I was walking this evening on my way to check my email (a pleasant 3-mile stroll from my current abode), when I met a lovely man named Gabriel. He smiled at me and asked for directions, which I was happy to provide. He was from Nigeria, and is studying info. tech. at the university. We chatted a few minutes, and he asked me, with his thickly musical accent, if he might accompany me on my walk. I told him I would be delighted to have his company, and we set off. He then confessed that he had been nervous about approaching me for directions, because most of the English women he has encountered have either crossed the street when he approached them, or ignored him, eyes fixed dead ahead so as to avoid contact at all costs. He said he only decided I was OK to approach when he noticed my Birkenstock sandals, identical to his own. He's never seen an English woman wear Birkenstocks, and he figured I must be foreign (a bizarrely correct assumption) and thought I might be less afraid of him.
We looked at our feet and laughed over the clunky shoes, but I was struck by how godawful it must be to go about your daily business with people constantly shying away from you because of your appearance (which in Gabriel's case is that of a well groomed, well dressed, rather attractive (if a little short) black man). His fear of frightening me explained his initail behaviour: for the first 5 minutes we had been chatting he stood extremely far away from me, as if I were a stray dog he was afraid to approach.
I'm sorry that my time in Manchester is almost up. I would have like to have the chance to meet Gabriel again. We exchanged emails, and hopefully when I return to England in January we'll be able to cross paths. In the meantime, here's a message to all you smug, white, bourgeois suburbanites: there are far more men out there like Gabriel, who have no wish to intimidate, mug, rape, or murder you then there are men like the ones you see on the evening news (which, incidently, is written and broadcast almost entirely by white people), standing in police mugshots or led by the handcuffs out of the courtroom. These images only serve to perpetuate racist stereotypes and fertilize a culture of fear, which results in disproportionate numbers of racial minorites being convicted and sentenced to unduly harsh punishment. So here's my challenge to you, to be carried out once every day for the next month. See if you can do it. Beat the system--smile at a black man.