Daunte Wright, George Floyd, and the Paradox of Fear in the Black Experience

Ida B. Wells, the Statue of Liberty, and the knee of Derek Chauvin on the neck of George Floyd. Photo illustration by Jon Fortt, for The Black Experience in America: The Course.


The murder of George Floyd and the killing of Daunte Wright are tragedies. I have a feeling, though, that we process the tragedies differently depending on how much we identify with Floyd and Wright—or how likely we are to be treated the way they were in a random police encounter.

That’s certainly the case for me. I’ve found that navigating society as a Black man comes with unique challenges. Contradictions.

For example, there’s what I call the extreme of appearances: If I wear athleisure, strangers often make unflattering assumptions about my education level and figure I’m not a professional. But if I’m dressed sharply, my clothes make an uncommonly strong impression. A nice outfit becomes otherworldly.

Then there’s the paradox of vigilance: If I want to survive, I have to stay aware of the ways society treats me differently. But if I dwell on those things too much—if I view every interaction, advantage or slight as possibly influenced by race—it shuts down my ability to function.

Similar, and even more troubling now that I’m a parent, is the paradox of fear. I have a 12-year-old son whose three-inch growth spurt over the past year suddenly has him looking (and sounding) more like a 16-year-old. My son needs to understand fear. I need him to be aware that strangers will sometimes assume he is even larger and older than he appears. They will see him as a threat. He will have to deescalate situations and go out of his way to put people at ease. But even if he does all that, there’s a danger. If he’s too focused on the lens of fear through which some of society views him, he will adopt that lens. The fear will alter him. He either will become afraid, or deeply resentful and defiant. That fear can keep him alive. It can also eat him alive.

These complicated and sometimes contradictory forces are a big part of the reason why I designed The Black Experience in America: The Course. Understanding them, and the dynamics they create, can probably help us move forward.

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