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The Thing You’re Not Supposed to Admit: I’m Terrified

Navigating Anxiety When It Feels Like the World Doesn’t Want Us Here

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler
May 7 · 8 min read
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I’ve debated posting this. Part of me feels like saying it out loud leaves me weak and open to criticism and retaliatory rhetoric. It feels like I’m admitting what no one wants to openly say: that racists and White supremacy are winning in this country; to say it wasn’t would be a lie.

In an already anxious & mentally draining time, given the global pandemic, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery has sent me over the edge. The fact that he was hunted, and shot down because of his skin color feels like a confirmation of what I’ve been feeling for some time:

Black people are in danger for their lives.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a significant shift in my own attitudes & behaviors as fear & anxiety have become permanent roommates due to perceived threats from people & institutions that mean me harm because of the color of my skin.

These threats are multilayered and intersectional and my responses to them stem from my inclination to always be prepared. Essentially, I’m always actively look for ways things can go wrong to ensure that even if I don’t have a plan for them, I am at least not blind-sided by the possibility of them happening to me.

The older I get, the longer the list of perceived threats becomes, especially as America continues to evolve to be the country our history books always said it was.

Navigating my fears

#1- Men

I lived in NYC for 6.5 years. After desiring a change I moved to NJ and opted for a modern apartment with amenities. As a Black woman, I, like many other women learned how to navigate spaces in NYC based on my gender & race. From walking aggressively and avoiding eye contact with passersby to making sure that I always had an article of clothing cover myself on late night train rides to avoid uncomfortable encounters with men, the act of ensuring ones own personal safety is an unspoken ritual in this city.

These shifts in behavior- always knowing your surroundings, being able to read a room or area as safe or dangerous, and making sure you’re not alone became ingrained in my daily habits. Always being on guard became my new normal, and to be honest, instead of tired, I felt empowered because of it. In my mind, it allowed me to have fun, live the life I wanted and do it in a way that kept me mindful of every thing that could wrong in a New York minute.

However, these modifications were always enacted because of my gender and for a while, the the only potential threat I felt I had to prepare for was men.

#2- Police Officers and Judicial Systems

We all know the stories. From Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland, police officers have increasingly been in the news for bad behavior.

This is a sticky subject for me because my first interactions with police officers were positive. In fact, when I was in high school, I was a part of a community initiative that focused on events that brought young people, school resource officers and the city’s police department together. I personally knew some of the highest ranking police officers in our area and I loved them. My twin brother even became a police officer at age 18 and made a full career out of it. My home-town police department always made me feel safe and cared for; but that was over 10 years ago.

One of the main things I’ve loved about living in NYC was the fact that I didn’t need a car. Now I can’t even fathom owning one because the fear of being pulled over is paralyzing (the fear of being in a car accident is also terrifying). Ironically, the fear of being in my home and having it randomly raided by police for no reason other than they got the wrong apartment is something that keeps me up at night as well. Fear of wellness checks gone wrong in my own home makes me ensure that I check in with at least one person a day.

I have an entire speech-plan in my head in case I’m ever stopped by the police. This plan relies heavily on me hoping for empathy by mentioning my parents each serving 20 years in military and my twin brother being a a retired police officer and detective. I’ve made a list of “in case of arrest emergency contacts” so that, should it ever happen, I know who I can call because of their connections with lawyers and legal resources (shout out to Joanna). I’ve even tried to piece together what would happen to me if I were arrested but couldn’t make bail before the trial and how my life might cease to remain the same.

Is all of this irrational and a byproduct of too many negative media portrayals? Eh- potentially. Especially considering I pay every bill on time, I’ve never done drugs and I don’t even drink. I’m a bit of a square and I’m known to follow rules verbatim. In truth, I have no real reason to ever be stopped or confronted by police, but neither did Philando Castile or Oscar Grant and we all know what happened with them.

#3- Anyone Who Isn’t Black

After the 2016 election and the myriad of racially charged events and marches against Black people and people of color, my threat list expanded to anyone who wasn’t Black. In fact, I distinctly remember telling my father that I could never live in a red/Republican-lead state after the 2016 election. He of course thought this was a bit absurd, but it is still a sentiment I stand by today.

But, how in the hell do you guard yourself against a threat that includes just about everyone on your daily commute? Your colleagues? Your friends? My entire life is a multicultural-smorgasbord of friends and loved ones- how do I navigate such a threat?

I never found a concrete answer, so I’m still working on that. However I do realize that I tend to assume everyone I encounter is potentially racist as a safeguard for myself, but it’s not always the best approach. Is this irrational? Sure. But does it make me feel a bit more in control? Absolutely- if even by 5%.

Thankfully, just as anxiety about this was beginning to ramp up, I started working from home more often and barely left the house before the pandemic. Just know that when I say I’m an introvert, I sometimes mean it for very different reasons.

#4- Having Children

There have been countless reports raising alarm about Millennials starting families much later than previous generations, if at all, and how the result of those decisions is a dramatically decreased birthrate. Articles advocating for Millennials to have more sex and families became a trend accompanied with dire warnings about potential failures of population replenishment.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that those pleas for Millennials to reconsider their family plans were never really meant for Black & brown people, especially when, according the US Census, minorities would soon be the majority.

In a country where Black women are far more likely to die in childbirth than women of any other race, the idea of having a child is beyond frightening. The prospect of my complaints and health issues not being fully heard or taken seriously, much like in the case of Amber Isaac, has only fueled my own fire to never ever become pregnant. Ever.

Assuming we do make it off the table, the thought of bringing a brown child into this world and raising them within a system that has spent decades perfecting a racist school to prison pipeline feels unconscionable. They say when you have children it feels like your heart is walking around outside your body. I can’t imagine willingly letting my heart be constantly surveilled, racially profiled, assumed guilty, hunted, shot or jailed.

#5- COVID-19

Just as I was learning to cope with a ramped up version of American racism, the 2020 pandemic came ashore.

As everyone began to confess their own anxieties of loneliness, fear and uncertainty with this invisible virus, having lived in the space of panic for so long, I was initially pretty calm. But once it was revealed how much the virus was disproportionately affecting Black people my worry-antennas shot back up.

Not only is this virus killing us at faster rates due to health disparities caused by structural racism, poverty and American inequity, many of us are also being forced on the front lines as essential workers and put in the middle of the virus’ warpath. Others who may have been able to avoid exposure are now being forced to choose between going back to work in red-states that are opening up, or being fired and taken off of unemployment.

For those of us who work for ourselves, and don’t have to navigate the politics of bosses and privileged CEOS mandating deadly work schedules in the midst of a global pandemic, we find ourselves in a different crisis. Once the government finally decided to send out funding and loans to small businesses adversely affected by the pandemic, it was revealed that Black business owners were collectively denied access to those loans. Before COVID, Black entrepreneurship was on the rise and increasing at unprecedented rates. The intentional oversight of this administration has the potential to set us back for years.

The pandemic seems to be serving the purpose of accelerating the process of wiping us out and keeping us downtrodden. I know the myth of Black folks is built on a foundation of resilience and strength, but I’m tired of our stories always being lead by narratives that center on overcoming systems and circumstances of oppression- roadblocks that were built out of the forefathers and that are sustained by today’s leading pundits and legislatures.

As I watch a subset of the population riot and protest to open the economy back up, my Black brothers and sisters are who I think of often as they will likely be the ones most adversely affected by all of this.

I think about the way I’ve withdrawn from crowds, and people and spaces that I felt were unwelcome, and how I’ve readjusted just about every part of myself to navigate the increased threats I feel in a country that makes it clear that it wants nothing to do with me or my kind. I think about how this country purports ideals around being free and living fearless and how I haven’t felt permission to feel that way in years. I’m not even sure if living free and without fear was ever meant to be an option for us.

I also think of the double standards that are emerging as restless police officers “give out” masks to non-Black people in parks but arrest, stop or assault Blacks for wearing masks when required or for not wearing masks when not required. Essentially, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

The hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery and Sean Reed also weigh heavily on my heart and triggers memories of Trayvon Martin who would have been 25 years old today, just starting out his life.

So yes. I’m angry, and I’m sad. But more than anything I’m unable to shake the feeling that people are going to kill us all and no one will be able to stop it.

I’m petrified of going outside.

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Whitney Dunlap-Fowler

Written by

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler

Written by

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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