Collins O. Airhihenbuwa, PhD, MPH
At a family gathering over the Easter break, a conversation arose over the various kinds of phobias people have. Of particular interest is when what is feared by one person is treasured by another. There are some kinds of fear for which general acceptance or at least understanding can be assured even by those who do not suffer such fear. For example, those who are not afraid of height might nevertheless appreciate that others do. This is also true of other fears like being in closed spaces. However, when the fear is of a treasured common and popular household pet such as a cat or a dog, the reaction may be visited by a different kind of understanding or questionable acceptance. The reaction seems to demand that the person who holds the fear explain when and how it started. How can you be afraid of cats? You mean you are afraid of dogs? The conversation led me to offer a refrain that ‘fear has no logic.’ No logic in the sense that individual experiences are so different that a simple explanation for why the fear continues will not end the fear.
The degree to which there is empathy and tolerance for fear tend to reflect the belief that certain fears are group-based rather than individual-level phenomena. When fear is group based, such as fear that many Africans have of snakes, lacking fear of snakes stands out as an exception to the rule. If you do not believe me, watch a recent stand-up routine by Trevor Noah about Africans and fear of snakes in a comical encounter with a French person who made fun of him for fearing snakes. Even then, what we tolerate and accept about fear becomes more complex when on the one hand a sizable proportion of group members hold the fear while on the other hand another sizable proportion does not, as is the case with Black folks’ relationship with dogs. Whatever the ‘cause’ of the fear, it seems to me that fear does not always have a logic. By this, I mean there is no simple, cause/effect relationship that individuals who hold this fear can offer to explain it. Innate and learned reasons have been offered to explain the roots of some form of fear, if only to reassure the person who experiences it that there is nothing wrong with them. For example, given the variety of fears that individuals in one family can hold, it may be impossible to find a simple cure because there is no shared, logical cause/effect relationship. Therefore, fear is learned and could be unlearned. This is particularly important to remember if the consequences of fear can determine life and death. If this is the case, what can we make of the fear of Black Male body?
Fear of and, therefore, dislike of Black people, especially African Americans, has long been established and defined as ‘colorophobia’ in the 19th century, today as ‘Blackaphobia’ and, more recently, “anti-black racism”. For generations, fear of the Black body, particularly the Black Male Body, has been at the center of conversations and research on police brutality and use of deadly force. Those who fear dogs avoid them rather than trying to kill them. Those who own potentially violent dogs are held responsible for training them to be restrained when they encounter people. In the case of fear of the Black male body by the police, however, the reaction has been for police to shoot and kill.
On March 20th of this year, 2019, a 29 year old African American male was shot to death in State College, Pennsylvania by a police officer. State College, PA is home to Penn State University where I spent over 30 years of my career as a faculty. Osaze Osagie (https://www.theroot.com/police-kill-29-year-old-black-man-they-tried-to-serve-w-1833502085) was a child of many of our families not only in the sense of a ‘village’ but in the reality of having a shared culture and place. In this deadly encounter, as in many similar encounters over the years, the police officer claimed he feared for his life to justify shooting and killing Osaze. This is exactly the same as what we heard in other cases of Blacks killings, particularly Black males. Two days later following the killing of Osaze Osagie, March 22nd, a jury acquitted the police officer who shot and killed 17 year old Antwon Rose II (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/22/us/antwon-rose-shooting.html) in Pittsburgh, PA, leading to protests to decry the persistent injustice for Black lives particularly young Black males. It is reported that more than 200 such killings have occurred in just the first quarter of this year, 2019. In all these killings by the police, one explanation commonly offered is that the police feared for their life, even when the Black person that was reportedly feared was running away from the police and ends up being shot in the back. When these killings occur, what is not covered in the news, yet long decried in the Black community, is the devaluation of the Black body. The devaluation I refer to is a process through which the Black body comes to be considered inhuman or subhuman. During encounters with the police, their fears (or claims of fear) of the Black male body turn the encounter into a momentary war whereby the Black male becomes an inhuman super predator whose very presence during such encounters is believed to represent an imminent and present danger to the police. This predatory framing of the Black male body has become a normative group (police and whites) fear; those who lack this fear are considered the exception. How do we Black people then protect our sons from this epidemic of killings of young Black males. Do some police officers suffer from Black Male phobia? And, if so, can they actually shoot and kill their way out of their own fear?
Naming deadly encounters as racism often forecloses constructive engagement with people whose fears have led them to kill, and it silences the subjects of their fear. New psychological work on forms of bias (unconscious and implicit) are helping to bring to light the negative attitudes we all hold toward those who are different from us, even though these attitudes vary by levels and degrees. This work is useful, though it does not address the epidemic of killings of young Black males fully. For people who engage in behaviors that silence the voices of the others (e.g., not acknowledging their presence or the value of their contributions), the term microaggression can help unveil the chronicity of certain habits and behaviors that silence other voices. Sadly, although we now understand about implicit biases and microaggressions better, using these methods to unveil the habits and behaviors of silencing others does not address the epidemic of killings of young Black men at the hands of the police.
It is possible that the issue is that we use terms of inclusion such as biases to cover racism, sexism and other isms related to silencing of voices. While not discounting the values of biases as currently studied, what is needed is a focus on fear of the Black male body. What if we reframed police fear of Black male bodies as a learned phobia? Like the biases for which we have tests and measures to determine individual scores, do we have a ‘Blackaphobia test’? What if every time a police officer used a deadly weapon against a Black person, all police officers in their department or precinct would have to take the test? The results of the test would be used to develop interventions to treat the individuals and their group collective phobias. Could such collective responsibility and accountability on the part of the precinct and department compel each officer to be more restrained in their encounters with Black males to avoid the consequence of subjecting their entire unit/group to such a test?
If fear of the Black male body were framed in part as a critical form of Blackaphobia, could that make a difference in saving black lives?
How do we institutionalize collective responsibility to address fear of the Black body?
Collins O Airhihenbuwa