Sunday, August 18, 2013

At the pool; ignoring the fear impulse

The other day I was at a public pool. It was hot, and there were many other families there enjoying the summer sun.

I wear a wedding ring, and whenever I end up somewhere where random crime is more likely to happen (a NY City train, for example) I turn the ring around* so as to hide the center stone, and to avoid unwanted attention. To me, doing so is a means of protection, but I know it's also a sign of defensiveness. I'm scared, and I'm showing it. 

By the poolside, I caught myself several times turning my ring around. Every time someone of another skin color or culture walked by, my hand moved to my fingers. I believe that I was doing it unconsciously but I was determined to figure out why.


I was definitely uncomfortable being at this pool. I was in an unfamiliar place surrounded by people I didn't know. Where I used to live (New York City) I was always among people of different cultures and races. People mixed in offices and sat together on buses and walked down the street together and I wasn't scared. Sure, there were neighborhoods that I wouldn't want to walk through on a dark night alone, but mostly I felt safe there. People of color were just people.

Where I live now is fantastic; but most of them time I only see people of one color. I've been living here for a few years and I guess I've gotten used to it. I remember when I first moved here it was a bit of a shock how 'white' it was. Now at this pool it was another shock to be surrounded by different-looking people again.


The first time it happened I turned it, then thought, "Why did I do that? We're all just families here. Parents and kids and groups of friends. Nobody's threatening me."

The second time I turned it, then immediately turned it back. I was thinking about how one of these other people might feel if they saw me do it. They might feel judged. Unfairly so. 

The third time I caught myself in mid-reach. I was going to break this habit!

It took a lot of practice, but at least for that day, I didn't turn it again.


I firmly believe that all people, no matter how they look on the outside are just people (amazing people, as I've said before). I have habits (I think we all do) that communicate messages to others that they are not welcome. Even if my emotions tell me 'be scared' when my environment changes, that doesn't mean I have to act on them.

What habits do you have that send the 'wrong' message? What about the 'right' message?


*I grew up in New York City, and I learned several other 'habits' that have to do with protecting myself in public against unwanted threats or attention. The 'turning the ring' habit is just one. I also know that I lock doors whenever driving in unfamiliar neighborhoods, I look down and don't make eye contact when walking on a public street.


SL said...

it is a lot of work to be sensitive to other people's paranoia.

Janet said...

Thanks for your comment, SL. I agree, that it is hard work to do any of this practice. I still believe every day it's worth it.

To the 'other people's paranoia' point, I think that's possibly devaluing how other people react. I'm thinking of the recent comments by our president about how he felt hearing locks click on car doors as he went by, just because of how he looked. I don't see this as irrational paranoia. I see this as a way to make other people feel welcome when they are around me.

CM said...

Another good blog. I too turn my rings around but I don't confuse being smart and hedging my bet with bigotry or intolerance.
In an unsafe environment or in any situation when I am outnumbered, even if it's just a bunch of teenage girls, I become aware. In a family environment like the pool, it may be unnecessary but in an elevator with two sumo wrestlers, well, better safe than sorry...catch another elevator.

Recently, Obama talked about how he felt as a young man when women would see him on the street and lock their car doors. I do that. Not just because it's a guy, it's a black guy, it's a tattooed guy, it's a strange guy, it's a drunk guy, it's a homeless guy, it's a crazy man, it's ten guys, it's a bunch of kids but because when one can be vulnerable, one is smart to hedge his or her bets. My grandmother used to say, "one drop of crazy blood" meaning, it only takes a split second to make a really bad choice.

Our awareness may not always require turning our rings around, but still, it's an awareness which has evolved in us because we didn't want to get eaten by a tiger. It's instinct. We may want to tame it but we should never shut it off. It's that 'hair on your neck' that may save your head.

Under the right conditions, i still turn my rings around, lock my car doors, 'miss' the elevator. Lean to the safe side. If your gut tells you you're uncomfortable, that's your tiger thing going off. If you defy it, at least be on your guard.

You ARE compassionate because you care. That doesn't mean you shouldn't BE aWARE. It just means knowing where to draw the 'ring' line.

You're sweet, kind, and totally good and that ain't bad. Besides, the fact that you realize that 'good' people don't look a certain way, nor do 'bad' ones (unfortunately) means you already are caring.

Janet said...

Thanks CM! I agree that it's good to be aware of our surroundings and it's good to lean on those instincts. They can help us be safe and help us to survive (from tigers or teenagers).

My point in the article above was that I was doing this action unconsciously. I want to choose not to react to a habitual fear; I want to choose to appear more open and welcoming to the people around me.

The other thing, and here's where I agree with Obama's comments, is that the fear translates. If I show I'm afraid, then people may feel feared. Not the first time they are treated with fear, and maybe not the second time. If I treat people with fear habitually regardless of the situation (simply because of the color of their skin) then I believe I'm making people feel feared. I don't want our kids to grow up in a world where they feel feared. I want them to grow up feeling loved.


Wire said...

The "tiger instinct" is from another time and place. It used to be every threat meant life or death. But our society has changed faster than our instincts can keep up. Our bodies can't differentiate between stress from a tiger (life or death) and stress from missing the elevator (trivial). The longer we keep giving ourselves permission to act like cave-people, the longer it will take us to realize our highest potential as human beings.

I believe when we "hedge our bets" based solely on skin color and nothing else, that is racist. It divides people and it contributes to a system which unfairly lifts some people up and pushes other people down.

I think it is admirable and a challenge to notice the "tiger instinct" and, rather than respond to it blindly, note it for what it is and then make a sensible decision based on ALL the information, not just skin color.