The Fear of “Others”

When I was younger, I lived in a neighborhood called High Point Acres. Every family inside the neighborhood inevitably became very close with one another. There was a communal pool that everyone flocked to during the summer, constant parties hosted by different families every month, and a communal friendliness that parents with young children appreciated, but there was a hidden flaw in the block that I’d never recognized until the first black family moved into the house across the street from me.

I knew the family already. The oldest son was in my year at school and on the club soccer team that I played for. We were in the same group of friends, and I was absolutely ecstatic when he became my neighbor. However, even before the family moved in, there was already a certain apprehension among some of the families who were worried that this new family would “disturb the peace.”

About two weeks after the new family moved into their home, already the family was getting blamed for causing a disturbance that they had nothing to do with. Another family who had been living in the neighborhood for years had a young girl with epilepsy. About twice a year, we’d hear ambulances parked outside the house, and, of course, every member of the community knew why. So right after the new family had moved into the community, ambulances were called to the house next door because the little girl had a seizure. When I heard the ambulances coming, I looked across the street, knowing that the little girl had another seizure, as was usually the case. Unfortunately, others came to a different conclusion.

Apparently, certain members of the community heard the ambulance sirens and assumed it was due to domestic violence at the new black neighbor’s house.

After this, I immediately condemned those people in my neighborhood who were spreading the rumors as racist. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. A black family just entered our neighborhood, which had before been strictly ‘white.’ And with their arrival, they brought with them the conceived notions of black people. Just like when a black person enters a store, and everyone immediately narrows their eyes at them in case they’re planning on shop lifting. The people in my neighborhood narrowed their eyes when the black family moved in. They paid no attention to the fact that the father was a respectable physical therapist or that the son had perfect grades in school. All they saw was the color of their skin. So when an ambulance pulled up next to their house, they let fears and stereotypes override the facts. They let their fear of the “others” get in the way of the truth.

I don’t necessarily think the people who started these rumors were racist as I once did. Rumors get out of hand as they always do, sometimes without a malicious intent. In this case, an ambulance pulled up in front of a family’s house, and instead of waiting for the truth, some people jumped to the wrong conclusions. I believed this happened as a result of a society that assumes blacks are criminals and whites are respectful.

What do you all think about this? Are the people who started and spread the rumors racists, or are they too just victims of a society that is inherently racist?

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6 thoughts on “The Fear of “Others”

  1. Wow. That’s a powerful and riveting instance of major leaps to conclusions based on race, Jessica. Now I really wish we’d read The Racial Contract by Charles Mills in class – he has two inter-related theses that would help explain this well. The first is that ‘space is normed (and raced)’ – that generally means that the spaces in which we live our lives have norms and often racial norms attached to them. Your post does a great job of explaining exactly that – the ‘white space’ of your community meant that race was invisible (transparent, as Lopez might say).

    The second thesis Mills offers that might helps is that ‘bodies are normed (and raced).’ Generally, his claim is that we make judgements about people’s value, cognitive capacity, and beauty on the bases of race. But also – and this is key – that non-white bodies are deemed ‘wild’ and untamed. Thus, when non-white bodies enter white space, he says they bring a bit of the wild with them. In some ways, this is EXACTLY what you are describing: the space of your development was ‘civilized’ until the non-white bodies entered it, at which point the assumption became that any present disorder was a result of these *black* bodies rather than white bodies.

    And a final point – Bonilla-Silva wrote a book called “racism without racists,” which sort of goes along with your point about the lack of explicit racial bias. What’s horrifying though, is that the *implicit* racial biases seem to do as much if not more harm than the explicit ones, because we are so totally clueless that we are doing it.

    Man. That’s hard to think about without wanting to cry.

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  2. I agree with Dr. Pool in that “the implicit racial biases seem to do as much if not more harm than the explicit ones, because we are so totally clueless that we are doing it.” I think the most disturbing part of your story is that people didn’t even question their stereotypes. It’s also disturbing that the rumor reached so many ears while the truth didn’t. Thus, my question to you is, do you think that people don’t want to hear the truth because it shakes their foundational knowledge? In my introduction to psychology class, we learned that people will seek information that validates their beliefs, and they will ignore information that threatens their beliefs. I believe this human trait is an essential reason why people continue to be “racist.” They refuse to believe anything else.

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  3. wow, what a disturbing yet totally normal and common story. I remember when my family first moved from the city of San Diego to the suburbs of Murrieta. My parents, one black and one hispanic, had worked really hard to give us an opportunity at life through education that they never had– hence, why we moved to the suburbs. Better schools. However, I remember that on our first Christmas in that community, “Murrieta Heights”, my mother and I baked Christmas cookies to introduce ourselves to our neighbors. We met an elderly couple who was most certainly alive during Jim Crow, and she proceeded to tell us that if she sees one more Mexican against the fence of her backyard, that she’s going to shoot him with a snake gun. My mom’s mouth dropped, and looking back on it I realize that my Costa Rican mother is “white-passing”, and thus my neighbor felt comfortable making said statement in front of her, not knowing that she was in fact of hispanic decent. Secondly, the “Mexicans” were maintaining the growth of weeds on the borders of our gated community, not trying to sneak onto this woman’s property, or whatever incredible assumption she had in her head about what Mexican’s do.

    That was one of my first experiences in a predominantly white community, and I think this blog paints a perfect picture of the every day ways in which implicit racial attitudes are circulated and maintained among white communities. If my mom would have been raised in a predominantly white neighboorhood, this conversation may have worked to shape opinions in me that corroborated my neighboors statement about Mexicans, but after that awkward encounter (and not the last of them), she explained to me the racial bias by which our neighboor appropriated Mexican identity. How many children growing up in white communities don’t get that conversation like I did with their parents, only to go on the rest of their lives with unquestioned racial biases and assumptions? So interesting. I appreciate you sharing.

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  4. I have spent the majority of my life in San Diego, a mostly white city, but one that has a substantial Hispanic population of approximately one-third. Where I grew up I would like to think that the relationship between white and Hispanic has always been good and there have been limited to zero issues. However, in the past couple years I have really begun to notice that people in my community are maybe more like the people in the blog post. Aside from the occasional obnoxious and disrespectful comments about “Mexicans” (I put it in quotes because that has become the universal term for Hispanic people), I have picked up on some major assumptions. For instance, a couple minutes from my house are these incredibly massive and beautiful homes right on the bay. Many of the people who live in these houses are Hispanic. The popular thought in my town is that clearly these people are connected to drug cartels in Mexico and that is the only way they can afford that house. Any sign of wealth from a Mexican family in my community is immediate grounds for possible connection to the mafia.

    As ridiculous as that sounds, it is true. It is a sad thing that I have picked up on recently. And I know for a fact that I am guilty of harboring those thoughts in the past. I do not think I am racist in the least bit, nor do I believe that my hometown is inherently racist, but I do believe it is a structural issue that has made white people in my town suspicious of Mexican families.

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  5. I held the same belief that Alex pointed out. I never would have called myself racist and I don’t identify as a racist person. Yet, I’m not exempt from harboring certain thoughts that go along with racial stereotypes in the past. In fact, if I hadn’t known that family previously, I might have let those rumors sway me as well. I wouldn’t call my hometown nor my neighborhood racist either. In fact, the family in my story still lives there, and I haven’t heard any stories of the same type since. Just as Allison theorized, the people in my neighborhood had trouble accepting the truth since it didn’t validate their former beliefs. This is a huge problem because not only does it enhance stereotypes, but it also hinders the expulsion of these stereotypes. People have to be willing to accept truths that they might never have considered before.

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  6. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments. It’s both painful to read these things and yet inspiring to know that we are all thinking through more deeply how we came to hold these ‘implicit attitudes’ in our heads. Turns out, it is precisely because of these kinds of experiences and events that we come to believe certain things, and few of us have Candace’s mother around to say “um, NO.”

    I also want to make a plug for a really fascinating book by one of the guys we read early in the terms: Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. His books is called _Racism without Racists_. One of the chapters in the book is available here (http://sites.psu.edu/kielceskirclblog/wp-content/uploads/sites/863/2013/04/bonilla-silva_forman_2000_i__m_not_a_rac.pdf). What becomes totally fascinating is how white people often say explicitly anti-racist things and yet when pushed on questions of, say, inter-racial dating or adoption or why there are so many black people in jail, the justifications and the complete loss of coherence of their responses belies some deeper embedded racism that is not even conscious. I’m not sure if it’s in this article or not, but Bonilla-Silva uses discourse analysis to analyze people’s responses to challenging questions. What he finds is that they literally make no sense; English fails them. He suggests that demonstrates some kind of cognitive dissonance that is mightily hard to overcome unless and until we have honest, open conversations about race and racial privilege.

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