The danger of "stranger danger"

Sunday, February 14, 2021 - 7:01pm

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Illustration by Katherine Lee

At 11 years old, the world is a confusing place. You are too old to be a naive, irresponsible child but not old enough to navigate the world independently. You still need an adult to guide your decisions, but you’re constantly itching for the sweet feeling of self reliance. 

For my 11th birthday, my grandma and I took the train from Long Island to Manhattan to see a Broadway show and explore the lively city. I was weirdly obsessed with Broadway’s “Newsies” at the time and opted to see it for not the first but second time that year rather than try something new. After the show, I had the chance to explore virtually anywhere in the city on my special day. As an 11-year-old, my idea of exploring the intricacies of an ever-developing city was to visit the once-coveted tourist trap that was the largest Toys “R” Us in the world, located in the heart of Times Square. I was fascinated by the grandiose display of Barbie’s dreamhouse, the brightly lit indoor ferris wheel and the immersive magic of Wonka Candy’s recreation of the notorious chocolate factory. 

After a ride on the famous ferris wheel and some unnecessary purchases that only an 11-year-old would find enticing, we headed back towards Pennsylvania Station to conclude our exciting day. I overflowed with joy as we strolled through the energetic, intoxicating environment that is New York City on a warm July day. 

Until my enthusiasm suddenly came to a halt. 

I noticed my grandma clutch her bag just a little bit tighter. Her grip on my hand grew a little bit stronger. As we approached the red stairs in Times Square, the pinnacle of New York City tourist traps, my heart began to beat a little bit faster.

Like any caring grandma would, my grandma did everything in her power to keep me out of harm's way, especially in a chaotic, difficult environment like Manhattan. I was still relatively young and needed a caretaker to account for my lack of experience and ability. I was old enough to understand that some force compelled my grandma to keep me close to her, but not mature enough to fully grasp the density of the situation. Even though there was no imminent danger as far as I could tell, the general anxiety of walking through a crowd escalated into an alarming, fearful sprint through Times Square. This stressful scurry past thousands of New Yorkers and visitors brought me to a realization that had been waiting to surface all my life. 

Since I was younger, I have been told to keep my distance from strangers. The walking Elmo costume in Times Square, the band playing music in Penn Station and the homeless person holding a small cardboard sign outside Macy’s were all categorized by my caretakers as dangerous, terrifying threats to my personal safety. And I truly don’t blame them — I am eternally grateful to the adults in my life who have loved me enough to take drastic measures to ensure I am protected. However, the intense concern regarding personal safety has been culturally embedded into our every move, forcing us into societal isolation in subgroups containing the people we feel most comfortable with. 

I understand that the “stranger danger” mindset grew out of the horrific crimes against children in the 1970s and 1980s. But it also came from  white, suburban families hyper-afraid of danger, many of whom wrongly blamed crime on Black Americans and other people of color without addressing the root causes of unsafe communities. Increasingly isolated suburbs combined with an association of the unfamiliar and the harmful brewed these racially-driven concerns, which manifested into the development of the prison-industrial complex, disproportionately harming Black people and further segregating our neighborhoods.Though parents’ intentions were likely rooted in prioritizing their childrens’ safety, the racially-motivated roots of overprotection are undeniable. 

Regardless, raising children in a world where ordinary kids could hypothetically suddenly end up in life-threatening situations is a daunting task. And there is an unspeakable, infinite plethora of possible life-altering events that my caretakers likely prevented me from experiencing. Thus, the plethora of day trips to New York City I had experienced usually included clutching my bag as I walk too close to anyone who looks unfamiliar or frightening to me. I am grateful to have had a safe, secure childhood, but disappointed that this lifestyle may contribute to the cultural and societal isolation of different identities. While my suburban bubble was a relatively happy, carefree place that I am extremely appreciative of, I have come to realize that the suburban lifestyle can be somewhat of a factory for producing one-dimensional, privileged and self-oriented mindsets.

The implications of avoiding anyone we feel uncomfortable around can lead to an isolated, naive lifestyle. As I’ve grown older, the problematic subtext behind walking through city streets in paralyzing fear has become clearer. 

Having to feel constantly hyper-aware and alert in case of external danger is undeniably linked with womanhood. From a young age, women are taught that we are unable to fend for ourselves and that danger far more powerful than us is always lurking around the corner, especially in an environment like Manhattan. Someone must always walk us to our destination and protect us because our bodies alone are enough to insinuate questionable people to commit unspeakable crimes. The debilitating fear of speed-walking to your destination and holding your possessions against your chest as you closely watch for potentially hazardous eyes is a shared experience among most women. My own desire to learn more about the unfamiliar and unknown is surely slowed by the risks associated with just generally being female. The intersectionality of identity and external danger, unfortunately, causes the prospect of connecting with strangers to be even more harrowing.

But the idea of “questionable” people in itself forces us to consider our innate judgments against those stigmatized and harmed by the justice system, such as people of color or sex workers as well as those who are mentally ill or homeless. We have developed our own personal judgment systems for how “dangerous” someone may be without knowing a single thing about them beyond their physical appearance at a glance. We ignore and run from the people who have been debilitatingly mistreated without fully considering the circumstances that may have forced someone to call a street corner “home” in the first place. And as Brent Staples laid out in his work “Black Men and Public Spaces,” this fear of ambiguous danger carries the blanket assumption — without any cause — that Black men are dangerous, one that has been historically constructed in contrast against and particularly instilled in white women.

And to suggest we should be more empathetic does not necessarily mean to throw all caution to the wind; there are violent horror stories that begin with an innocent person walking home alone. The complexity of this issue is that we must find some way to work around the evils of the world, instead of letting them control our every move and judge the innocent before they are proven guilty. 

Without encountering those unfamiliar or scary to us, we reinforce and maintain the societal and cultural boundaries that discourage empathetic humanization of groups outside our own. If we enter cultural hubs like New York City and stray away from the people and places that make us uncomfortable, we end up only experiencing our tiny familiar sliver of an endlessly fascinating and complicated world. 

However, I know exploring the world is easier said than done. The intricate paradox of maintaining personal safety and forming connections with new people usually results in us prioritizing the former over the latter. Maybe it’s selfish and individualistic. Maybe it’s sensible and realistic. Maybe it’s all of those things and more. Making an active effort to create connections with people different from us, especially in the context of a stranger on the street, is a slippery slope. My climb to a greater understanding of our world is often halted by the slick ice of fear and discomfort. 

This magical mountaintop of unity currently feels like nothing more than an idealized dream, but small steps have been taken in the modern world. From my own experiences and findings, I have become a dedicated fan of Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” work both on social media and in print. This photojournalism blog turned full-fledged media brand tells the stories of ordinary people that Stanton interviews on the streets, primarily from New York and occasionally other prevalent cities. Stanton beautifully articulates stories about children battling pediatric cancer, the Syrian-American experience and even simply just a daughter explaining her experience with her father’s remarriage. His posts allow viewers to hear stories from people whose paths they may never cross and whose situations they may never be able to experience.

“Humans of New York” is a beautiful, comforting blanket offering warmth amid a cold breeze of isolation. Its message is impactful and provides access to empathetic storytelling for anyone with Internet connection. But it is impossible to ignore the implications of only experiencing other peoples’ life stories through an Instagram post. 

We can read and scroll through stories all we want, but there is no replacement for genuine human connection and conversation. Engaging in these stories from the comfortable isolation of a screen allows us to hear stories without putting ourselves into potentially stressful situations. We never have to interact with anyone who would make us nervous, but we still get to hear their voices. It is a wonderful and tragic contradiction. 

Although Humans of New York proves to be a great resource for people unable or unwilling to engage in conversation with strangers in person, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not enough. Stepping over a homeless woman sleeping in the street but empathetically reading their stories online, which I too am embarrassingly but completely guilty of doing, may be a weak, ingenuine attempt at empathy driven by our own implicit biases and fears. 

It is a terrifying notion to enthusiastically meet people who have walked paths of life you will likely never stroll through. Our society has not been conditioned to happily greet and make genuine connections with strangers, but maybe there’s a world in which it doesn’t have to be that way.

We all feel, at times, as if we are drowning in the weight of the world’s demands. We have all experienced feeling like we are the only person being dealt a difficult hand. I know I am not alone in experiencing dreadful dark nights in which I feel like the only living being to ever carry such a deep degree of sadness, even though it may seem that way. The ramifications of cultural isolation have made it remarkably difficult to place our individual lives into a larger societal context and connect with people facing both similar and vastly different circumstances. 

Unfortunately, it is impossibly complicated to create a completely open and trusting world. There will always be a small but strong population of people dedicated to instilling fear and avoidance in each of us for their own twisted gain. Women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and the disabled community — as well as the intersections of all of these identities and many more — are forced to constantly deal with the extra layer of worry as frequent targets of unrelenting aggression. The sensible desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe may never be drowned out by an overflow of love and connection. 

But the underlying beauty of this intricate paradox is that we can try to work against our fearful instincts, even in small ways. We can be more open to conversations with the person sitting next to us on the train or waiting in line at our favorite coffee shop. We can give our spare change to the homeless man in Penn Station, wish him a wonderful day and let him use it as he needs. 

Systemic change through breaking societal and cultural boundaries is not necessarily in the skill set of any ordinary individual. Still, our individual abilities to actively fight our excessive internal worries can be strengthened, and we hold the power to independently bring our world together. 

Being from New York doesn’t have to mean that I’m a professional at ignoring people without a second thought. Maybe it can mean just the opposite: I am lucky to live a brief train ride away from a vibrant, rich cultural hub filled with endless opportunities to learn and grow. Being at risk doesn’t mean we must avoid everything uncomfortable at all costs. It may just mean we need to slowly but surely bring ourselves out of our comfort zones and tiptoe along the intricate threads of the diverse, spirited world around us.