I’d been dreaming about it since long before the plane landed, and nothing—not even The Eiffel Tower—was going to stand in my way. It was September of 2000, and I had just survived my first transatlantic flight. I was in town to see Steely Dan in concert, and only had two days to take in the sights. But at that very moment all I wanted was a genuine baguette. I checked into the hotel, took a shower and set off in search of my prize.
Back outside, I spotted a bakery at the end of the street. Halfway there, a silver-haired woman wearing a light grey skirt suit, and walking a toy dog on a leash approached. My first instinct was to cross to the other side of the street but my baguette awaited just past her. Apprehensive but determined, I decided to stand my ground. After all, I was in a new country. Maybe things would go differently. I took a deep breath.
As she neared, my palms began to sweat. Was she going to spit on me? Curse at me? Signal to the nearest gendarme? I stood frozen on the sidewalk, bracing for the worst. As the woman passed, she looked up at me, smiled and offered a most delightful “Bonjour!” before continuing on her way.
I realised I’d been holding my breath. I exhaled and started to cry.
I decided I had to move to Europe.
I was 23 years old, and I’d never before realised how afraid I’d been of white women. It hadn’t always been so. As a child, white women were schoolteachers, librarians; figures of authority ready to lend a helping hand. But as the years advanced, I learned that the wrong word or look from a white woman could expose me to danger, that it was best to avoid making eye contact with the white woman who moved her purse to the shoulder furthest away from me when I stepped onto an elevator, and never to speak to children of white mothers in grocery stores. By the turn of the millennium, far removed from the Free to Be... You and Me teachings of my childhood, my perception had changed. I had developed a healthy fear of white women I didn’t know.
In order to navigate the terrifying world of interacting with white women, I developed survival tactics such as speaking in a higher-pitched voice to exude vulnerability or whistling to mask my unease. In the worst cases, panic impelled me to steer away from them altogether. Over time, these reactions became habit, and I thought about the shifts in my behaviour about as often as I would an intermittent check engine light on a dashboard panel. But the fear idled. And it was on that Parisian sidewalk where I comprehended just how paralysing it was.
I have often used the anecdote of crossing that woman in Paris to explain why I have spent most of the 22 years that have elapsed since then residing outside of the United States, pointing to it as a “Eureka!” moment that set me on the path to liberation from my fear. The reality is, that moment was only the imitation of enlightenment. There was gas in the car, and I’d started the engine but the journey hadn’t begun.
I now live in a small town in Finland. It’s quiet, people are nice, and I feel safe. But on a morning walk a few months ago, I caught myself whistling and crossing to the other side of the street when a white woman approached. A creeping anxiety turned to shame as I understood I was still being controlled by the fear I thought I had shed decades before.
Obvious flawed logic on various fronts had caused my liberation journey to stall. I had incorrectly assumed that because the white woman stranger I had encountered wasn’t frightening and did not live in the U.S., that white women strangers outside of the U.S. weren’t frightening. I had also foregone the possibility of a non-intimidating encounter with an unfamiliar white woman in the U.S.
But the biggest mistake was that I hadn’t acknowledged my power. By refusing to cross to the other side of the street, I had made the positive, Parisian passing possible. Instead of giving in to old habits, I had changed my behaviour and created the possibility for a new outcome. The tool with which I could conquer the fear had been mine all along.
Equipped with this recognition of power, I am determined to remove the sludge of bias from my brain and liberate myself from my fear of strange white women once and for all. Instead of relying on prejudices and practices from past experiences, I will mobilise my reserves of compassion and understanding to command new interactions.
Retraining my brain after decades of programming will not be an easy task, especially amidst daily bombardment of portrayals of white women striving to make shared spaces as uncomfortable as possible. But just as I have learned to tune out marketing tactics persuading me to follow the latest trend, I can sharpen my independent thinking skills towards my quest to free myself from fear. I know that, with practice and discipline, this is a challenge that can be overcome.
It’s time to restart the engine.
On a recent morning bread-run, I turned down a quiet street and happened upon two Finnish women communing in the road, leaning on their walking sticks. As I neared them, I took a deep breath, met their gaze, smiled, offered my friendliest Finnish morning greeting, “Huomenta!” and continued on my way. I exhaled, smiled and whistled all the way to the bakery.
© 2022 Amelia C. Ray