“Lock your door.”
That was the first insidiously racist thing my body remembers hearing. There were other words, heard earlier. Subtle, belittling generalizations. Words that didn’t match up with what I knew about my few brown-bodied relatives and friends, who felt like family and classmates.
I didn’t find the words funny, as they were often intended. I was unconvinced of the superiority the speakers of those words were attempting to claim with their digs. I thought the words were stupid. I was not afraid to say so. But I didn’t recognize them as dangerous.
“Lock your door” is the first thing I remember hearing that created an intense feeling in my body. It was said to me by someone I thought I loved. He was a young white man — a boy, really. We were 17. And he was a scared child. I could feel his fear.
“Lock your door. This is a bad neighborhood. This is a black neighborhood.”
There was urgency in his voice and tension in his body, hands gripping the steering wheel. I asked how he knew it was a bad neighborhood. In hindsight, my tone was more meek than the moment deserved. He said something about his dad growing up around that city, or working there. I can’t remember.
I remember only how certain he was that his fear was justified. And how his palpable fear became mine for a moment as I locked my door. Those words, in that adrenaline-fueled moment. What I heard merged with what I saw. Lock your door. Tightly packed buildings, concrete and brick. Cop cars. No open space, few trees. Black and brown bodies unknown to me.
If I thought those words were stupid, I was too afraid to say so. I didn’t recognize the words as dangerous. I didn’t act to protect or defend their targets. Instead, I locked the door to defend myself. To protect the white boy sitting beside me. This racist fear rooted in my body for a moment, like an invasive plant. It was my job to weed it out.
It wasn’t impossibly hard. I didn’t have to teach myself how to weed. I had guides. They had been with me all my life. They still are. Loving family. Generous friends. Wise elders. And wise youngers. Teachers, all of them. I benefit from their wisdom, always. That night in the car was the last time such an explicit connection was spoken to me: black neighborhood, bad neighborhood. I have chosen company more carefully since then.
But it wasn’t the last time I have had to weed out racist fear. “Let’s cross the street.” (Weed it out.) “You should put your wallet in your pocket.” (Weed it out.) Friendly advice offered by well-meaning people. Perfectly timed in advance of a certain housing complex or upon the approach of a tall dark man.
It is my job to recognize when words are racist and dangerous. Especially when they are shrouded in a story designed to make me feel afraid. It is our job to be each other’s guides. It is our job to prune out these invasive roots. To teach each other how to spot them and how to weed them out. Because people keep dying. And fear is the justification used over and over again to defend the killing of black people. It is our job to eradicate that fear.
Lee Wotherspoon lives in Wellfleet, where she works in public health, teaches yoga, and writes.