The Clutch of Fear

Sending racist signals with a purse.

By Frederick H. Lowe

Two young white women were walking under a construction canopy on Michigan Avenue. One caught a glimpse of Monroe Anderson walking directly behind them. Anderson, the middle-aged head of station services for WBBM-TV and onetime press secretary to former mayor Eugene Sawyer, was dressed casually in slacks and a sport coat. The two women didn’t know Anderson was a TV executive. And they apparently paid no attention to his clothes. His black face was enough to make them panic. They quickly clutched their purses to their chests.

“It was subtle, but it was clear what they were doing,” says Anderson, who’s encountered this kind of defensive maneuver before. Women clutching their purses around black men isn’t just an issue of black and white. Many Latino, Asian, and black women do the same thing–often with less subtlety.

A homeless black man fell on top of Chicago Tribune business writer Susan Chandler and attempted to rip away her purse while she was riding the Blue Line to Oak Park. “I crossed the street each time I saw a homeless black man walking in my direction after the attempted robbery because it really frightened me,” she says. “But that feeling lasted only two weeks. I didn’t generalize the incident to the entire black population.”

Not everyone shares Chandler’s opinion. “When you ask a white woman why she is clutching her purse in the presence of a black man, she says she’s not clutching it, just rearranging the contents,” says Heather Dalmage, an assistant professor of sociology at Roosevelt University. “To admit to her racism would mean questioning her own identity.

“Whites talk about it secretly and blacks talk about it all the time,” she adds.

Some women have such strong fears of attracting confrontations that they take special precautions to show their purses are secure, even if they’re unaware of what they’re doing. They hold the purse next to their bodies. Or they stare at the ground to avoid eye contact. And when they see a black man coming, they’ll walk faster and move closer to the street in search of a quick escape route. When a black man walks behind them, some women will stop and let him pass.

Anderson admits these fears are not unfounded. “It’s an issue. The women aren’t making this up out of whole cloth. There are black men out there stealing purses and wallets from handbags,” he says.

Chandler says she’s more concerned about the threats she can’t see. She never noticed the thieves who stole her wallet from her purse on two of four separate occasions. “A person who can unzip a purse and steal your wallet without you knowing it is really good,” she says.

Women’s fears only become racist when they act like every black man is a criminal. “We’re all lumped into the same pile,” Anderson explains.

The phenomenon has a deep psychological impact, according to Carl Bell, a psychiatrist and president of the Community Mental Health Council on the city’s south side. “It’s a nonverbal kinetic that wears at a black man’s self-esteem,” he says. “A white woman sees a black man and she instantly stereotypes him as someone who plans to rape and rob her. This type of projection depletes a black man’s energy because he constantly thinks about it. It limits his mobility. And it impinges on his life, because he’s constantly kept off guard, preventing him from focusing on other issues.”

Bell tells of his own experience. To get to various conferences and speaking engagements, he flies United Airlines and is a member of the Mileage Plus Club. Each time he stands in the Mileage Plus line at O’Hare, a United employee offers to help only him, the implication being that he doesn’t belong there. “Sometimes I hate going to the airport because I know the same thing is going to happen,” he says.

Retired Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce refers to this type of treatment as “micro insults” or “micro aggression.” Examples include having the police pull over black male drivers for no apparent reason; black security guards following black men in stores to deflect charges of racial profiling; and women clutching their purses when they see a black man because they assume he’s a thief. “These are some of the things black men have to put up with every day,” Bell says.

Pierce’s study isn’t well-known outside of academic circles, but the makers of Sprite have recently given the issue more visibility. The company is airing a television commercial in which a young black man walks into a store. A black woman and a white woman stand near the counter tightly holding their purses as he walks by. The young man says to himself: “I bet they think I’m going to try to steal their purses.”

Burrell Communications Group of Chicago made the commercial, one of five called “What Are You Thinkin’?” The commercial airs on MTV and Black Entertainment Television and during the WB Network’s The Steve Harvey Show and Moesha, says Sprite spokeswoman Susan McDermott. “We’re trying to show the problem of judging a book by its cover,” she explains. “The commercial has been well received by our target audience.” Interestingly, Sprite is owned by Coca-Cola, which is facing charges of racial bias by its black employees.

WBBM’s Anderson says the fear of black men is perpetuated by TV. “Television news constantly shows black men as murderers and thieves,” he says. “It’s a steady diet of photographs of handcuffed black men with their heads down. It’s an easy visual for the medium. After constantly seeing handcuffed black men, it’s not unreasonable to see why a woman believes a black man is going to steal her purse.”

So what should a black man do when he sees a woman clutching her purse? Anderson says he keeps his distance to make the woman feel comfortable. He even slows down his pace when he’s walking behind her. Some black men jingle their house keys to let women know that they are not sneaking up on them, says Roosevelt’s Dalmage. One man even admitted to whistling operas to show women he didn’t plan to harm them.

Hairstylist Richard Lewis Jr. says sometimes he loses his patience. “It makes me angry when women grab their purses when they see a black man,” he says. “Sometimes I just want to say ‘Boo!'”

Anderson has also thought about saying something to women who clutch their purses in his presence, but ultimately he doesn’t see what it would accomplish. Addressing the woman is too risky.

Outside the Wrigley Building I once tried to talk to a white woman about clutching her purse. She didn’t scream for the police but she ran into Michigan Avenue where a taxi narrowly missed her. On another occasion I stopped a man from stealing a woman’s wallet on the Red Line subway platform at State and Lake, but I didn’t have more than 30 seconds to pat myself on the back. I took the escalator up to State Street where two middle-aged women–one black and one white–saw me approaching. The black woman said in a voice loud enough so I could hear: “Watch your purse, there are a lot of black men around here.”