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Racial vestiges

Rushing, my head bowed down, my shoulders curled in and my mind full, I barely noticed the man I passed on the sidewalk.

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I parked my car on Franklin Street and walked briskly down the sidewalk. I had to be at work in 10 minutes. Rushing, my head bowed down, my shoulders curled in and my mind full, I barely noticed the man I passed on the sidewalk. Not until I heard his voice behind me, sounding injured and accusatory: "What are you scared of me for? Man, that is messed up!" I stopped and looked back. A black man about my age stood on the sidewalk calling after me. "Why are you white women always scared of me?" Startled, I turned around and began to walk slowly back toward him: "I'm not afraid of you," I said. "I'm just rushing to work."

He continued as I approached. "It's not easy, you know," he said, waving his hands in frustration. As the distance between us closed, his tone changed. "Why do you white women act scared of me? Just because I'm black, just because I wear these clothes?" He gestured to his loose jeans and T-shirt. "It ain't right."

I nodded. "I know," I said.

I also knew that sometimes, walking down Rosemary Street toward Carrburritos, I felt threatened by groups of black men dressed like him on the street corner. Fear doesn't know a thing about racism. Fear is a rush of queasiness to the gut, a quickening of breath and pounding of the heart that bypasses the brain altogether. When I feel this way on Rosemary Street, I make a deliberate decision to make eye contact and say hello. But perhaps my fear is evident in the way I set my jaw or my overly broad smile.

Just a few nights before, my husband and I were walking in the mostly black neighborhood behind our house in Carrboro. Walking down one empty street, we saw two black men sitting in a parked car, watching us approach. I raised my hand in greeting, and when I did, they both started, quickly raising their own hands in response. Their exaggerated smiles mirrored my own. "Sometimes my interactions with black men on the streets of this town feel haunted," I'd said to my husband. We're each so burdened with the past that it's hard to behave in an authentic way toward each other. One wrong move of mine can make me look like a racist; one wrong move of theirs can make them look like a predator. My husband, who is from Africa, had shrugged his shoulders. "The legacy of slavery," he'd said simply.

The man in front of me was still speaking; the words were pouring out of him. "You know, sometimes I may even be agitated ... I have my own problems. It doesn't mean I'm dangerous." I didn't know what to say. "You're right," I said. "You're right." I wished I could think of a better response. But just listening, bearing witness to his truth and my own discomfort, was all I could do. Then he fell silent and took a deep breath. "Thank you," he said, looking me in the eye. And we both turned around and went in opposite directions.

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