As I walked by myself down Elm Street last week, I looked up and saw three large men in caps and baggy clothing turn the corner and head in my direction. I kept walking, but once I came close enough to tell that the men were white — and thus probably students — a feeling of relief floated through the back of my mind. The relief bothered me: While I like to think of myself as a racially conscious black man, a simple encounter on the streets of my home awakened stereotypes I’ve long tried to suppress.
A month ago, however, I generally experienced the opposite phenomenon: When I walked alone at night, I became acutely anxious around every white person I saw. Over the summer I was the only black person in a group of 27 riders biking across the country for the Habitat Bicycle Challenge, a fundraiser for Habitat for Humanity. Most of the nine-week journey struck through the heart of Middle America. We spent nights in churches like the First Baptist Church of Lander, Wyo., and celebrated the Fourth of July in Oshkosh, Neb. Although the trip was fun, I felt extremely isolated as a black person.
I had never been to the rural Midwest or Great Plains, and my prejudices of gun-toting, Confederate-flag-waving, pickup-truck driving Red Staters made me apprehensive. Crossing the Mississippi from Illinois to Iowa brought to my mind scenes from the movie “Deliverance,” and, like Jon Voight, the last thing I wanted was to be held at gunpoint by a white farmer for his own bemusement. I cringed when I saw trucks with gun racks on their back windows, and crossed the street to avoid groups of local teenagers on the sidewalks of small towns. In the rare instance when I saw another black person, our greeting contained a tacit acknowledgment we both understood: If one of these white folks goes crazy, I’ve got your back.
In Western Illinois, I was finally pushed to reconsider my fear. As one of the trip’s leaders, I occasionally had to drive our 15-passenger support van and trailer, and one rainy day I accidentally drove the van into a 6-foot-deep ditch while turning around. I panicked when I saw that I had no cell phone service. Minutes after I climbed out of the van, a red pickup truck approached my position and slowed. The driver rolled down his window, revealing a middle-aged man with long hair and an unkempt beard, dressed head-to-foot in army fatigues. I stood cautiously in my yellow jacket and cargo shorts, Treo in hand. The ominous banjo track from “Deliverance” played through my mind.
Rather than reach for his gun rack, however, the man simply asked if I needed a hand. “I got a 4×4 at my place by the water tower,” he said with a country drawl. “I’ll be right back.” Soon after he left, several more drivers pulled over and exited their cars. The scene looked like a roadside farmer’s market, with a dozen or so people huddled together, negotiating ways to get my mud-soaked van and trailer out of the Illinois cornfield. As the rain turned to drizzle, the white man in the army fatigues returned. With a few quick moves, he towed the van out.
I am not suggesting that racism has died in Middle America. On the contrary, Iowa, for example, has the second most disproportionate incarceration rate of blacks in the country (behind Wisconsin), with one in 13 black Iowans in prison. Nevertheless, if I hadn’t reassessed my stereotypes of Middle Americans by meeting wonderfully generous and friendly people on my trip, I might have maintained a disrespectful attitude towards all of them. The same is true at Yale: Just as “Deliverance” gave me an unreasonable fear of rural white people, the innumerable warnings told to freshmen about how dangerous New Haven is only confirms unreasonable fears of all black people walking down Elm Street.
New Haven has crime and other problems associated with poverty, just as Middle America continues to harbor racism. But it is dangerous if students are encouraged to think of Yale as a safe bubble floating in the middle of a violent ghetto, thereby disengaging from the city and disrespecting its residents. As an institution, Yale might do well to consider a different metaphor when it introduces freshmen to the challenges of living in privilege in the midst of poverty. As I learned from my two recent encounters, I can take shortcuts in my thinking, ignoring the difference between being aware of my surroundings and being fearful of all black men in hoodies (or all white men in fatigues). Nevertheless, stereotyping is dangerous when unchecked by meaningful personal contact. It’s just another form of mugging, in which both the victim and the perpetrator can be hurt.
Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. He is political action coordinator for the Black Student Alliance at Yale.