Am I really that scary? I’m only 5’9’’ 180 pounds. This is what I asked myself when a girl ran away from me as I walked down Ellis Avenue two weeks ago. Initially I was flabbergasted by her reaction. Did I look like a criminal? I had on an under armour shirt and some old basketball shorts because I had just left the gym. Was I doing anything out of the ordinary? No, I was just walking with a tote bag in my hand. From my vantage point I looked like an unassuming University of Chicago student tired from a long day of lectures and treadmills. She started walking briskly after she looked back and saw me behind her around the Midway. By the time I got to 59th and Ellis, she was in front of the Burton Judson Dormitory frantically searching for something in her purse. Maybe it was a key or maybe it was mace. Am I overanalyzing the situation? Maybe she really just had to use the bathroom. All I know is that when she saw me her nonchalant walked instantly changed into a deliberate sprint.
I was so upset about this ordeal that I went to share the story with my friend who is also a Black male student at the University of Chicago. Before I could finish my story he told me the same thing had happened to him. I inadvertently laughed when he told me this. He is about 6’2’ 140 pounds. Could anybody really feel threatened by this rail thin kid who wears Mickey Mouse sweatshirts? His story was similar to mine. One evening he was walking across the Midway when a girl noticed he was behind her and ran away. We sat in his room for hours trying understand what about us was so threatening. The only thing we could think of was the fact that we were both Black males. But, should that be threatening? Or are we socialized to view Black males as nihilistic predators? Interestingly, the girl who ran away from me was Hispanic and the girl who ran away from him was Black.
A few days after our discussion on why we may or may not look like predators, our other Black male friend who attends the University of Chicago shared another sad story. He was walking down Ellis one night when a group of White students looked back, noticed him and sped up. At this point it seemed unreal. I was waiting for him to tell me that he was joking. Sadly, he was serious.
I understand that our very frequent “security alerts” may scare students who’ve never been in an urban environment. It seems like the suspect is always a 5’11” black male in a black shirt and sneakers. However, these alerts seem to lead to glaring generalizations about every Black man they encounter in Hyde Park. By no means am I advocating the discontinuation of the security alert system. I think it plays a vital role in keeping students informed and aware of their surroundings. However, I am saying that I am sick and tired of being looked at like a predator when I walk around campus.