There was a time in my life when I was scared to go outside. When I had to leave my apartment, my heart rate would increase and I would breathe heavier; I held my arms crossed close to me, and I avoided eye contact with people who walked by. At another time, when I left my home, I walked with my head and shoulders held high, without fear or anxiety. I smiled at my neighbors and never worried about my safety. At these two times, I lived in very different neighborhoods. I’ll give you a moment to close your eyes and try to picture them… What did the streets and houses look like? Who were my neighbors? Where was I living? … Do you think you know?
Okay, I’ll tell you… In the former scenario, I was living on a college campus. In the latter, a predominately black neighborhood in the Bronx. That’s exactly what you thought, right?! Maybe not.
Let me explain.
I am originally from a small town in upstate New York. I am white, and I grew up in a predominantly white, progressive, rural area. When I was 18, I went to a private liberal arts college in Connecticut. And about a year and a half ago, I moved to the Bronx. Before I moved here, innumerable people expressed concern for my safety. I had people warning me about rape and murder. I was told to carry a weapon or pepper spray with me at all times. I was told to stay off my cell phone when walking, to stay alert at all times so at to not get mugged. People, even the progressive and liberal people I tend to surround myself with, held close to an image in their minds of what neighborhood I was moving to by moving to a majority black and Hispanic neighborhood in the Bronx. They saw me living in a graffiti covered, crime-ridden, dirty neighborhood. A neighborhood, in which I would be robbed, raped or murdered. They saw me walking outside at night in fear. But in reality, they had no reason to think this way. The truth was that I was moving to a middle-class neighborhood with a relatively low crime rate. But that didn’t matter. In their minds, I was moving to a crime-ridden borough of New York City, filled with black and brown criminals.
Flash back eight years and I was leaving my hometown for the first time to move to my college campus… a “neighborhood” that I was planning to live in for four consecutive years. When I moved, no one cried rape or murder. No one told me to be careful. No one told me to carry a weapon. In fact, someone was murdered on the campus the spring before I arrived; and I distinctly remember hearing things like “well that won’t happen again” and “that was a tragic, but very unlikely event.” Even an “it was a personal and calculated attack, not something random that you would have to worry about.” Someone was murdered on my college campus a few months before I arrived and still people did not worry about my safety when I went to live there. I was not worried either, and ultimately, I did not get murdered. However, when I moved to college, I also had a roughly 25%* chance of being sexually assaulted. In the (what wound up being) three years that I lived there, I was assaulted three times, and knew many other women who were as well. After the night that I was assaulted by two different men (at two different times), bringing my college sexual assault tally up to three, I couldn’t leave my room without anxiety. Ultimately, I didn’t finish the semester. When I sat with one of my professors to explain to him why I wouldn’t be completing his course, his reaction was telling. “Although I am so sorry that you’ve been through this so many times, I can’t say that it surprises me that it would happen to you more than once, given the statistics.” My professor knew I wasn’t safe. So did the innumerable other people who lived or worked on that campus. The number of “me too” reactions that I got from the women I spoke to is nothing short of appalling. But I am not here to cast a negative light on my particular university. This problem is systemic on college campuses across the United States. Any person (male or female), ages 18-24, is much more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other demographic group. Statistically speaking, especially as a woman, I was far less safe moving to college, than I was moving to the Bronx.
So, I suppose I am writing to express a concern about the ways in which we, as a society, allow our bias to shape our perceptions, and to form a skewed reality of our relative safety. Why should we latch on, and continue to perpetuate the lie of relative safety, when these things are clearly influenced by the media bias we are fed?
My friends and family who worried about me moving to the Bronx had images from the news, movies, television and other media of dangerous criminals lurking in the inner city, waiting to commit a crime. We have a president who likes to cast a shadow over an entire population of people living in these inner cities, talking about the “carnage” and the fact that in the inner city “you get no education, you get no jobs, you get shot walking down the street.” Furthermore, the man insists that the inner city exclusively means black and Hispanic people. And whether we liberals want to admit it or not, these images that Donald Trump holds, that he vocalizes, are images that most Americans of any race, even the most liberal people, have of the cities in America. Factually, the crime rates in most cities are down, with a few exceptions. Cities’ racial demographics are shifting. And though there are still far more people of color convicted of crimes than white people, we know that the major reason for this correlation between race and crime is the biased police criminalization of people of color due to the same implicit biases perpetuated by the mass media, entertainment and power structures that be. Bias matters. Bias about our safety, matters. Bias impacting our relative worry, fear, and anxiety, matters.
Let’s take the example of Donald Trump and push it further. The same man who talks of the crime and danger of the inner city has also admitted to committing crimes against women, and has done so with impunity. As a society, we did not cast a shadow over him, his entire neighborhood, his race or his gender, but rather offered him the highest position of power available to any individual in this country. And the only reason he was able to pull that off is because he is white, privileged, and wealthy…the same demographic that most people assume to be the make-up of American college campuses (although now the non-Hispanic white student enrollment has officially dipped below 50%). As a society, we are not told to be scared of white men. We are not told that white men, in general, are criminals. But in reality, most white men are simply living life with the privilege of impunity.
We are subconsciously told that black and brown men, especially those who live in cities, are dangerous criminals through the stories that are advertised on the news, the actors that are cast in television shows, and the stories that our politicians tell. In turn, we become biased and worry more for our safety when we are in these environments. Then, the police pay closer attention, and arrest more people who fit this description. And as a result, we see that most of the “criminals” are people of color.
We are fed an image. We consume the image. We perpetuate the image. The image is confirmed. And the cycle repeats. WE NEED TO STOP THIS CYCLE.
I refuse to allow this obvious bias to falsely categorize what we choose to worry about as a society. I feel much safer in my city neighborhood in the Bronx, with my black and brown neighbors, than I did at my mostly white, mostly wealthy university. If another woman wanted to move in next door to me in the Bronx, I certainly wouldn’t fear for her. But I would probably worry about her if she instead said she was going to start college in the fall. Because statistically speaking, she would be far less safe.
*Source-dependent statistic. Due to the fact that the vast majority, by some estimations 90%, of college sexual assaults go unreported, these statistics tend to be very difficult to measure. However, most sources put the numbers between 20 and 30%.