-check, like firefox or chrome. (Although chrome's spell-check likes to underline words but not be very helpful in correcting them.)
@MR: it is very hot here, but lots of people wear other types of head coverings, especially the muslims.