Perception is Reality, Part One

When I was in architecture school, we were discussing the notion of safety. The professor spoke about real safety vs perceived safety. What? you say? Architects learn about safety in architecture school?

Here's a hypothetical scenario. You're walking home late from the library back to your dorm. You are walking past large, illuminated windows. Through them, you see a sea of hunched shoulders, pretending to be deep into their poli-sci text. You are relieved to go home and looking forward to a bowl of ramen noodles and crashing. Of course you're safe! So safe, you don't even think about it.

The reality is, the path to the building is lit only by the glow from the fluorescents in the reading room. The reality is, everyone has an iPod on. The reality is, college students often rough house and scream in playfulness. If someone jumped out of the bushes, dragged you to the windowless side of the building, and did something horrible to you, you'd never be detected. Why? Even the students who might have their earphones off might look up if they heard your scream. They'd look out the window and see . . . blackness and their own reflection. Nobody in the library would see you, or hear you.

So, why were we discussing safety vs perceived safety in grad school? As architects, we need to think outside of our own particular goals and do our civic duty to consider the implications of the fenestration, encourage proper lighting, appropriate landscape design.

So how does this apply to us in our own lives?

Let's look at the difference between feeling safe, and being safe.
Do you automatically feel unsafe in an unfamiliar town?
Do you feel unsafe in an unfamiliar area of your own town?
Do you feel unsafe, or uncomfortable, when the people around you don't look like you?
Conversely, do you feel safe in you own neighborhood?
. . . do you feel safe because everyone around you looks like you?

Sometimes when I'm driving, I will forget to lock my door. No matter where I am, I will eventually remember to lock my doors. But, if I see a "suspicious looking" person coming toward me, that is the jab reminder to lock my doors. Even if I know they are locked, I'll press the switch again, for psychological reassurance. I remember years ago when I got that panick-jab when I saw a "suspicious looking" person - a black male. But after I locked the doors, it panick-jabbed me in another way:
Am I racist?
I thought and thought about it. It sickened me to think that no matter what I believed and how I acted consciously, that I might, deep down, harbor racism. Another time, another town. Again, a panick-jab that made me check my doors. This time, the "suspicious looking" person was a white male. . . a tremendous. relief. to me.

My next thoughts were: What is it that frightens me? Was it the swagger? The clothes? The cigarette butt hanging from his mouth? The tattoos? The multiple piercings? Would I be just as scared of a woman? And now that the all of that, especially the tattoos and piercings can be seen on every other stay-at-home mom and teenager in every suburb, what do those signals mean, anyway? When you get tattoos of skull and bones and dragons on your arm, when your son gets the nose and eyebrow piercing, what is that telling the world? Is it OK if said son is dressed in Abercrombie? Is it OK if you're driving a hybrid SUV? Can we no longer judge what is safe and what is not? Were we ever really able to? or were they prejudices we were allowed to harbor because it wasn't questioned? Was it actually less safe in the poor, latino neighborhoods? or was it less safe on the roads in the upper-middle-class white neighborhoods after all the 2-martini lunches?

What scares you? Is it the entire neighborhood? Why? Because of the poor? the color? I had a boyfriend who worked in Chinatown as an ESL teacher. Everyone he worked with was East Asian. Except him. He was in the society registry. He was in the signers of the Magna Carta thing. He wasn't the hardest worker and his job was in jeopardy. One day, he was complaining about his boss and the work environment, "I see all these slanted eyes looking at me." Clearly, he felt threatened. He transposed his unease into racism. And that. That, was the beginning of the end for us.

Are your fears perception or reality? Here are some questions I ask myself. I've developed them over the years as I've analyzed prejudices and sense of safety. It's simply what I use to question myself; to help me get one step beyond where I am. It requires me to look beyond my initial reactions. It requires me to look. And think.
Look. Think.

If I'm in an unfamiliar neighborhood:
  1. What do the residents think? Are there bars on the homes? If the residents don't feel safe, it ain't safe. Get out, fast. Especially if you're the wrong color. Don't be naive.
  2. Is it clean or dirty? Do the residents express a sense of responsibility and pride by caring for their homes and property?
  3. Are there viable businesses? I don't mean pawn shops and bars. Is there a town center with a drugstore, a grocery, a burger joint? Chances are, there's a sense of community, belonging, responsibility, which engenders safety. Unless, of course, there are bars on the windows. (See #1, above.)
If I see people different than me:
  1. How are they different?
  2. Look past the differences and see the meaning
  3. Are they well-put together, albeit not in your "style?"
  4. Are they kind, simply using different words?
I'm no fool. If I feel unsafe, I get out, first. Then think later. But I do think about it. Because I want the world to be better. I want me to be better.

Strive for peace with everyone . . .
-Hebrews 12:14 (ESV)
After this I looked and there
before me
was a great multitude that no one could count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne
and in front of the Lamb.
-Revelations 7:9a (NIV)

1 comment:

Lora said...

this post is like porn to me. That's a compliment.

I feel all excited and want to run in circles right now because I am obsessed with perceived reality. OBSESSED.

I feel unsafe if I'm not surrounded by people. It doesn't matter if everyone is a stranger. I need proximity. I'm a pack animal.

I feel unsafe in the suburbs. No one is around to hear me scream if the weirdo who lives with his mother sneaks out her back door at night. I've never been bothered in the city, but I've had several incidents where I was threatened while living in beautiful Chester County.

I feel unsafe if I see other white people when I'm in a black neighborhood. I don't understand why they are there. I don't want anyone thinking that the two of us are in cahoots.

I don't think to lock my door at night. I don't think to check over my shoulder before I come inside.

I like to be in surroundings where I stick out. I want people to notice me just in case something happens. Whether it is because I'm a different color, gender, or whatever. I don't care, as long as people notice me enough to remember.

As for the Abercrombie/ facial piercing thing. I don't trust the Abercrombie guys. The frat boy mentality has proven itself dangerous to me on several occaisions. The weirdos tend to stick to their own kind.

Thank you for this post.