Feared by Default

The first car I ever owned was a 1999 Camaro Z28. I found it stalled in a Walmart parking lot with chipped paint, busted wheels, and an engine bay in disarray. Most people wouldn’t even give it a second look, but for $900, it would be mine. After working on that car daily for months, I knew everything about it inside and out.

One afternoon while driving back from the store, I saw blue lights appear in my rearview mirror. My heart began to race as I turned into a gas station parking lot. I rolled down my window, took my license out, and fixed it to the steering wheel. The officer approached hand on his holster and asked me to step around to the back of the car.

My movements were methodical, yet I couldn’t escape the feeling that my heart would burst from my chest at any moment. Then, as the officer pointed out that my tail lights were out, I made a grave mistake: I let my guard down. For a fraction of a second, I allowed myself to get excited about fixing the issue with my car, and I reached my hand into my pocket to pull out the fuse I had forgotten to plug back in earlier that day.

I was pulled back to reality by the sudden firm grip on the back of my neck, planted there as the officer slammed my face into the trunk of my car, and as I heard the sound of a weapon unholstering, everything went still.

Years later, now living on the West Coast, my partner wanted to show me a neighborhood where they would hang out in High School, a place up in the hills with a beautiful view overlooking her town. As we drove up towards the top of the neighborhood, taking in the homes worth tens of millions of dollars, cars parked on the street of equal value, I started to realize I felt uneasy.

Upon reaching the top, they wanted me to park the car so that we could take in the city’s view at night together. I would have loved to give them that moment, but I just knew I couldn’t. I didn’t belong here in the eyes of strangers, and I was still the same kid driving a beat-up Camaro in a hoodie in sweatpants.

That is just one of the costs of being feared by society because of your appearance. You miss out on magical moments. You have to think carefully about the types of clothes you wear. Become accustomed to people crossing the street as you approach them. Experience your new neighbor hide from you as you try to give them a misdelivered package, and always live with the knowledge others fear of you can be weaponized against you.

When people believe you’re capable of horrible things because you look a certain way, it means you can never give them a reason not to trust you. You’re never allowed to be angry, raise your voice, and you must always be approachable and welcoming. If the Tulsa Massacre, the death of Emmett Till, and countless other tragic events have taught us anything, it is that if others have any reason to believe you made someone uncomfortable, that can be a death sentence.

Regardless of age, education, personal achievements, or character, being a Black man is to be feared by default globally. I just want to watch the stars as everyone else.