I’m sorry to have such a loaded title. But it’s the honest title and I feel like it wrote me if anything. To any white men, I’m sorry if this offends you. I suppose it’s fair for you to be offended.
I live with a wonderful, kind, 6″3′ tall, white man and he is, if anything, living proof that my sudden and abrupt fear of certain white men isn’t the most rational thing about me (although, statistically, it has some grounding given the over-proportionate cases of violence, specifically mass violence, committed by white men between 17-55). As a white woman, my saying this, even from my own perspective, is a little too “trying to deny my privilege by separating myself from it.” But here I am, shaking, with as much lactic acid in my calves as when I played intense sports. A subtle but insidious tremor running through my muscles like adrenaline disguised as electricity. Random jolts jump-start my muscles and, like a reflex bump to the knee, I flinch as if I’m about to stand up only to realize how silly that is and, although alone, feel embarrassed and sink reluctantly back in my seat. And this is just a recollection of a response to an episode, not even the effect the situation itself had on me (the one I am about to describe).
Sitting at the tiny table in a crowded restaurant, I memorize the pattern of the wood grain on the table while trying to tune out all of the stimuli I have picked up, the seemingly innocent environmental factors which only I would notice and consider screaming flags of warning. I don’t think I could put two words together out loud but given that my hands are itching to shake and pick at something, tear a napkin or something apart before it tears at me. And out of nowhere. I feel about as embarrassed as I felt as a kid, maybe nine or ten, when I went to haunted houses and couldn’t do it. I’ve made a fool out of myself, yet again, primarily to myself.
And in spite of how many times this has happened, I go through the same routine all over again as if it is the first time I misread a situation. Like a few years ago when I went to this haunted orchard where you go in many different haunted houses and a haunted hayride, all the while scary shit casually walks around the orchard too–and I gritted my teeth, grinding them together and locking my jaw so hard I thought it would snap, pressing the tops of my bottom front teeth forcefully and intently against the backs of my top front teeth.
I got through most of it. Until we tried to go through the haunted asylum which was too much for me, too close to home. They sat us in a doctor’s waiting room with a mirror where the actors on the outside could see us and beat on the walls as blood red words showed up. The nurse asked for volunteers to go first and be the first patient this quack sadist doctor was supposed to see, and I would assume experiment on like they did back when anybody who didn’t look like they walked out of Stepford or Pleasantville was sent to an asylum for lobotomies and to get needles stuck through their brains. Naturally nobody volunteered and she pressured me to do it. I sat down on the bench while we waited for the doctor to see us, wincing as if the wall behind me might lift and somebody grab me forcefully and slamming my feet to the floor as if preparing to resist being dragged forward. When she opened the dark door and I could hear joyous screaming as they waited for me to walk through, those same muscles in my calves slammed their feet to the floor like a driver breaking to stop a gruesome accident. And I said I couldn’t. She paused and finally she said okay and opened the door and my ex, who was my ex at the time, left with me. The tool bouncer announced to an entire waiting line about 50 yards long calling us chicken liver or something and how nobody chickens out of a haunted house and holds things up when other people were waiting to go in. He shouted to the crowd that we wasted spots in a group and that meant they waited longer. I was too pinned up, locked inside my own body and all the chemicals flashing through it but I know the part of me that was processing the shame had never wanted to bury her boot through somebody’s scrotum so badly. But that version of me, the one who can do anything but shrink into a dark corner, was a stranger to me at the time, almost a so unfamiliar to me I would have said I had never met her.
I have PTSD. But somehow I have the awfully lucky PTSD in the respect it’s like those doctor’s bills when you go to the emergency room in July because you’re sick with something that, a year later when you get the bill, seems silly. I can’t point to a moment, a week, a year that caused it. I can’t say exactly who but I have an idea. I grew up in a home where I can remember seeing violence for the first time at age 4 and the last time I experienced it to a degree I didn’t know if I was getting out of the situation in tact, I was a senior in college at 22. And at least once to a hundred times every year since then depending on if I was in college or not. All white men. And while I know it’s “#notallwhitemen” it has been all white men in these situations and, when you can’t be sure you are safe with people who are supposed to care for you and protect you, you form the rigid, subconscious instinct that you can’t trust strangers who fit the same description. After all, wouldn’t you guess, if you had to, that between a man related to you and a man you don’t know, the former is less likely to be able to do something to hurt you?
I don’t like it when anybody has their hands in their pockets but white men, especially if they look like the type who could be frustrated, lonely, and feel like the world cheated them, scare me. I always feel badly when I’m walking down a dark street at night and I cross it when I hear footsteps, especially those heavier or that thud differently like a man walking with his hips and stomach forward, leisurely, not hurried or self-conscious and measured like the cadences of most women’s walks. I feel bad because before I turn my head, I start looking for an escape route. And when I dare look over my shoulder and see a black man, I almost feel sorrow or remorse because I know from my male friends who are black, especially those who are bigger, they are really self-aware around white women and they’ve said it makes them feel badly or frustrated or hurt or degraded, or accused of terrible things. But I am really mindful of the fact that black men in this country have to be more careful, especially around white women because they could get shot for calling the cops, much less what might happen should somebody jump to conclusions. I try to make sure when I see black men out that I make eye contact and say hello, that I clearly am not afraid of them. And I know some white people do clutch their purses harder and there is something true in there. But truth is, I look up and see a black man, and as badly as I feel because I’m making unfair assumptions about white men in this moment, I look up and see a black man and relax.
While this might sound manufactured, think about it this way. If there are ten solo cups in front of you, six red and four blue, and you are told to drink all ten. Five of the six red cups make you violently ill. While you know it isn’t all red cups, if you come back a year later to the same experiment with red, yellow, blue, green, orange, etc. cups in front of you and you are told to drink half, would you go straight for the red cups?
It’s because of experience. The people who have repeatedly hurt me and threatened me the most have been white men. And the men that spook me half the time, almost all the time, don’t deserve my fear. But in my world, frustrated white men without jobs or frustrated white men with blue collar jobs who are told off by their middle class foreman all day, or some other boss, they come home drunk, tossing beers in their truck beds on the way, passing out in the garage when your mom locks them out, then come roaring alive when they wake up and stumble inside, picking a fight tin he middle of the night and before you know it, you’re in your closet, pressed as far into the dark corner as you can be and as hard into the wall as possible, scrunching up your toes and sucking in your breath to keep every piece of you in the shadow in the hopes that if that door is opened and somebody calls your name, and if they happen to open your closet door because everybody knows you hide, maybe the light won’t bounce off your toe nails.
It’s like when you shoot a toy cap gun and it kicks back a little, making pop, pop, pop noises that pierce the air. I’m the cap gun. And my bloodstream is the chamber. Except it’s jolts of fear, alternating between stunning and shocking me. Am I going to freeze? Do I try not to move and not create the very situation I fear? I do what you might do if you were bracing yourself for an expected hit. I freeze and drop all other thoughts and concerns for the sole and consuming, very demanding task of running a cross-assessment between my risks, resources, vulnerabilities, and options trying to determine as quickly as possible whether I should make myself as small and unnoticeable as possible, make myself as distant and unreachable as possible, or blow up and take up more space to ward off a less serious threat. I do this every single time I walk into a room. And when it gets too much, especially when I can’t stop it even around a person I trust more than anybody in the world who is living proof that I don’t always have to be afraid, I lock myself in the bathroom and try not to breathe, lest I be heard, and push my forehead into the cold, blue tile or wall of the tub. It doesn’t go away and every time a man walks by me, familiar or unfamiliar, I simultaneously experience the shame and immense guilt of making an unfounded and ridiculous accusation that, to me, feels like a dire warning.
It is redundant and harrowing every single time.