I’ve been conducting a social experiment.
My yoga studio, Bee Yoga Fusion, is located in the suburbs outside of Washington DC. Nestled in the town center of historic Old Greenbelt, the studio is located above the local credit union bank and the door to the studio is next to the ATM machine. Since COVID began in March 2020 most of the businesses continue to be shut down. I am going to the studio to do virtual classes but people aren’t hanging out in the town and it feels a bit eerie.
If someone is at the ATM when I approach the studio, their back is to me and it feels a bit awkward to come up behind them and go to the door. I know that if I was in their shoes it would be a trauma trigger for me, I have been attacked and mugged.
So when I see someone there I first shake my keys as I approach and then I say the same line to every person regardless of their appearance of gender or race.
“Hello! I’m just going to the door over here.” Then I put my key in the door, look back at them and smile and say “I didn’t want to scare you.” Same two lines, delivered exactly the same every time. The response is what is interesting.
Women: regardless of race hold their purses closer to their bodies when I shake my keys and ALL of them take a deep exhale when I look back at them and smile. They ALL say “Thank you”. Maybe with a compliment on my hair or glasses.
Black men: their backs visibly stiffen when I shake my keys and it isn’t until I smile back at them that they relax their posture. They too always say “Thank you”. And typically tell me to “Have a good day” or “God Bless”.
White men: have no visible change when I shake my keys. When I look back at them and smile and deliver my second line it’s mind-blowing how many times I have heard this response, “What, are you going to attack me?” (Sarcastic laugh) “Or put COVID on me?”
I was (and am) fully aware of white privilege but what this truly showed me is the undercurrent of fear that lives in women and black men on a daily basis that just doesn’t exist for white men.
I’m taking this knowledge and continuing to teach my (white) sons how to exist in the world by being more compassionate and aware of this undercurrent of fear that is fully alive in other people. I am not teaching my sons to fear someone coming up from behind them or to fear people at all. But rather to be compassionate towards others when they are approaching someone from behind regardless if it’s a woman, man, non-binary person, and regardless of race.
Women are taught by their parents at an early age to be mindful of being attacked. Typically when they learn to drive, with how to protect themselves with their keys. Some parents may buy their daughter mace to carry in her purse. Protecting yourself is taught and rehearsed. Are some men taught this too? Sure. The majority…no.
Black children are taught by their parents how to interact with the police. What to do if they are pulled over. Taught how to move, what to say. Phone numbers memorized in their heads. Are some white children taught this? Maybe. The majority…absolutely not.
I want my (white) sons to be aware of these differences and to go out into the world and lean into empathy and compassion rather than following the standard path laid out before them because they are white men. And I hope in doing so this will ripple out a small change within future generations. Will you join me?