Black and white portrait of a tearful African-American woman posing against a black background

OPINION: The Fear That Is Felt

by Patheresa Wells

There are times in my life when I try to protect myself from things I know will cause me pain. Sometimes I do this consciously, like when I see another Black or Brown body has been killed by the police. I may deliberately choose to not view the video, if there is one. Other times I protect myself unconsciously, as I have been with my lack of attention to the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. The trial is important, of course. But I am all too aware of how the justice system works to fully tune into an outcome I may or may not be prepared for. Because I know that justice in this country is rarely achieved, especially when matters of race are at play. 

So, I am honest in saying I don’t know all the details of the Rittenhouse trial because I have been caring for myself. But there’s one thing I do remember well. Right after Rittenhouse’s arrest, although he was armed, he stated his reason for shooting protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, was fear. That he was just scared for his life. And what I remember thinking then was not specifically about his guilt or innocence (though I have opinions about that). What I remember thinking was — I know fear. I know it intimately. I’ve known it my whole life because not only has it been taught to me it has, as researchers are now proving, been embedded in my DNA. My second thought after Rittenhouse’s arrest was that white people and men do not truly know fear. Because no one who did would bring a gun in public to a place where police are present. 

My first memory of intense fear came after my mother had a boy. My little brother, as a child, was like many little boys. Curious, rambunctious, full of energy, and sweet. He was a good child, and is a good man now, but I was acutely aware of how much more time my mother devoted to teaching him the lessons that come with Blackness, far more so than to me and my sister. Get home before dark (a hangover from the time of sundown towns); always, always, always do what the cops tell you to do; and do not ever go near guns. 

Don’t play with toy guns would be the earliest iteration of that lesson she would continue pressing upon him as he matured. And the reality of it hit me hard one day after my mother returned from work. I was sitting on the porch, head lost in a book, and my brother was sitting in the grass of the neighbor’s yard pointing a toy gun playfully at the boy who lived there (who was giving a great deepfake on having been murdered). 

My head shot up terrified when I heard my mom scream his name at the top of her lungs while running over to the neighbor’s yard. She grabbed my brother, hefting him over her shoulder like a soldier carrying a fallen comrade, and rushed him inside our home with a glance of strong disapproval in my direction. The neighbor boy’s mother came running out of her house thinking someone had been hurt. Later, when my mother told her that if my brother played at their home he wasn’t allowed to play with guns, the neighbor mother didn’t get it. She was white, it was Oklahoma, guns were a way of life. 

I didn’t understand the fear I felt then but I remember feeling the same fear years later, after my mother’s death, when my brother came to live with me. He was headed home one night and had texted he was on the way. When he had not arrived after what should have been an appropriate amount of time, I got worried. I texted and called with no reply. As time went by I imagined him dead, the worst possible outcome but one that both experience and fear had conditioned me to prepare for. I prayed, something I rarely did, that he would not encounter the police on his way home. My neighborhood wasn’t the nicest and it was late. 

When my brother finally made it home, he confirmed my fears that he had been pulled over. I thanked God that he had made it out alive. In fact it is not an exaggeration to say that after every encounter I or my loved ones have had with the police, even if they just drive past, even when no one is doing anything wrong, I still say a prayer of thanks after. 

When I talk about this fear that is felt, that I feel, that my mother felt — it is not just rooted in oppression or subjugation, because those words seem systematic, trite, overused. This fear I talk about is rooted in annihilation, in an ongoing genocide still so pervasive that it is carried out by officers of the law, banks controlling where we can live or what wealth we can acquire, and by everyday people who are often not even cognizant of the racist system they continue to uphold. 

When white supremacists, similar to Rittenhouse in many ways, stormed the U.S. Capitol just 10 months ago, I felt the fear again. I had pulled into Safeway to do some grocery shopping and heard reports of the attack on NPR. My first thought was not of disbelief but of safety. Were there groups like that storming capitals across the country? As a Black woman, was I going to be okay? Should I immediately go home and bunker down? What if the rioting worsened and I found myself in harm’s way? I decided to go home. I didn’t need groceries that bad and I wanted to be in the relative safety of my house in case things got worse. In case of a coup.

I could go on and on listing instances in which this fear — the fear — has been lived through. I could tell you my stories. Or those of my forefathers who, after leaving Tennessee upon emancipation, settled in Langston, Oklahoma, a Black settlement only an hour and a half from Tulsa, the site of the Black Wall Street Massacre. When I feel the fear, its underlying current is always buzzing but sometimes so shocking it’s like electrocution and I don’t know what to do. These are the thoughts that run through my mind because of the fear I feel as a Black person in these situations. 

There are days I want to push the fear aside, be rid of it forever, but I know it was developed as a survival mechanism to help me see the real and present danger, and to avoid it. The fear is real for me. It’s prevalent. It’s the stuff of Jordan Peele movies on an almost daily basis. I’ve learned to live with it as have others, but it can be paralyzing. 

I know fear. So I find myself wondering if Rittenhouse was truly in fear of his life, as he said, why did he not freeze because of it? Why did he not drop his gun and run to the police officers who just thanked him? Was it because his mother never had to teach him to fear being seen with a gun? Never had to teach him to worry that other people’s perception of you could lead to your demise? Or was it because as he pulled the trigger on those heartbroken over the loss of another Black life, he knew he has never really had anything to fear? And while sitting in jail awaiting a verdict, still does not. Because this is America.

Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured image by Laurin Rinder/

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