Slipping Into – and Out of – the Uncomfortable Shoes of Fear and Prejudice

Op-ed by writer Katherine Kotaw - KOTAW Content Marketing kotaw.comHow do we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes if we’ve never tried them on?

I’ve been pondering that question in the aftermath of the recent shootings of black citizens by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota and the killing of cops by black gunmen in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

I’m neither black nor a police officer and I’ve never visited the sites of the recent killings.

But I believe that racially-motivated violence and harmful, if not fatal, prejudice will end only when we find ways to identify with those who look, dress, act, love or believe differently than we do.

So I’ve been trying on shoes to see which ones paired with my experience.

If the Shoe Fits, Fear It

And the one that I believe fits the best is fear.

I know fear. I lived with it much of my adult life. And I know what it’s like to be afraid of a routine traffic stop.

For about five years after I went into hiding to escape from an abusive ex-husband who hired a hit man to kill me, I drove without a driver’s license.

My ex had used DMV records to stalk me. I couldn’t risk getting a license in my birth name so I drove illegally. Every time I saw a police patrol car, I panicked. I imagined getting arrested, losing my car, stranding my daughters and dogs miles from home. Worse, I saw my name in public records, and I envisioned myself dead.

Can I identify with a black person who knows from history that getting pulled over by a cop could mean getting killed? Yes. For different reasons but yes.

If the Law Fails, Hate It

I also know what it’s like to try to uphold the law and fear that it can’t protect you. For four years, I pushed the legal and political systems in two countries to keep my daughters and me safe. And, when I say, pushed, I mean I used every brain cell of intellect, every molecule of persuasion and every footnote of case law to legally keep a violent man at bay. It didn’t work. My parting advice from a New York City police detective was to either kill my former husband or disappear.

When I left, I took few possessions, but I walked the path to safety in two shoes that fit people of color and people who carry badges: anger and fear.

I was furious at a system that couldn’t legally protect me. And terrified that the job of protecting my children was mine alone.

Fear and Anger, Ties that Blind

Fear and anger are close cousins. So I understand why a black man might express his fear in anger when he gets stopped by police. I also understand why a police officer, who knows he’s putting his life on the line when approaching someone’s car, could make that walk in fear-filled strides. And become angry if the person behind the wheel makes him further afraid.

Is it wrong that it’s a black face that more easily ignites those fears? Absolutely. No one should have to wear that shoe.

But I am convinced that acknowledging, confronting and overcoming our fears about people who aren’t like us will prevent senseless violence and the spread of hatred.

The Unwanted Law of Attraction

Because we attract what we fear. I know this – in seriously dangerous ways – but I’ll stick to the traffic stop example here.

My fear of getting pulled over didn’t end when I found the courage to obtain a California driver’s license.  The residual life-and-death fear of getting pulled over by a cop stayed with me.

The more I feared being stopped by a cop, the more often I was. The first time I visited Los Angeles, I was stopped twice in five minutes! And handed expensive tickets each time.

I wasn’t killed, I wasn’t abused, I wasn’t arrested. This has something to do with the fact that I am a middle-aged white woman who didn’t fit the cops’ perception of a dangerous suspect. But it also has something to do with the way I react to fear: I don’t become angry and defiant; I become quiet and compliant.

Paying the Price of Fear

I did get fines I probably could have avoided if I hadn’t been afraid. The infractions were minor.  One was for a faulty taillight and the other was for getting stuck in an intersection when the light turned red. I could have easily talked my way out of the tickets (“Who looks at the rear of their car – I avoid looking at my butt in the mirror.” Or “I was the second car in the intersection. If only one car can make it through a green light, how many old ladies get killed every day trying to cross the street?”)

But I was too afraid to speak up, much less make jokes. The cops targeted me as easy prey and started writing out the tickets before I pulled out my license. 

Fear is a shoe that takes a long time to wear out. But we can do it one step at a time. When I stopped being afraid of police officers in patrol cars, I stopped getting pulled over for traffic violations.

We must end the fear – and fear-fueled anger – that leads to innocent citizens and innocent cops getting killed. And hatred of all types to flourish.

We must end the fear that makes us feel disempowered and angry. And it doesn’t matter if our fear is justified or imagined. Whether there’s a gun to our head or a mouse at our feet, we must learn to live without crippling fear.  I know it’s possible.

Stomping Fear and Prejudice

I’ve grown nearly fearless in recent years. Fearlessness has made me more compassionate, more generous and more open to viewpoints that conflict with my own. And I possess a reserve of strength I happily share with those who need it. Any of us who feel empowered can share our gift with others.  Power is not finite. It needn’t belong to a handful of people. It is all of ours for the taking and meant to be shared.

I’ve worked hard – and will continue to work hard – to put my fears to rest. Like diet and exercise, fear-shedding takes lifetime commitment.

And it started by admitting my fears rather than masking them. I couldn’t defeat the lies I told myself. I had to combat what I believed to be true.

We can’t end prejudice by pretending it doesn’t exist. We have to face it honestly in ourselves and in others. We have to start walking in uncomfortable shoes, suffering some blisters and wearing down the treads of fear.

Fear breeds prejudice. It’s past time to stomp both out.

Open Your Hearts

I want to thank three people who inspired me to write this piece:

1. Sara Hawkins, who wrote poignantly about what it’s like to be a white woman married to a black man. And concluded her short essay with this plea:

“America, we have a problem. We have two choices, either (1) we wait for those with the problem to realize they have a problem and fix it or (2) we stage an intervention (whatever that looks like) and help those with the disease called racism to get help. We can no longer stand by and hope they realize they have a problem. This disease of racism doesn’t work that way.”

If you’re not already friends with Sara on Facebook, I urge you to become one. We all need more thoughtful, kind and open-minded people in our social media networks. You can also find Sara on Twitter, Google Plus and Pinterest.

2. Paul Biedermann, my good friend and a champion of peace, who eloquently stated:

“It’s up to us — the good people, to make sure there are more of us each and every day. It is our only hope. Turning a blind eye, going silent, or worse, running away won’t get ’er done. We need more good people, not less.

Progress is slow, but it happens. Peace.”

Want to join a community of good people? Check out Paul’s Facebook profile and check out his re:DESIGN2 community on  Facebook and Google Plus. You can also find him on Twitter, Pinterest and his personal Google Plus page.

3. Michael Eric Dyson, a New York Times Op-Ed contributor, who wrote passionately about the powerlessness blacks feel “day in and day out…to make our black lives matter…to make you believe that our black lives should matter.”

He also wrote about the “well-choreographed white rage” that leads to killing. He wrote of black rage too and why most keep their rage inside because, “We are afraid that when the tears begin to flow we cannot stop them…We cannot hate you, not really, not most of us; that is our gift to you. We cannot halt you; that is our curse.”

You can find the rest of Dyson’s essay here.

And please join the discussion below.


  1. Kristen says:

    A powerful, poignant article. Hopefully it will make people pause and reflect. If we want change for tomorrow, we must begin today.

    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      I am SO happy to see you here. As you know so well, words matter. Whether they make us smile, cry, think or act, words change us. So there’s no better time than now to use them wisely.

      • Kristen says:

        I couldn’t agree with you more, Katherine. In a world with so much turmoil going on, weighing one’s words is of the utmost importance. We have the opportunity for peace, but only if we measure our words and learn to hold our tongue in anger and express kindness in our thoughts and deeds.


    • Katherine Kotaw says:

      Thank you, Toni! If I can spread love and understanding — one word at a time — my work has meaning.

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