This Winter Break, I took a three-week solo road trip down the West Coast. I started in Seattle, worked my way down to Portland, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles and finally to San Diego.

It was my first time traveling by myself for such an extended period of time. Needless to say, it was a thrilling, life-changing experience, but it was also a terrifying one.

I am a 19-year-old female, and I was traveling alone in parts of the country I had never visited before. I was equipped with no acquaintances and a delusional sense of direction in each city. I intended to embark open-mindedly with the belief that everyone I met had the best intentions. On the contrary, I found myself much more distrustful and wary — something that still deeply disturbs me.

Before I left, I packed my bags with paranoid precaution. I made sure to remove my lanyard from my wallet, just to eliminate easy access for thievery. I sewed pouches into all of my underwear so I could carry my cash and cards by hand. I double-, tripled-checked to make sure each pair of pants I brought had pockets so I could store a pepper spray in each one. I crossed off skirts, short-shorts and any sort of V-neck shirt from my packing list just to eliminate any potential desire for my body. Perhaps these were subconscious, automatic instincts or perhaps they were conscious ones that represented a cumulative understanding of what I learned growing up.

I wanted, so badly, to trust every single person I met on the way — but society has raised me with an innate stranger-danger mindset. As a young woman, I have naturally grown to fear all unfamiliar men, especially if they are walking in my direction late at night. It feels ridiculous as a modern-day woman to guard myself with this mentality, to keep my walls up because of this anxiety. I should not have to take these precautions simply because I am female, nor should I harbor this inherently terrified mentality. But I do.

I began to wonder: Could my mentality be categorized as discriminatory? At a superficial level of generalizing all men as potential threats: yes, that is discriminatory. However, when it came down to resorting to stereotypes to determine my safety, I justified it as a pass I could give myself. I saw all those Lifetime movies and Dateline 20/20 episodes where women met awful fates simply because they didn’t take enough caution. The prevalence of female victimization stories in the media has elevated the statistics to feel higher than they actually are. This is not to say that assault should be downplayed or ignored — it’s certainly important to be updated and reminded of their occurrence. However, their dominance in the news makes it easier to spotlight all men as individuals with suspicious intentions.

I began to ponder: If I was walking down a city street alone late at night, and there happens to be a male walking in my direction, what would I do? Though I certainly wish I could say I would brush the thought off and continue on my way, that is not true. I admit, I would instantly clutch onto the mace in my pocket and automatically label him as a potential threat to my safety — just in case anything were to happen. I realize it’s terrible to categorize all men into this hurtful stereotype, but in a situation that involves my safety, I often give myself an excuse to use this “discrimination.”

Then, I began to contemplate more complex situations. Say it was late at night and I was walking down an urban street alone. On my left, a white male was strolling nonchalantly in my direction. On my right, a calm black male was also moving in my direction. Upon first impression, neither may pose an immediate threat — but I can’t help but wonder which side of the street I would naturally veer toward if forced to make an on-the-spot choice.

I have never been in this specific situation, but I unfortunately have a terrible hunch. As a woman of color raised by school systems that emphasize diversity, I have been taught values of equality that I wholeheartedly believe in. I would like to think of myself as a progressive individual far beyond discrimination of any kind. However, how is it that society — or something inherently wicked within me — has made me naturally and subconsciously succumb to racism and sexism? Even as an educated millennial, why do I still carry these thoughts? We all carry an obscure xenophobia based on negative stereotypes, but we cannot pinpoint exactly why. We intrinsically fear other sexes and diverse ethnicities — simply because our culture has constructed and heightened this fear from a young age.

As a woman, I don’t want to carry around four pepper sprays everywhere I go. I don’t want to have to think about a man’s crotch — specifically, how I can possibly knee him there — whenever I encounter the opposite sex. I’d like to not worry about how provocative my clothing may be or how to possibly keep my belongings intact.

I am not the only female who carries these fears, and also not the only one who takes precautions based on stereotypes. So how do we change this widespread xenophobic mentality and exaggerated fear? More important than creating this change on a societal level, it’s vital we first change these thoughts within ourselves. Clearly, this is easier said than done. Where do we distinguish the fine line between protecting ourselves and not generalizing based on typecasts? I, like many others, am still searching for the complex, nuanced answer to all these queries, but the solution seems to be just as ambiguous as the questions themselves.

Karen Hua can be reached at khua@umich.edu.

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