The Morse Code of Fear

I remember after class one time in graduate school two of my classmates approaching me to ask if I were going to the parking garage, and if so, could they walk with me. I said, “Of course.”

The class got out well after dark, and the parking garage was across campus. So we walked together in the dark.

When we got to the parking garage, I walked both my female classmates to their cars, waiting until they left. Nobody made a big deal out of it, but it struck me that there are some things I take for granted about the way the world operates that many other people can’t afford to be so casual about.

After I’d left my friends at their cars, I started walking to my car. On the way, I noticed another woman walking toward me. And I started thinking, “I’ll bet she has to size me up as a potential threat. She doesn’t know if I am or not, but she can’t afford to take too many chances. I’m a pretty good sized guy, kind of scruffy looking. I’ve got long hair, a beard, wearing a black leather jacket. She doesn’t know me.”

And then I had a shocking thought: “I bet I look kind of scary in a lonely parking garage at night.” But in my mind that can’t be right. Because, you see, in my personal narrative, I’m the good guy. I’m the guy who helps little old ladies catch their dogs and put their groceries in the trunks of their cars. I don’t waylay unsuspecting strangers. I don’t scare college girls in parking garages at night. But the young woman approaching me in this parking garage right now doesn’t know that. And she believes, as she crosses to the other side, that she can’t really afford to take the chance. I can see it in the way her eyes dart about. And it makes me so sad, knowing that even trying to allay her fears will only heighten her sense of danger. I attempt a smile, but she hurries by me in the opposite direction, her heels clicking in a kind of frightened Morse Code only those conditioned to dread the violence of the night can translate.

This new twist in parking garage orienteering led to another thought: “My experience of the world is totally different from that. I can’t remember the last time I felt physically intimidated, like somebody might be trying to figure out whether I was an easy target for brutality. I don’t have to treat each new encounter as a potential threat.”

Now, maybe I’m kidding myself; maybe I should have my threat detectors calibrated more finely. But that seems like a really crappy way to have to live--which led to another thought: “That is the world a lot of people live in every day--one I take for granted means me no harm, but one that always seems fraught with potential violence for many.”

All of which, at 9:00 at night in a dark parking garage makes me wish I had a sign, some way to communicate to the world: “Don’t worry. I’m safe.” But I don’t, partly because even displaying such a sign would heighten suspicion.

Let’s be honest: There’s a certain privilege in being a 215 pound straight white guy who often looks like he just walked off the set of Sons of Anarchy.

Privilege. Male privilege. Straight privilege. White privilege.

Ugh! Start talking about privilege and people’s eyes glaze over. Let me put that more precisely: Start talking about privilege and people who enjoy privilege lose interest in the conversation … like, really quickly.

I suspect it has something to do with the fact that people like to think of whatever advantages they have in life as earned.

Ok. So, I won’t talk about privilege. What if I talk about the disparity of advantage in terms of a sustained habit of empathy?

What if the scary looking guy who means no harm spent time trying to see the world through the eyes of a scared coed in a parking garage? It might not make him any less scary to the next young woman he passes; but it might prompt him to call attention to a world in which a significant portion of the inhabitants feel that, given a range of everyday circumstances, they have to treat each new encounter with a stranger as having a potential for violence.

If you go through life with very little fear of being attacked, or suspected, or ostracized because of the person you love, don’t you have a moral responsibility to create a world in which others don’t have to live in fear either?