Halfway through my cross-country motorcycle trip this summer, I stopped at a gas station in Indiana. A white man in camouflage shorts and a white sleeveless shirt walked up to me. I stiffened, suddenly self-aware and on guard.
I am brown-skinned and ethnically ambiguous. One of the first questions people often ask me is what my ethnic background is. (I’m Filipino and Indian.)
“Nice bike,” the man said, eyeing Clementine, the name I've given my orange 650-cc Suzuki V-Strom, all loaded up with luggage and camping gear. “Travelin’?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Where you headed?”
“Back home to San Francisco. ”
“That’ll get you there,” the man said. “Have a good one.”
He ambled away with a wave. And that was it.
During my three-month journey around the United States, I noticed something unsettling about the American people. We are afraid.
On an Illinois freeway, I passed gun-rights signs with dire messages like: “Dialed 911 and I’m on hold, sure wish I had that gun I sold.” In an Arizona suburb, as I circled a neighborhood block in search of a friend’s house, a man tailed me in his truck and took a photo of my license plate. In Alabama, a store owner told me that he feels mass immigration could threaten the white, Christian culture he's used to.
As for me, at every gas station, motel and diner I entered, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the color of my skin was going to land me in some sort of trouble.
While I’ve always been self-conscious about my looks, now — as hate crimes against brown-skinned people are on the rise and white supremacy has returned to the spotlight — that awareness has turned into anxiety. How easily, I wondered, could that neighborhood incident in Arizona have turned into a Trayvon Martin-like situation? Would I become the next Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was told to “get out of my country” before being shot and killed by an angry white man at a bar in Kansas?
This was my first time driving across the country and my first time visiting most of the places I found myself in. I was alone and often afraid.
Noam Chomsky has said that fear is a characteristic part of the American identity.
“The United States is an unusually frightened country,” he said in an interview on the progressive website Alternet. The fear, he said, “goes back to the colonies.”
Americans have always been afraid of something — Native Americans attacking, slaves revolting, Mexican immigrants “bringing drugs” or “bringing crime.” The irony though, is that white Americans often brought this paranoia on themselves: The Native Americans were defending themselves from invasion, the slaves were fighting for their freedom. And new immigrants — including illegal immigrants — are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens.
National tensions, Chomsky said in another interview, are often manipulated by leaders who aim to create a “world-conquering system on the basis of fear.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, fear and manipulation have become everyday talking points. In a recent speech in South Africa, former president Barack Obama decried the rise of “a politics of fear and resentment,” and warned against “strongman politics.” Investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s new book, to be released Sept. 11, is titled “Fear: Trump in the White House.”
But I found that, on the road, fear had taken an outsize role in my mind as compared to the decency and kindness I experienced from people of all backgrounds.
In several cities, complete strangers offered me a place to stay free through Couchsurfing.com. At the U.S.-Mexico border, I accompanied a group of volunteers who brought food and water to refugees escaping violence in their countries. In Mississippi, I met a Buddhist nun who is launching a program to bring mindfulness meditation to troubled youths in nearby Memphis. In West Virginia, a motorcyclist gave me his road map.
Folks let me photograph and interview them about their identities, for my Instagram page. And many people stopped me to chat about my bike and my travels, and to wish me good luck. Those moments seemed to fade quickly though, slipping away as the fear soon clawed back in.
I know, of course, that our fears aren’t necessarily unfounded. I cannot fault the high school student who worries about a gunman opening fire, or the political scientist who worries about democracy unraveling, or the black man who worries about the police making a fatal error. And I know that there is a difference between the “white extinction anxiety” of those alarmed at the prospect of losing power and status as the country’s demographics shift, and the life-or-death concerns of people of color still battling prejudice and hate.
But even in the face of dramatic and pressing concerns, we should not be ruled by our fear, reduced to eyeing our neighbors and countrymen with suspicion and distrust.
In a time when our president is actively stoking fear, instead of allaying it, let us attempt to rise, as another president said, to “the better angels of our nature.” That, too, is part of the America I saw.